Building Resilience

“Life doesn’t get easier or more forgiving, we get stronger and more resilient.” 

― Steve Maraboli, Life, the Truth, and Being Free

In her latest post, Zoe Enser (@GreeboRunner) explores what we can learn about resilience in the classroom from running.

If you speak to anyone who knows me you will learn that I have three main passions in life: hugging as many doggos as possible in one lifetime, teaching and running. Dogs are fast becoming my favourite animal, if I was forced to narrow it down to one, as they can achieve the magical thing I rarely do- living in the moment and never overthinking. Teaching is truly something I live and breathe, having spent 19 years teaching, with a further two working as an LSA for good measure. My inability to not overthink actually serves me well here, as I spend a great deal of time reflecting on my practice as both a teacher and a leader. The closest though I come to actually switching this off happens when I am running and this final passion is what keeps me sane, well relatively . . .

What gives us the resilience to keep going when things get tough?

Some people would say I was pushing the sanity boundary quite hard this weekend as I set off on a 24-hour lap race, around a pretty country park on the outskirts of London. The laps were 5.75 miles long and I ended up doing 12 laps within the given time, meaning I had run somewhere in the region of 70 miles in around 22 hours by the time I decided enough was enough and left the event. ‘How on earth do you do that?’ people frequently ask and that is not a question which I haven’t explored many, many times before (I said I was an over thinker).

It is not that I am super fit; there are many who are much fitter than me. It is not that I have genes which allow this to happen; none of my family seem to suggest massive feats of resilience are the norm. And it is certainly not that I spend weeks doing hill reps, interval sprints with hours of stretching to follow; I run for as long as I like, when I can, which is not always easy considering the day job.

The answer seems to reside in the word resilience. It doesn’t matter how hard it feels or how much my head is trying to tell me to stop, I just push all those doubts aside and keep going. It’s not easy, although still running on mile 69 of this week’s event seemed to suggest I had been finding it easier than I had any right to, and there are many times when you tell yourself to just stop. After all, what does it matter if I never ran another mile again? Nobody would care, nobody but me that is.

During lap 8 I took a fall. I went down hard on my knee and side, bruising my rib and knee quite badly. However, after a few choice words in the vernacular, I smiled up at the worried faces of the spectators (yes, they turn up just to see me fall), and got up and kept going. A little limp wasn’t going to pull me out of the game.

Generic resilience or something more specific?

So how does this relate to teaching or am I just enjoying the opportunity to show off my most recent achievement? Well, resilience is a word I had discussed a lot in education. It is in fact one of the pillars at my school, underpinning what we want our learners to be taught to do over the course of their education. There are many companies now who talk about how their programme can develop the resilience of the learners and if you browse Amazon you will see there are numerous books on the topic. That is all despite the fact that pinning down actual definitions of what resilience is can be quite problematic. Often it appears alongside equally nebulous words like ‘confidence’ and ‘sophistication’. One thing is certain though; we can recognise it when we see it and when we feel it.

However, is ‘resilience’, a desirable if indefinable quality, really something we can teach in schools through assemblies, PSHE and extra-curricular activities? Or is this a highly domain specific skill which is intricately woven within the fabric of the subjects we teach?

From the perspective of my running, my resilience is very much domain specific. There is no point sticking me on a bike and expecting me to peddle for 70 miles. It would not be pretty and it would most likely end with plenty of tears. Equally there is no point expecting me to be resilient when dealing with other aspects of my life. I do bounce back from setbacks, but I need a bit more time to lick my wounds and regroup than I do when I am out running. One negative comment can leave me wondering if I will ever blog again. But with running I know the territory. It is familiar to me and I know what I need to do.

When I am training to run long distances on a flat, road course, I focus my training there. If I need to run for speed because I want to break the 4-hour marathon, that is where I will concentrate. There are fitness gains to cross training, but if I want to be able to hit the road and keep going for 26.2 miles, I need to experience that as much as possible, not swinging away on the cross trainer in the gym.

