What does it mean to cultivate resilience to an inequitable system?
By Sarah Young
Published in The Learning Professional, June 2023
“This is the most exhausted and frustrated I’ve been as an educator, ever.” – Countless teachers and administrators during the COVID pandemic.
“I don’t want to be resilient. I want school systems designed with humans in mind that don’t demand my resilience. I want educators to experience community, care, support, and compensation.” – Dr. Tracy Edwards, educator
As an instructional coach and leader, I would be wealthy if I had a dollar for each time I heard an educator describe physical and emotional exhaustion due to systemic breakdowns during COVID. And now in the third year of the COVID pandemic, I would be still collecting. As a white person it’s clear that COVID’S impact is intensified in Bipoc (Black, Indigenous, people of color) communities suffering under “savage inequalities” (Kozol, J. 1991) of resources and funding. Struggling under massive staffing shortages and intensified student needs, all educators need resilience practices more than ever (Young, S. 2022). Yet, what does it mean to ask people to be resilient to a dehumanizing, and inequitable system that doesn’t value educators with adequate funding, resources, or respect? How do we balance self-care and demands for change? And who gets to decide what is appropriate emotional expression for addressing the dire situations we find ourselves in?
During the pandemic years I’ve had the opportunity to coach teachers and leaders like Sheila, an African-American principal in a charter urban high school in Northern California serving primarily Brown and Black students. What follows is drawn from composite coaching conversations with Sheila and others in similar situations.
“How is it going this week, Sheila?” I asked.
“I’ve had it!”
I listened, intent on staying open to what she had to say without trying to fix it. The expression, I’ve had it is also heard regularly in pandemic coaching. I’m grateful when people expressing this sentiment are still here to talk it through with me, and have not joined the legions who have left. I flip through my mental frame for addressing resilience gaps (Resilient people foster joy, purpose, and learning; listen deeply and are listened to; practice self-care; focus on sphere of influence and concern; maintain strong community bonds).
Unsure, I wait for Sheila’s lead.
“Sarah,” Sheila continued, “I’m so tired, and I’ve had two migraines this week. I thought the first year and a half of Covid was the worst thing ever, having to jump start distance learning with no preparation and many of our families without even access to wifi. Then the second year we came back in person, half my staff was sick or out half the time, same with the students. And the students… we knew they’d be behind academically, but they were socially regressed, traumatized even. Pre-pandemic I had four mental health counselors. Now, year 3, I have one. We’ve lost staff at every level and I’m not finding replacements. Kids can’t all make it to school because there aren’t enough bus drivers. I have no math teachers, no Special Ed teachers, no one even on a wait-list to hire. I have no substitute teachers. When staff are sick I substitute myself and do my principal work at night. I have kids learning geometry on a multiple- choice computer program where no teachers interact with them at all – and my kids need engaged teachers as much or more than anyone. It makes no sense! I care about these kids so much, I feel completely ineffective.”
“Yes.” I said, taking a deep breath to find my own stability, “This is hard.” I wanted to ask her to breathe with me, to attend to emotion, to even return to the joy and purpose that brought her to this work to begin with. Nurturing resilience could help reduce her migraines and prevent Shiela from considering quitting at winter break. Yet how to offer hope without falling into shallow platitudes of what is now known as ‘toxic positivity (Psychology Today, 2022).
“Sheila, you say you feel ineffective. The effectiveness gap is not in you. The gap is in the system. Your school wasn’t adequately resourced before Covid, and now you have way fewer people serving students with greater economic, academic, and mental health needs than before.” I paused and waited.
“Yes! I don’t know how much more I could do even if I were to stop sleeping altogether and work around the clock.”
“You can’t. This is so much bigger than any one person can fix. It’s an untenable situation and it will take a lot of us working together to find channels for change. And I’d love to see you rested and pain free before trying to extend your influence even further.”
Sheila’s frustration was not unique. There was a larger conversation taking place in the world of education, often led by Bipoc educators, about how to attend to self-care while still challenging a system that has been profoundly under-resourced for a long time. Lack of adequate resources is amplified by our schools being served by a predominantly female workforce that is expected to have no personal boundaries with time, energy, intelligence, and effort.
