Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Professor Patty Cake ® Professional Pointer #2- Building Teacher Resiliency

Previously published on this blog (June, 2014) and in the NYSECTA (New York State Elementary Classroom Teacher Association) Newsletter (Winter, 2015).  
Citation: Miller, E.V. (2015, Winter). Building teacher resiliency. NYSECTA Newsletter, 2(1), 9-11. 
 Building Teacher Resiliency
By- Dr. Erica Vernold Milller
The end of the school year is almost here. For many of us in the field of education, this is a bittersweet time. Often we experience a mixture of sadness for the year that has gone by, excitement for the upcoming summer break, and anxiety about how to accomplish everything prior to the conclusion of the school year. Add into the mix the mounting pressures of APPR, Common Core Standards implementation, and state testing; it is no wonder that many of us are so overloaded that we feel stressed.
       In small increments, stress has a minimal impact on our well-being. However, stress over a prolonged period of time can have a pervasive negative effect on our health and job satisfaction.  I researched teaching related stress in my study Special education teacher resiliency: What keeps teachers in the field? (Vernold, 2008). In my 2008 study I stated,

“Stress and the emotional and physical effects that accompany it, can manifest itself in a variety  of ways. Individuals under stress often feel physically and emotionally drained. Workplace stress that is sustained over time can lead to job dissatisfaction and 
burn-out” (p. 15).

