Resilient Teachers, Resilient Schools Building and Sustaining Quality in Testing Times
I begin this paper by considering the learning entitlements of every student in every school in every country of the world. I believe that each one has an entitlement not only to the provision of educational opportunities, but also to be taught by teachers who, as well as being knowledgeable about curriculum and pedagogically adept, are constant and persistent in their commitment to encouraging their students to learn and achieve, regardless of the students’ own motivation and existing knowledge or ability; and who are themselves demonstrably passionate about their own learning. In one sense, these are self-evident truths about the core task of every teacher to engage students in learning which will assist them in their personal, social and intellectual development. In another sense, however, the ambitions which are embedded in these truths will not always be easy to achieve consistently over a 30 year career span.
Students are not only entitled to the best teaching. They are also entitled to be taught by teachers who are well led. School leaders, especially principals, play a key role in successfully steering their schools through changing social and policy landscapes; in providing optimal conditions, structures and cultures for learning and teaching; in enabling teachers to respond positively to the unavoidable uncertainties inherent in their everyday professional lives; and through this, sustain their commitment, wellbeing and effectiveness in making a difference to the learning, achievement and life chances of children and young people. It is these, together © Qing Gu This paper is drawn from Day and Gu (2014) “Resilient Teachers, Resilient Schools”.
Q. Gu (H)
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with the nuanced and dynamic interactions between personal, workplace, socio-cultural and policy environments which support and enable those who stay in teaching to continue to teach to their best and sustain them in doing so. As students in successful schools have told us, their teachers and principals are not there for the money. They are there because they ‘care about us’. It is strong leadership and a collective as well as individual sense of moral purpose and ethic of care that make these schools resilient and effective.
Yet as the social glue of societies and many families begins to thin outside the school, accounts also continue to emerge of the disenchantment and alienation of many students and of tired teachers within schools for whom learning has become a chore and for whom teaching has become ‘just a job’. Much research on teachers’ work and lives notes with alarming regularity in many countries, the lowering of teacher morale, rises in stress, presenteeism and, in its extreme form, burnout. Themes of ‘teacher attrition’ and ‘stress’ continue to dominate the educational research literature and remain a regular feature of surveys on teacher morale and well-being nationally and internationally. Alongside this, the ‘knock on effect’ of high teacher turnover and dropout rates on the achievement of pupils, particularly for those in high poverty communities where these tend to be high, has led policy makers and teachers’ associations to become increasingly concerned with problems, not only in retaining teachers, but also retaining teachers of commitment and quality.
Policies for retention have been framed predominantly around teachers in their early years of teaching, since this is where most attrition seems to occur. However, at a time when the age profile of teachers in England, the USA and many other countries is skewed towards those with more than 20 years’ experience and in which they are expected to comply with successive and persistent policy reforms, changing curricula and demographic school environments, there is an urgent need, also, to investigate further the ways in which the resilience of the existing majority of the more experienced teachers may be sustained and renewed so that they are able to fulfil effectively the demands of teaching to their best in the twenty first century.
Teachers’ work is carried out in an era of testing times where the policy focus in many countries has shifted from provision and process to outcomes (OECD 2012a). The OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), for example, is having an unprecedented influence on national policies for improvement and standards across many nation states. The rapidly growing international interest in ‘surpassing Shanghai’ and outperforming the world’s leading systems (Tucker 2011) has contributed to intensify further national and international emphases upon standards, performativity and accountability. For many schools in many countries, this means that their educational values and practices, particularly in relation to the progress and achievement of their students, are now under increased public scrutiny. At the same time, widespread movement of population in many countries has seen the makeup of the local communities which schools serve become more diversified (OECD 2010). Coupled with this change in student populations are the broader, more explicitly articulated social and societal responsibilities that schools are expected to have in supporting their communities, other schools and other public services (OECD 2008). In many countries, also, schools are expected to manage a concurrent movement towards the decentralisation of financial management and quality control functions to schools (Ball 2000, 2003; Baker and LeTendre 2005; OECD 2008, 2010). Thus, to be successful in these testing times, teachers, schools and school leaders need to be forward thinking, outward looking, optimistic, hopeful and above all, resilient.
This paper will examine what it is that enables teachers and schools to sustain the quality of their passion and commitment through good times and bad and what might prevent them from doing so. Drawing upon a range of educational, psychological, socio-cultural and neuro-scientific research, together with accounts from real teachers in real schools, the paper discusses the dynamic nature, forms and practices of teacher resilience. It argues that being a resilient teacher goes beyond mere survival on an everyday basis. Teaching to their best across a career span of 30 years and more requires that teachers are able to exercise what we call ‘everyday resilience’ (Day and Gu 2014), that classroom conditions inherently demand. Resilience in this sense is more than the willingness and capacity to bounce back in adverse circumstances. The paper concludes that resilience in teachers can be nurtured by the intellectual, social and organisational environments in which they work and live, rather than being simply a personal attribute or trait, determined by nature.