Peter walks into the staffroom carrying a signed sports tabard and a box of matches. He sits down heavily on the chair beside the fridge, closes his eyes briefly and sighs.
‘What’s the matter?’ asks the person sitting next to him.
‘Well… you know Billy Jones, big boy, cross-eyed, year Eight, Dad’s in prison for arson…’ but the bell goes before Peter can finish the story of his run in with an unpleasant pupil. Within a year, Peter will have left the teaching profession.
On January 31st, 2014, Sir Michael Wilshaw Chief Inspector of Schools, speaking at the North of England education conference in Nottingham, commented on the national scandal of four out of ten teachers leaving the profession within five years of completing their training. One suggestion is that these departing teachers simply lack resilience. A few years ago, The Teacher Development Agency was asked by the Dept. of Education and Skills (DfES) to identify psychometric tests which will weed out ‘less resilient’ personalities from groups of prospective students before they start their teacher training courses. After a bumpy ride, these tests came into existence in September 2012. The DfES hopes that money will not, therefore, be wasted on training people who will never have the personality to survive in a classroom. But what is resilience? How will these tests measure resilience and, most importantly, how have government agencies decided that ‘resilience’ (or perhaps only the appearance of being resilient) has become a necessary – perhaps the most necessary – part of the repertoire of some one who wishes to teach?
From Selye’s GAS in 1955 to Meichenbaum’s Stress Inoculation Training in 1975, and on to Marmot in 1991, ‘workplace stress’ has been a central topic in psychology research for decades – and then came Seligman and this new thing called ‘happiness’ or, as in his latest book ‘the ability to flourish even under duress’. This attractively upbeat focus on resilience i.e. ‘the ability to flourish under duress’, rather than stress, has grown out of the Positive Psychology movement, which had its coming out ceremony in 1998. Martin Seligman, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, advocated at that year’s annual meeting of the American Psychological Association that mental illness should not be the sole preoccupation of his discipline. In 1975, Seligman had published the results of research which showcased the development of the concept of ‘learned helplessness’. Having gained evidence that he could replicate the inaction and hopelessness of human depression in animal participants, Seligman took his research in the opposite direction, and explored the possibility that interventions by psychologists using cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) could promote optimism, wellbeing and resilience in human subjects.
Over the last 20 years, positive psychology has gained credence through further research by social scientists, neuroscientists and economists, and the importance given to its’ emphasis on the measurement of ‘happiness’ has been willingly embraced by politicians on both sides of the Atlantic. David Cameron’s two million pound plan to measure the nation’s happiness got under way in April 2012. The Office of National Statistics had its first four happiness questions in that year’s annual Integrated Household Survey which was sent out to 200,000 British homes. In the United States, the US army isn’t just measuring the levels of ‘happiness’ amongst its troops; it is attempting to promote well being by investing 125 million dollars in a 5 year programme involving 800,000 soldiers, which involves teaching soldiers ‘emotional resilience’ at Seligman’s department at the University of Pennsylvania. Fostering resilience in pupils has become a by word in education, too. For many student teachers in the United States and in Britain, ‘creating the resilient pupil’ is part of the course programme. In many schools, fostering resilience in pupils is part of the pastoral agenda. So perhaps it was inevitable that academic research would turn to the examination of resilience in teachers themselves. For example, in 2007 and 2008 Cardiff University’s Work Environment Research Centre reported on a longitudinal study into work related stress which included teachers in its participant sample and in Cambridge the Well Being Institute studies the development of well being in schools.
But there is a need to define the sources and the mechanisms of resilient behaviour before we can incorporate resilience training into any pre-vocational assessment or CPD programme. This has been the focus of a series of seminars entitled ‘The Resilient Teacher’ which have recently been based in the Education Department of the University of Nottingham. The central questions of the debate have been ‘what is resilience?’ and ‘can it be usefully fostered in teachers?’ These ESRC funded series of seminars, led by Christopher Day, Anne Edwards, Amanda Griffiths and Qing Gu have been examining the wide ranging body of contemporary research into ‘resilience’ in teachers. The focus of the first tranche of seminars, stretching from May 2010 to January 2011, was to seek a definition of ‘resilience’.