What makes me resilient when tackling those running challenges is my experience. I have learnt that I can run that far, that fast, for that long. I know what it feels like and I have knowledge of the basic set up. I have experienced some success in being able to complete my training runs or events. I have found out what works and what doesn’t and how to cope if I have a session or event that doesn’t go well. I am no stranger to the dreaded DNF (did not finish) and there are days when I just feel I can’t do it.

I also read a lot about running, runners and how the body works. I learn about the mechanics of fuelling and maintaining hydration and what to do if things are going wrong. I learn about what other athletes have done and how they manage to maintain their fitness. I follow in their footsteps, at a rather unworthy pace, and learn as much as I can from them.

So it is my domain specific knowledge and experience which helps me to be resilient in this context. I know what to do and I know what not to do in order to succeed in this area. It is not something I can easily transfer across and so I question whether, when we expect children to be resilient because we had a few sessions on how to do this or they seemed to be able to bounce back in Maths, we are actually expecting the impossible.

Resilience from confidence & confidence from knowledge.

When I see them grow in resilience in my classroom it is because they have been given domain specific knowledge. For example, they have been told about the plot and the characters from Macbeth. They learn from my experiences of the text and what others have to say about it, as well as their own responses.

They can talk about the characters and I praise and reinforce the positives when they get it right so they experience some success. This means they are more likely to take risks and ask questions next time.

Perhaps most importantly they repeat, repeat, repeat, and repeat some more, so they become fluent in recalling this knowledge, just like me pounding out the miles, day in day out. It starts to become so natural that you hardly have to think about what you are doing. You just do.

Then we add in increasing challenge and this could be the hurdle they fall at. It might even be the wall that some runners experience at mile 22 (the jury is still out as to whether this exists, but I know many who have sat on a kerb sobbing that they believe it definitely does). I don’t however, expect them to move from a 5K to a 100-mile Ultra in two lessons. I think carefully about the steps they need to get there and we build up slowly, increasing in confidence as we go so that they are more resilient if things go wrong when we reach the final event. This is a slow and steady process which takes thought and consideration and must not be rushed.

They know what going wrong might look like too, as we share errors and misconceptions without a fear of judgement, and recognise that when things don’t go well we can learn from it. We reflect on what we do know and consider the areas we don’t and how we will address them.

At the end of the process (the whole of Key Stage 4, spaced across the two years), they can then write about this text with success. They feel confident in the exam as we have prepared and practiced so much, ‘slopping’ the miles in as we go to ensure a solid base and secure knowledge in their own understanding.

This is what makes them resilient. This is what leads them to know that they can strive to achieve their very best, even when the circumstances might not be the best or they are not feeling the greatest. It means that even if they are thrown a curve ball on the paper, they can pick themselves up and keep going. We have looked at strategies for doing this too and even if they hit the ground, they can bounce back.

Is this resilience they develop going to mean that they will be able to be resilient when they walk into a science exam? Despite the claim made about transferable skills, I can’t help but doubt it. I am not even sure how resilient they would be when encountering a whole new Shakespeare text, but at least they have some domain specific knowledge to draw on to get started.

I am happy for people to show me the evidence of where we can ‘teach’ the isolated skills of resilience, creating students with new levels of grit and determination.  But I have a sneaking suspicion that as with many things in education, like metacognition and literacy, we are increasingly coming to terms with the idea that we need to be as domain specific as possible. This is the clear focus of the EEFs new report about Literacy as well as the key messages about metacognition. We can’t just teach them words in one lesson, or to think about their learning in another. It needs to be a team effort. Resilience can be taught in English by knowing things about English and practising applying that knowledge. Resilience can be taught in Geography by knowing things about Geography and practising applying that knowledge. Resilience can be taught in Maths by knowing things about Maths and practising applying that knowledge.

So ultimately if I want to not only run 70 miles, but cycle and swim those too, I need to put in the effort to learn about those disciplines and practise how to do them. Otherwise I am going to fall at the first hurdle and stay down. I don’t really think I’ve really got an Ironman in me though, but I’m never one to say never. . .

Teach Like Nobody’s Watching: The Essential Guide to Effective and Efficient Teaching is available for pre-order now.

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