The pandemic stretches educators to new extremes by forcing them to bridge the chasm between classroom learning, hybrid instruction, and remote learning. While schools traverse this wilderness of uncertainty, teachers and students often bear the burden.
This post updates an earlier pre-pandemic article concerning teacher burnout. The pandemic turns an unacceptable chronic condition of educator stress into an acute crisis. I was on the phone today with an educator in Colorado who reported that teachers in her school district are failing students at record levels. Why? The lack of continuity, teacher burnout, and student disengagement make the effort seem futile. Christian schools of course are not immune to the difficulties posed by the pandemic. During my series of webinars in the fall with nearly a thousand ACSI teachers, I heard the repeated phrase, “It’s only November, but it already feels like May.” I believe this captures our educational moment in history.
Revolution and Disruption
Old structures, traditions, and habits inhibit new ones until there is a revolutionary breakthrough or cataclysmic disruption. The iPhone, for example, was introduced in 2007. Can you even remember life pre-iPhone? The iPhone revolutionized our lives but turned out to be cataclysmic to any cell phone manufacturer. Revolutionary disruption is no respecter of history or worth.
Morgan Stanley’s August 2020 report Is the Pandemic Accelerating Digital Disruption? explains many of the broader implications to business but also to education. This increased reliance on digital delivery has been a wake-up call for all sectors to accelerate digital transformation in order to drive greater resiliency and innovation in the face of COVID-19 challenges. We will likely look back at this time in five or 10 years with the same nostalgia with which we talk about cell phones and roaming charges. We may even wonder why we hung on to a 19th-century education model for so long.
The Stress of Change During Crises
The full force of the digital revolution was unleashed with tsunami force and has laid waste to any organization or institution that fails to adapt, quickly. Schools of all sectors were particularly caught flat-footed. In addition to scrambling to adapt, administrators must make teacher and student resiliency a core strategy. Otherwise, the Colorado district’s tale of burnout and disengagement is a harbinger to any school that ignores health and well-being.
To develop such a strategy, we can consider the six principles of post-traumatic growth. We’ve learned about these principles primarily through soldiers who have come back from combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. In three million tours of duty, somewhere between 11 and 20% of those soldiers came back with PTSD. This high rate became an area of deep concern and research. They found in these thousands and thousands of soldiers coming back that a small percentage came back stronger—and their resilience became known as post-traumatic growth.
In researching this phenomenon, researchers found six key traits—which we can use as principles—for growth in and through trauma and extreme challenge: positive mindset; playing to your strengths; circle of five; sleep and physical wellness; meaning/purpose; and daily accomplishments.
- Positive Mindset. A positive mindset is not thinking that circumstances will somehow magically get better. Instead, a scriptural view of a positive mindset hinges on verses like Romans 8:28, which promise that “in all things God works for the good of those who love him” (NIV). This refers to moral good—not that things simply work out for the better in our immediate circumstances. It means that our circumstances will produce good character and stronger faith. That’s what a positive mindset means in this context. We see this reflected in Romans 5:3-5 as well: “We also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.”
- Play to Your Strengths. When we think about what we’ve learned from neuroscience, we know that a weakness is an area in your brain that is not highly developed. It has fewer synaptic clusters. When you stimulate that area, it may elevate for a short period, but there’s nothing supporting it to sustain that growth. By way of contrast, when you activate a strength, it is reinforced by the web of neurons that surround it. The development of one strength is supported by others. This neuroscience principle is reflected in our personalities and behaviors as well. It’s essential to know that there’s a reason we play to our strengths. The happiest and most successful people, I hate to tell you, are not well-rounded; they play to their strengths! While we also don’t overlook weaknesses—but rather we build awareness about those gaps—we still find that, in most cases, playing to our strengths can work to make those weaknesses irrelevant.
- Circle of Five. Part of the resilience or the growth found in soldiers returning from the war was tied to their having a tight network of relationships. I call it the circle of five—the five key relationships in your life that provide buoyancy, balance, and hold you to your better self. Who could you call at 2 a.m. and they would pick up the phone and be there for you? Who would hold you to your best self? Who would you feel comfortable speaking truth to you, even if you don’t want to hear it? Gallup has pointed out that we also need a close colleague, a friend at work; a person who does not have a close colleague or friend at work is 60% more likely to leave that place of employment than those who have that relationship.