Why are job dissatisfaction and burn-out important issues?  They are important because burn-out and job dissatisfaction have a longstanding history of being linked to higher rates of teacher attrition and illness (Belcastro, 1982; Billingsley, 2004; Seidman & Zager, 1991). Given that a revolving door of  new teachers and substitutes brings instability to a school community, it is imperative that workplace stressors are acknowledged and ways are sought out to minimize their negative impact on teachers’ health. 
       Thus, according to Bobek (2002), “The prevailing conditions associated with teaching make it necessary for all teachers to be resilient,” (p. 202). Resiliency is defined as the ability to bounce back, to cope, to adapt, and to develop social competence despite adversity (Gordon, 1995; Henderson & Milstein, 2003; Linville, 1987; Vernold, 2008; Werner & Smith, 1982). Researchers, who study teacher resiliency, examine the internal and external factors that allow individual teachers and/or groups of teachers to persevere when faced with stress.
       Several teacher resiliency studies conducted by my colleagues and me at the University of North Carolina- Chapel Hill sought to find out how teachers built and maintained their own resiliency as well as how school administrators fostered resiliency building in their staff members (Malloy & Allen, 2007; Roman-Oertwig, 2004; Vernold, 2008). Below you will find several suggestions for preventing burn-out, increasing job satisfaction, and building resiliency that I have generated based upon our research and my experience.
Build Strong Support Networks
       The Beatles got it right when they sang, “I get by with a little help from my friends.”  Think about it, don’t you feel better when you get a little help from your friends? This goes without saying, but it is important to note that having a strong network outside of school will allow you the opportunity to share your concerns and solicit feedback in a low stakes environment. People within your network can serve as confidants and problem solvers.
       Early in my career a group of my friends and I would meet regularly after work on Fridays for off campus “meetings.” These “meetings” took place at a variety of locales, including but not limited to our homes and restaurants. Our time together allowed us to talk about our job related stress and seek solutions for our problem. We came away from our “meetings” feeling better not only because we had the opportunity to vent but also because we had a game plan for how to tackle our issues when we returned to work on Monday. 
Seek Out Unofficial Mentors
       It is not uncommon for new teachers to be given official mentors when they are hired. Each school and/or district has a different process of pairing mentors and mentees. Some of these pairing are wonderful and lead to enduring professional relationships. Others are not so great and may seem forced or artificial. 
       My first official mentor relationship could be described as the latter. It was very obvious from the start that my official mentor was not the best match for me. My mentor, although well meaning, was not able to give me the kind of support that I needed. This forced me to seek out unofficial mentors.
       Finding my unofficial mentors was not as daunting as you may think.  I did so by reflecting on my weaknesses, identifying the type of support that I needed, and looking around for colleagues who seemed to have an aptitude in areas where I was lacking. Many of the colleagues that I approached were open to becoming one of my unofficial mentors because they were flattered that I noticed their expertise.  For example, my colleague Amy had an aptitude for organization and scheduling, so she became my organization/schedule mentor. My teammate Steve was amazing at classroom management, so he became my classroom management mentor.
       Through the years, in all of the varying teaching and administrative positions that I have held, I have continued to seek out unofficial mentors. Recognizing that no one mentor can be an expert in everything has opened me up to developing a wealth of other beneficial mentoring relationships. These relationships have been invaluable and  have helped me navigate my way through a host of challenging situations.
Make Your Expectations Clear
       In my 2008 study, many of the respondents reported that their greatest challenges occurred when there was a mismatch between their expectations and the behaviors/expectations of their students, students’ parents, colleagues, and/or administrators. They shared their frustration with the amount of time and effort that it took to “fix” issues that occurred due to this mismatch. Many of the respondents indicated that making their expectations clear at the beginning of the year helped to prevent issues from bubbling up later in the year.
       As a principal, I had the opportunity to work with many phenomenal educators who were extremely proficient in making their expectations clear. These teachers utilized a variety of high and low-tech methods for communicating their expectations. Classroom newsletters, morning meetings, handbooks, behavior  constitutions, blogs, websites, open house presentations are all great avenues for sharing your expectations with your students, students’ parents, colleagues, and administrators. Being clear about your expectations and communicating them effectively can go a long way in preventing future issues from rising and will eliminate the need to devote large amounts of time to issues later.
Participate in Meaningfully Activities Outside of Your Classroom
       Teaching can feel isolating at times, especially when you are part of a small grade level team or the only one teaching at your grade level. Often success in the classroom takes time and when achieved receives little to no recognition. Although none of us went into education seeking fame, we do  appreciate feeling like our efforts are making a difference and our work is valued.
       Participating in meaningful activities outside of your classroom such as those conducted by school/district committees, unions, professional organizations, extracurricular clubs, professional development  training organizations, and institutions of higher education allow you to be connected to a larger network of professionals with similar interests. It gives you the opportunity to share your expertise, grow professionally, and potentially impact the world beyond your classroom.
       Participating in such activities has afforded me the opportunity to travel around the world and learn from experts in and outside my discipline. I feel a greater connection to my profession and have become more satisfied in my career because I continue to grow as an educator and revitalize my teaching with new techniques and resources. Through my previous and current work with various professional organizations and unions, I have had the opportunity to educate non-educators such as parents, journalists, and politicians about educational issues and dispel misconceptions that they have about teachers and schools. This work has empowered me, given me purpose, and made me feel as though I am having a positive impact beyond my classroom. 
Toot Your Horn