“We aren’t the only ones having this conversation.” I pulled up an article entitled, “YES. Teachers don’t need to be resilient; schools need to be more human,” (Gorelik, 2022) elaborating on a viral Twitter quote by educator, Dr. Tracy Edwards:
Sat through a webinar on teacher resilience and was asked to share my thoughts. My answer: I don’t want to be resilient. I want school systems designed with humans in mind that don’t demand my resilience. I want educators to experience community, care, support, and compensation.
“Yes, that’s right!” Sheila exclaimed. “Only, where will I find time to fight for adequate resources for my students and compensation for me? No one is going to just give it to me or they would have by now! And who else can fight? My colleagues are as tired as I am. And now we have white families and financially resourced Bipoc families leaving our schools faster than before. Who’s left with money and positional power to advocate? And before you answer that I’ve got to sub for a missing teacher. And I’ve got a migraine.”
I had to think more about Sheila’s questions and my own role in all this. As a white leader in Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) work for adults, I’d thought cultivating resilience was universally understood to be a good thing under any conditions. There was no question Sheila needed rest and health to function, yet how to present it without making her the problem? As a third point document, I emailed her the Gorelik article, highlighting and staring the call to action:
What teachers need now, more than ever, is the feeling that their work matters, that who they are matters. The way to do that is to invest in teachers emotionally, physically, and professionally. We want to feel as critically important to the system as the students we are charged with teaching.
Among the bullet points Gorelik lists:
- Listen to teachers and invite feedback
- Treat teachers like professional adults
- Give teachers time to rest and recover
- Start thinking about teachers as professional capital (Gorelik, K. 2022)
“Let me know if any part of this helpful,” I noted at the bottom.
Sheila missed our next meeting, home with another migraine. I worried our conversation had caused her more stress and she might return more discouraged. Instead she was more animated.
“I really appreciated that article. I know it was written for teachers, but it applies to principals too. Nobody is going to give me time to rest and recover. I just have to take it. So I spent a couple of days at home and unplugged, let my brand new Assistant Principal take over and crossed my fingers. He did good enough. I feel much better!”
I was relieved. Sheila was way ahead of me.
“I got some rest and I deserved it!” she said chuckling. “And I did some thinking and made phone calls to a few administrator friends. This is the third COVID year and we still don’t have any substitutes. If a teacher gets sick or needs time off there is no one to cover but us. Forget even thinking about teachers leaving for professional development.”
“Yet in the wealthier district up the hill they have way more subs because they pay them twice as much. Besides the money, the subs want to go to the white schools up on the hill because think it’s “easier” to work up there! I talked to some of the flat land principals and we’re going to the board to demand they seek outside funding to supplement our sub pay to attract substitute teachers to the Bipoc schools where we need them desperately. This is one of the wealthiest counties in the country! We can demand our board go to bat to get funders from the business world to step up. Everyone faces similar challenges, but the wealthier schools that serve economically privileged kids are buying their way out. Everyone loves the word “equity,” so here’s a chance to do something about it!”
“What do you think?” Sheila asked, smiling as she turned her computer to show a draft of the principal’s demands.
“I think it’s brilliant!” I said, grinning back. I really did. Here was a concrete action plan on the ubiquitous sub crisis from an equity-focused lens. Collective resilience in action. “Let me take a look.”
Sheila’s document was signed by principals from the flatland schools that served predominantly Black and Brown children. The demands were clear and yet there was something about the tone of the narrative that made me uneasy.
“Sheila, these are excellent points and the call to action to seek outside funding from local business is clear. Yet there’s something about the way it sounds…” Sheila leaned back in her chair and narrowed her eyes.
“Something about the… what?”
“The tone,” I said. Sheila rolled her chair back a few inches and her smile faded. I knew my tone comment sounded bad, but I thought if I could just explain it better she would know what I meant. “It sounds maybe… too demanding for this board. If you calm it down a little you might better keep them with you, no?”
“Really?” Sheila drew out the word. “Are you really going to sit there and be one more white woman telling me my tone as a black woman is too demanding or angry?”
Much as it pained me to be included in this behavior I knew what Shelia was referring to. Another leader I had coached described a support group she led for African-American women leaders and coaches, wherein every single woman in the group had at best been reprimanded and at worst lost jobs for being told they “came across too angry”. Another African-American instructional coach had been called out for being intimidating to a young, white teacher before she and the teacher had met even once. My work with white colleagues allowed me to witness many examples of white people assuming Bipoc colleagues were angry instead of considering first if they were speaking with passion and emphasis about issues that affected them deeply. I could see white fragility in everyone. Everyone except maybe myself.