Rather than seek a theoretical definition, Dr. Nigel Hunt, who contributed to these seminars, showed us how his work focused on gathering empirical evidence by observing how individual people became ‘able to cope’ and able to ‘function normally’ after living through a traumatic event. He has led research which gathered the responses of participants in Iraq and China to the appalling experiences they had of, respectively, war and earthquake. The results of his research suggest that the development of resilience can be tracked and supported by narration. After a traumatic event an individual goes through a series of changes in how they narrate their experience. At first narrating their experience is harrowing. Some obvious and measurable indicators of this distress are that the participants’ blood pressure rises, their heart rate increases, they tremble. They display all the reactions of high arousal – the ‘fight or flight’ stress response – they are re-experiencing the event. But as they repeat their explanations they gradually incorporate these experiences into a narrative which they can safely repeat without distress. Dr. Hunt’s premise is that this alteration of the effect of the narrative on the narrator, which can only happen after a number of repetitions, may be at the root of the development of resilience. The question for those in dismay at the exodus of teachers from the workforce is – could Dr Hunt’s finding be usefully applied to teaching?
This simple need to tell the story of a stressful event can be seen, or heard, in our workplaces every day. Professions where employees deal directly with the public incorporate mentoring into the cycle of the working month. Social workers have to undertake one hour of informal discussion about work with a person of their own choice each month. Police officers also have a formal ‘talking’ programme. Mental health workers have both formal and informal mentoring as part of their work pattern. These words are taken from an interview that was given to me by a senior health worker I will name Cara :
‘Each week I attend a team- wide case conference involving around 20 staff where information about each patient is shared between psychologists, nurses and the off-ward support staff. Once a month I attend a debriefing session where I can discuss in confidence any concerns I have about my client base which is about 25 patients. Once a month I can choose any colleague and book an hour with them to discuss, again in private, wider issues about the job. I know that this support structure helps to keep me sane. Maybe in one way it works because it shows that there is a recognition by the policy makers above us that staff require support – the service we provide is so personal and so unique to each patient – and it’s hard to explain to what you do to anyone outside the profession.’
Dr Hunt introduced his contribution to the seminar series by saying that at first he could not see how his work with the traumatised victims of war and natural disasters could be related to ordinary members of the teaching profession. As he explored the experiences of teachers he realised that there were similar patterns of incidents and response at play. If time to talk were given precedence – if teachers actually had ‘time to talk’ at school as part of the weekly timetable then would they, could they become a ‘more resilient’ workforce? What he had observed in trauma victims was the dynamic process of resilience being built. The current psychometric tests available for ITT to measure resilience are static. They can only offer a snapshot of a state of mind. The interrelational quality of the conversation which Peter was about to have in the staff room that day is harder to measure but could provide invaluable information on how to promote ‘resilience’ within the teaching profession on how to promote resilience in any profession. Far more useful information than the blurred snapshot of a prospective employee’s mental state offered by psychometric testing and far more useful than waiting to patch up those who fall by the wayside by offering them ten sessions of CBT.
PhD Research Student
Department of Education
University of Nottingham
Day, Christopher et al (2011) Beyond survival: teachers and resilience. Nottingham: University of Nottingham.
Hunt, N. C. (2010) Memory War and Trauma. Cambridge. Cambridge University Press
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Meichenbaum, D. M., & Cameron, R. (1983). Stress inoculation training: Toward a general paradigm for training coping skills. In D. Meichenbaum and M.E. Jaremko’s (Eds.) Stress Reduction and Prevention New York. Plenum
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Seligman, Martin E. P. (2011) Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Wellbeing. New York. Free Press
Selye, H. (1956) The Stress of Life. New York . McGraw-Hill