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Resilience for Our Students and Ourselves

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Have you noticed the word resilience popping up in more conversations these days? Perhaps it is because the year was so stressful or perhaps because years of research have begun to seep into our daily consideration. Either way, it is worthy to consider this issue a bit.

The leadership literature about resilience has been growing now for nearly a decade. In 2007, Warren Bennis commented, "I believe adaptive capacity or resilience is the single most important quality in a leader, or in anyone else for that matter, who hopes to lead a healthy, meaningful life." Two years later, AASA co-published Resilient Leadership For Turbulent Times: a guide to thriving in the face of adversity, in which Patterson, Goens, and Reed say, "Efficacy is important to being a resilient leader. It is the ability to effectively rebound from psychological and or behavioral trouble connected to significant incidents or crises" (p.58). In Albert Bandura's work about self-efficacy, he writes, "Efficacy beliefs operate as a key factor in a generative system of human competence. Hence, different people with similar skills, or the same person under different circumstances, may perform poorly, adequately, or extraordinarily, depending on fluctuations in their beliefs of personal efficacy" (p.37).

The research in the field of neuroscience is investigating the relationship of stress on the brain and the role of resiliency in counteracting the negative effects associated with these stressors, especially in a child's early life. Leader survival in these challenging times and unlocking keys to learning for some of our students may be connected through resiliency. It seems imperative that we know more about it. Resiliency, simply put, is the ability to bounce back after some bad experience...failure, violence, family breakups, deaths, or other crises. These experiences throw us off course, cause us to adapt and change. When those bad experiences are continual in the formative years of a child, he or she enters school with a brain that evidences changes as a result of such incessant bad experiences. Stress hormone such as cortisol and adrenaline are causal. If we as school leaders have felt inordinate stress this year, we likely have a lot in common with many of our students. How often have we given that thought attention?

The good news here is resiliency and we are leaning more about it. Our brains are both vulnerable and resilient. Those who have high levels of resiliency can actually come back from a bad experience with greater strength and self-confidence. They can rise above previous performance levels. But, we rarely can do that on our own. Most need someone else walking with them, a person who believes in them and in their capacity to rise above these moments. Doesn't this resonate with what we already know about children? We all need someone and someplace where we can be safe and loved. For those coming through traumatic bad experiences, understanding how to respond with resilience is essential for all of us, as individuals, and for the systems we lead.

There are now a plethora of organizations designing programs to develop resilient leaders. John McKinley of the Harvard Business Review suggest it is grit, courage and commitment. Others propose resilience has as many as 12 facets: spirituality, support base, perseverance, understanding of reality, personal responsibility, value-driven, courageous decision-making, optimism, efficacy, adaptability, emotional well-being, physical well-being. A tool that helps ascertain where we are with regard to resiliency strengths is available, as are many other resources at Jerry Patterson's website, The Resilient Leader.

After Hurricane Katrina, the Center for Creative Leadership convened a group to explore leadership in times of crisis. The final report entitled, Stepping into the Void, contained real insight, and perhaps a foretelling, into our work and times. They reported, "What we found is that when crises such as Katrina overwhelm the capacity of formal systems and structures, new leadership systems take shape and emergent leaders step into the void, playing critical and improvised roles in rescue and rebuilding efforts."

We have written often about the extraordinary challenges we are facing. Teacher leaders, school and district leaders, are all in the roughest of waters, facing challenges of regulation, calls for extraordinary levels of transparency and systemic change, families facing complex challenges, while we welcome students with a broader variety of skills, abilities, and more challenges than ever before. The challenge to leadership is the capacity for resilience.

Our educational system is being pushed to its limits, its capacity nearly overwhelmed. If we aspire to be one of those emergent leaders who take education into its next chapter of success, we need to discover resiliency, for our students and ourselves. If we believe that our lives and organizations will always include adversity, disruptions, surprises, systemic shocks, opening up to a further investigation of resiliency might be a purposeful and a survival skill.

Print resources:
Bandura, Albert (1997). Self-Efficacy. New York: W.H. Freeman and Company
Bennis, Warren. American Psychologist. January 2007, p. 5
Patterson, Jerry L., Goens, George A., and Reed, Diane E. (2009). Resilient Leadership For Turbulent Times. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield Education / Alexandria, Virginia: American Association of School Administrators

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