- Sleep and Physical Wellness. During times of challenge and stress, we often turn to unhealthy coping behaviors to manage stress such as comfort food, or becoming sedentary and sitting or watching television, or during these times, turning to medication to help us sleep. These are all unhealthy coping behaviors that impede sleep, impede recovery, and put us on a vicious cycle of being more and more depleted each. How many hours of sleep do you get? If you’re getting less than seven hours a night, you are sleep deprived, along with 70% of our nation. How consistent are you with your sleep routine? It’s not just enough to sleep, but you need to be consistent with your sleep habits because your body depends on routine and rhythm. In my book WHOLE: What Teachers Need to Help Students Thrive, there is a chapter called “Waking the Dead.” It addresses the challenge of a lack of sleep in schools and how it hinders student performance. I firmly believe if an entire school got a week’s worth of consistent sleep, it would indeed transform them. They would never go back to the old habits they had before.
- Meaning/Purpose. One of the traits that the soldiers with post-traumatic growth had in common was that they were able to find meaning in their life. There was something bigger, and beyond them, they lived for. This finding aligns with the research of a psychologist by the name of Viktor Frankl, who was a prisoner of war in Auschwitz. He observed the difference between those who survived and those who died. To summarize, he found that those who did not survive had the kind of optimistic thinking that we see in self-help books, as in “the world will somehow get better if I just think it’s going to get better.”By contrast, those who survived found meaning. They lived for something beyond themselves and bigger than themselves. Viktor Frankl’s observations’ underlying premise is that if you believe the world has a purpose and you believe that you have free will, then you have agency. In other words, you can choose to interpret your circumstances in light of that purpose. Thus, having meaning and purpose entails having a framework for interpreting the work you are doing—in your current context and your circumstances—in light of something beyond you, something bigger than you. Your faith and the Christian philosophy of education of your school is the perfect place to re-center yourself and to find meaning for your work. Finding meaning in your current circumstances is a necessary skill, discipline, and habit, but it really counts when you extend it to make a difference in the immediate world around you. When we look at our circumstances, we cannot change COVID or the recession or change whether schools will reopen or go to hybrid learning. One question that expresses meaning, purpose, and agency is: Where can I make a difference, and for whom?
- Daily Accomplishments. The final principle is a sense of accomplishment that must be cultivated daily. This trait goes back to mindset. Are you looking for signs of progress? What do you measure progress by? When we are in the current uncertain conditions, what we used to measure may no longer provide a measure of success or progress. We must look for new metrics of success and different metrics for progress. During this season of COVID, I am no longer traveling for work. So, one of my new metrics includes building and deepening my family relationships. I now have the time and opportunity to spend more time in reflection and prayer, do regular exercise, take care of my body, eat home-cooked meals every night, hug my oldest son and tell him that I love him each day. I didn’t have those opportunities before when I traveled every week. I had different options and different pressures. Now, looking at the new circumstances and the opportunities in this special time, I can reframe my life around new meaning metrics. I have a new way to measure and feel a sense of accomplishment every day.
In summary, teaching is a habitat for heroes, and this is a heroic time. It has also been a draining time. Let’s pause and take inventory of these six principles. Which one of these six principles is your strongest one at this point, the one that you can build on, and which one are you going to start working on first? In fact, which one are you going to begin working on today? God loves you and wants you to be resilient and bring that resiliency to your schools, to your colleagues, and to your students—who will then go out and influence their families and affect their communities for the good.
Editor’s Note:This post was originally published March 2021, and we are republishing it in 2023 due to its continued relevance.
About the Author:
Rex Miller is the lead author for WHOLE: What Teachers Need to Help Students Thrive, which examines ways to create a healthy workplace in schools. His company, MindShift, has tackled numerous large and complex problems in various fields, including education. His books have won international awards for innovation and excellence. To learn more about Rex’s work, visit his website at www.rexmiller.com or reach out via email to firstname.lastname@example.org.