       At the beginning of my teaching career, I mistakenly thought that my principal, school board, colleagues, and students’ parents knew all about the great things that my students and I were doing in my classroom. I soon learned that the only way people would know about the great things we were doing was if I shared our success with them. 
       Contrary to what you may think, sharing your success in moderation does not constitute bragging. Self-promotion is necessary in today’s political climate where there are people outside the field of education who are lining up to speak poorly about teachers, administrators, and students.  By sharing, you are educating your community about all the wonderful things that are happening in your classroom rather than letting the public guess what you are doing or worse believe incorrect information.
       When I was a classroom teacher, I made it a point to share at least one classroom success story in each of my newsletters. I also made it a point to send my supervisors and the PTA periodic emails highlighting the achievements made in my class each month. When I attended community events, I always sought out community members and told them all about the classroom activities we were doing and gave them suggestions for how they could partner with us to do even more. Many of my classroom volunteers, grants, and donations came from conversations that I had with community members.
       You will be amazed by how many people are willing to help once they know what you are doing and what your needs are. Having additional support and resources takes the burden off of you and allows you to do what you do best, teach.
Make "You" Time
       Many of us that go into the field of education do so because we want to help others. We have what one of my former supervisors called  “bleeding hearts.” We care so much about others that we often neglect taking care of ourselves.  It is important to recognize that maintaining our health is crucial. If we don’t set and maintain boundaries to ensure that we give ourselves some much deserved “me" time and refocus our attention on meeting our own needs, we will wake up one day with nothing left to give others. Meeting your own needs first, will allow you to give your best to everyone later. 
       Saying no, passing on an activity, or setting limits on the amount of time that you devote to your job after hours is totally acceptable. I always think of this concept in terms of the spiel that flight attendants give us when we board a plane. They say, “In case of an unexpected landing, please secure your oxygen mask first. Then you can tend to those around you who need assistance.”  Your “oxygen mask” may be exercising, reading, working in your garden, spending time with your family, or taking a hot bubble bath. It may be leaving work when it is still light outside, getting a full night’s sleep, or making time to mediate.  The key is finding what works best for you and ensuring that you make ample time for it.
       My “oxygen mask” is running. I am in my happy place when my feet are pounding the pavement and I have the wind in my hair. My running time gives me the peace that I need to prepare for my hectic workday. After a good run, my stress level is decreased and the neurons in my brain seem to fire faster.  I am at my best when I make time for my running, and by being at my best, I can better meet the demands of my job. 
Cut Yourself Some Slack
       Many teachers enter the field of education because they have excelled in school and have a desire to help their students reach the same success. Such teachers have high standards for themselves and are at times their own harshest critics. Teachers who set high standards, but recognize that it is necessary to be flexible at times, have been found to have greater job satisfaction than those who are inflexible. 
       Respondents in my 2008 study shared that they became frustrated when events and/or issues derailed them from meeting the goals that they had set for themselves. The respondents stated that being flexible and occasionally cutting themselves slack was necessary for them to keep from burning out. They indicated that although they felt having high standards was important, reassessing their standards in response to the realities of their current situation held even greater importance.
       This is something that I must remind myself of daily. I know from personal experience that the standards that I have for myself far exceed those set by others. At times I have become so weighed down by my own self-imposed standards that I felt like I was going to crack under the pressure. Stepping back, reassessing my self-imposed standards, recognizing that they are just that, self-imposed, and cutting myself some slack has helped me persevere in my career. 
       Please note that this list of suggestions is not exhaustive. It is merely a Reader’s Digest version of some of the findings from my research and personal experiences. I highly recommend that you seek out additional teacher resiliency information and practice resiliency building activities in your personal and professional life. Details about the studies mention in this paper can be found in the following references section.
Belcastro, P.A. (1982) Burnout and its relationship to teachers’ somatic complaints and
              illnesses. Psychological Reports, 50, 1045-1046.
Billingsley, B.S. (2004). Promoting teacher quality and retention in special education
              Journal of Learning Disabilities, 37 (5), 370-6.
Bobek, B.L. (2002). Teacher resiliency: A key to career longevity. Clearing House,  
              75 (4),202-5.
Gordon, K.A. (1995). The self-concept and motivational patterns of resilient African
              American high school students. Journal of Black Psychology, 21, 239-255.
Henderson, N. & Milstein, M. (2003). Resiliency in schools: Making it happen for   
              students and educators. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press, INC.
Linville, P.W. (1987). Self-complexity as a cognitive buffer against stress-related illness
              and depression. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 52 (4), 663-76.
Malloy, W. W.,& Allen, T. (2007). Teacher retention in a teacher resiliency-building
              rural  school. The Rural Educator, 28 (2), 19-27.
Roman-Oertwig, S (2004). Teacher Resilience and Job Satisfaction. Unpublished
              doctoral dissertation, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.
Seidman, S.A. & Zager, J. (1991) A study of coping behaviors and teacher burnout. Work
               & Stress, 5 (3), 205-216.
Vernold, E. L. (2008). Special education teacher resiliency: What keeps teachers in the
               field? (Doctoral dissertation). Retrieved from ProQuest Digital Dissertations
               Database. (UMI No. 3310973).
Werner, E.E., & Smith, R.S. (1982). Vulnerable and Invincible: A longitudinal study of
               Resilient children and youth. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Me working on my own resiliency! Run .... Professor Patty Cake.... Run!

Professor Patty Cake's ® Spring 2019 P-12 Teacher/Educator Job Fair List

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