Sheila sounds like she’s angry at me. I heard the voice in my head. Remember, this does not mean that she is. Let yourself be uncomfortable, it won’t hurt. // Yes, but I want Sheila and her colleagues to be successful. I know how uptight the white men and women on the school board can be.// What makes you think you know the best form of expression for a group of Bipoc educators? Why not ask how they’d like you to support them? Why not use your white privilege to keep the school board from discrediting the message because of perceived tone?
“Why can’t our righteous anger or our passion be part of our collective resilience?” Sheila asked.
I reflected on a powerful quote that I’d been offered in a critique of a previous article of mine on adult SEL during the Covid crisis.
The Black and Latinx communities navigate through our lives with a multitude of emotions, which can range from fear and anxiety to anguish and anger as a result of the injustices we experience economically, medically, educationally, criminally, and in many other areas of life. We are conditioned to manage these feelings in order to effectively function in society. These emotions are critical in order to fuel us to speak truth to power as we advocate for equity while causing “good trouble.” We boldly acknowledge them and wear them as a badge of honor, not as a sign of weakness, but as a sign of perseverance and strength. – (Walters, K, 2020)
As a white leader in early SEL work I’d often promoted the need to self-monitor and regulate emotion as an essential feature of leading for resilience. My intention was to support educators to have choice about reactivity, reduce stress, and to model the same skills for students. However, by doing so with a “color evasive” lens (Walters, K. 2020) the impact was sometimes dismissive or silencing of legitimate anger, frustration, or powerful expression.
“You’re right, Shelia. It’s not your job to take the passion and righteous anger out of the message. And it is my job to advocate with other white people in power like the board, for the message to be heard.”
“Yes, it’s not simply on us to “calm down,” to make change you all have to listen better as well. But you know what?” Sheila chuckled again. “Since we wrote this set of demands about outside funding for substitutes, I haven’t had a single headache!”
The project to find funding for substitutes is still a work in process. I’m continuing to revise my understanding of resilience. Resilience does not merely imply individuals bounding back from adversity. It means learning from adversity and moving forward as complete, whole human beings, that can join in collective resilience. And collective resilience demands respect for diversity of expression that is not defined by one particular cultural norm.
I still believe cultivating self-care, finding purpose, joy, focusing on sphere of influence, are more vital than ever to keeping dedicated educators healthy, energized and committed to the profession. More than ever, I see the needs of educator’s reflected in Audre Lorde’s often quoted statement:
“Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” – Audre Lorde
It’s not an either/or, but a both/and that school leaders like Sheila need self-care and support from inside and outside the world of education for the critical work we do. We need to be able to soothe the assault of constant stress on our nervous systems, while not hiding behind resilience in denial of conditions causing that stress. And, we need acceptance of a wide range of emotional expression to addressing the injustices that underly our work.
Those educators that continue to educate with skill and care in the midst of phenomenally challenging conditions, with inadequate support and no additional financial compensation deserve our greatest respect and gratitude. Those who gave it their best and decided to move on also demonstrated resilience and deserve respect and gratitude. For those of us who remain, we get to continue the conversation and find resilience practices that uphold us personally and allow us to join in collective resilience as a force for change. And for those outside of education, we need you to make the education of all our youth your fight as well, by helping ensure that all educators can thrive in conditions that do not demand extraordinary resilience.
Edwards, Tracy “I don’t want teachers to be resilient…” Twitter, March 22, 2022
Gorelik, Kimberly, Yes Teachers don’t need to be resilient; Schools need to be more human, We are teachers, March 4, 2022
Kozol, Jonathan, Savage Inequalities – Children in America’s Schools, Crown Press, NY., 1991.
Psychology Today Staff, “Toxic Positivity,” Psychology Today, March 30, 3022.
Walters, Kimberly, M.Ed, ‘Bipoc educators and SEL,”. Personal Correspondence. Walters Educational Group LLC, 2020
Young, Sarah, “Practices for Individual and Collective Resilience,” based on the work of Elena Aguilar, November, 2022
Bio: Sarah Young a former teacher and instructional coach, currently working as a consultant and coach to schools, districts and teacher/administrator support programs, with a focus on listening and communication skills, culturally responsive coaching, and adult resilience.