Resilience in 2021: Ideas and tips for educators


By Kristin Daniel and Ellen Mahoney of the Circulus Institute


               Photo by Jeremy Bishop on Unsplash


Resilience has been difficult for many of us this past year. Our competence to both withstand and recover from difficult conditions continues to be tested.

In our quest to help our global community of schools and universities build and maintain their resilience and support the well-being of their faculty and students, we invited Ellen Mahoney and Kristin Daniel of the Circulus Institute to share their ideas and guidance for 2021. Their work focuses on supporting adults to build resilience through social and emotional well-being as the foundation for all learning.

How would you describe resilience?

Kristin: Many of us think of resilience as a state of being, as if we are or are not resilient. In truth, resilience is not a personality characteristic but a set of skills we can rely on when facing adversity. According to the American Psychological Association, “Resilience involves behaviors, thoughts and actions that anyone can learn and develop. The ability to learn resilience is ordinary, not extraordinary.” I find that really helpful. We can shift our understanding of resilience to see it as an ongoing process, not a fixed point. 

What does the research say about resilience?

Ellen: Adversity doesn’t discriminate.The researcher Dr Lucy Hone has a wonderful Ted Talk on resilience. She describes that people with high levels of resilience have an understanding that life is often hard. To them, hardship, trauma, and grief are shared human experiences. As Dr Hone states, “Adversity doesn’t discriminate.” Reminding ourselves of this helps us feel less alone and isolated, and more connected to others’ experiences. 

We don’t have control of when we will be vaccinated or when school life will return to normal. But within our control are thousands of small acts we can do right now.

Kristin Daniel, Circulus Institute

Ellen: Self-compassion, not self-judgment. Dr Kristin Neff’s research around self-compassion has shown that people with high rates of self-compassion react to adversity and challenges with self-kindness rather than self-judgment. According to Dr Neff, “When the reality [that life is hard] is denied or fought against, suffering increases in the form of stress, frustration and self-criticism.” Instead of responding to adversity with criticism, self-compassion helps us ride the waves of hardship more easily by allowing hardship to exist and not judging ourselves because of it.

Kristin: We have agency. We are wired to recognize fear and threats to keep ourselves safe. But in everyday life, especially during a pandemic, that kind of attention to negativity can be all-consuming. Research shows that resilient people rely on agency, the degree to which we have control over the decisions we make. We don’t have control of when we will be vaccinated or when school life will return to normal. But within our control are thousands of small acts we can do right now. There is a sense of empowerment when we allow ourselves to make these choices every day.

Leaders and educators in our school communities continue to face unprecedented challenges and signficant pressure as the impact of the pandemic continues. We see this everyday in our work with schools. The support that the Circulus Institute provides to these professionals, helping them to strengthen their own resilience so that they can continue to support their communities, has never been more important. We hope that this blog and the accompanying resources are helpful to you as you consider how to approach the year ahead. 

Katie Rigg, Head of Safeguarding & Student Well-being at CIS

What examples of resilience have you seen in the schools and faculty you’ve worked with so far?

Kristin: Since last summer, we’ve seen faculty and school administrators showing up again and again despite the unknowns of this year. We have witnessed hundreds of faculty asking for ways to be more active and engaged in their own well-being. We are seeing school leaders give faculty Fridays off during particularly stressful months, start meetings with breathing exercises and check-ins, or send handwritten thank you cards to their staff. Overall, we are seeing increased opportunities for faculty to share their stories, connect with one another, and be heard.

Reflect on the good. Try to let go. Build your community. 

Ellen Mahoney, Circulus Institute

Ellen: First, reflect on the good. Write down or remind yourself once a day of at least one good thing that happened. Doing this every day helps us train ourselves to look for the positive in our lives and experience a higher sense of gratitude. How can individuals strengthen their own resilience in 2021? 

Second, try to let go. Educators tend to be very hard on themselves, feeling as if they must do everything and do it well. Be kind to yourself and let go of what you can. Instead of running a marathon, simply go for a walk.

And finally, build your community. Make sure you have a community around you at your school where you can go for support, check-in with one another, or have a friendly conversation when you’re feeling stuck. There’s really nothing more valuable than a supportive community.

School leaders can do so much by simply asking, "How are you?" 

Kristin Daniel, Circulus Institute

How can schools promote well-being now and into the next school year?

Kristin: Given how challenging this year has been, it’s important to allow some time to connect with one another with kindness and empathy. School leaders can do so much simply by asking, “How are you?”. Alumni from our Circulus Institute courses on resilience this year have mentioned that simple staff appreciation actions positively influence their well-being. Giving voice and time to the importance of well-being will help faculty feel more resilient and valued. 

To create well-being systems that endure past this year, we also recommend evaluating existing structures in your schools and exchanging them for better and kinder ways that consider your faculty’s needs. But try not to change the whole system now. Small acts of wellness can be very helpful. Remember, resilient faculty create a resilient community.



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