How to Build a Resilient School Community

Three ways to preserve relationships so we emerge stronger together

By: Phyllis Fagell


Right before my son started college, the dean, Kathryn Lively, shared a story with the first-year students. A few years earlier, she had attended a silent meditation retreat where one of the other participants was continuously disruptive. Lively was angry and told the retreat host that the woman was ruining her experience. The host “nodded the way wise people do and walked me back to my mat, then said, Kathryn, she is your experience,” she recalled. At the time, she had no idea what he meant. In retrospect, she realized that the lesson was exactly what he had said. She wasn’t getting the experience she wanted, which was to sit in silence. The experience she got, however, was “learning to make peace with unmet expectations and to take the lesson that it’s always up to me.”

This is not the year educators, middle schoolers, or their parents and caregivers imagined. But it’s the experience we’ve got, and we can either use this time to grieve what we’ve lost, or to learn to sit with discomfort and adapt. Students will do as well as the adults who raise and educate them. Here are three ways we can work together to create a more resilient school community.

Reframe the pandemic as a hero’s journey.

Most of us will experience three to five lifequakes, or massive transitions with aftershocks that last for years, says Bruce Feiler, author of “Life is in the Transitions.” In order to manage those traumas, he told me, it helps to understand that no one’s narrative is linear, and the main character in a story isn’t the hero. “It’s the wolf, the tornado, the pandemic,” he explained. The hero emerges because of the villain. He was referencing the hero’s journey, something I do when I'm counseling a child who has been bullied. I draw from stories such as the Harry Potter series and Wonder to demonstrate that all heroes go on an adventure, face conflict and adversity, and emerge changed. What's unusual right now is that we’re all getting pummeled at the exact same time.

To build your own resilience, reflect on family members’ oscillating narratives—the grandmother who survived the Holocaust or the parent who was the first in your family to go to college. In the classroom, share biographies and examples from history that underscore that people can be strengthened by adversity, and encourage your students to journal about their own ups and downs.

Boost everyone's sense of competency.

When people are stretched thin and forced to leave their comfort zone, they’re more likely to unravel. We know that plenty of parents feel ill-equipped to supervise their children’s remote learning, and that teachers feel tremendous pressure to rapidly transform their practice. Administrators feel the burden of weighing competing mediocre options while buoying their staff. Students are trying to learn new technologies and ways of interacting with peers at an age when they're painfully aware of how they stack up to others. No one signed up for this, and many people are having a crisis of confidence. During a Zoom town hall meeting just before school started, one parent asked my head of school, “How will you be assessing us parents as teachers?” The administrator looked startled. “If you’re asking what I think you’re asking,” she told them, “we won’t be assessing you as teachers at all. We don’t expect you to have the same skill set as our teachers!”

When people feel competent, they're less on edge, more forgiving and more self-compassionate. To that end, schools can expand parent education programming, offering sessions on topics such as coping strategies, social media wellness, technology and logistics, and the developmental phase. They can provide teachers with relevant and timely training, too, and make them aware of all the ways they can access emotional support. Educators can set students up for success as well. That doesn't mean lowering expectations, which would have the opposite effect. Rather, we can play to kids' strengths, offer flexibility in how we let them demonstrate learning, hold them accountable without being punitive, and work with them to establish reasonable and attainable goals.

We also can double down on spreading positive feedback throughout the community. Teachers can alert parents when children take academic risks or do something kind for a classmate. Parents and administrators can make an extra effort to notice when teachers inspire students or forge strong connections. Teachers can reassure parents that they're doing just fine and let them know that they appreciate their collaboration. This also is a time to encourage leaders within the community—whether it’s the principal, the head of the PTSA, a department chair, a counselor, a teacher, or a staff development specialist—to help kick off a positive cycle and discourage a culture of complaining. As researchers reported in American Behavioral Scientist (Losada & Heaphy, 2004), everyone is more motivated if the ratio of positive to negative feedback approaches six to one.

Focus on connection and common goals.

No matter what schools do, some people will be dissatisfied with decisions related to everything from reopening plans to scheduling logistics. Add in uncertainty, anguish about the state of the world, and individual concerns about health, safety, and financial security, and it’s unlikely that everyone will be on their best behavior. Fear breeds anxiety, which in turn can breed impatience, judgment, and anger. But if members of a community turn on one another instead of focusing on connection, they’ll only erode trust. Many teachers already are reeling from the hostility that’s been unleashed on them in recent months, and no one benefits when teachers experience a drop in morale.

It’s harder to get different stakeholders on the same page when they can’t meet or resolve disputes in person, but ironically, that means people are likely to damage relationships right when they need them the most. To boost everyone’s empathy during social distancing, schools need to devise creative ways to bring their community together. School counselors and other mental health professionals can facilitate dropin virtual support groups for parents and educators. Administrators can provide frequent opportunities for Zoom meet-and-greets. Schools can host parenteducator book clubs. Students can spearhead events, such as food drives or fundraisers, that unite people around a common cause.

In times of crisis, everyone’s wellness is inextricably entwined. Research shows that emotions spread across a social network, and we need to take care of one another if we want children to feel centered. Some educators might find themselves temporarily loosening boundaries and helping parents in more targeted or consistent ways. After all, we're Zooming into students’ kitchens and living rooms and are literally guests in their homes. To balance out the extra demands, teachers may need to tighten other boundaries, such as the time they start or end their workday.

Recently, I addressed a group of parents at my own school. I shared Lively’s retreat anecdote, explaining that it's a story of radical acceptance—of deciding to stop resisting what you can’t change. We can’t alter our current reality, but we can recognize that it’s temporary and situational, and choose to preserve our optimism and relationships and emerge stronger together.

Reference

Losada, M., & Heaphy, E. (2004) The role of positivity and connectivity in the performance of business teams: A nonlinear dynamics model. American Behavioral Scientist, 47(6), 740-765. Retrieved from https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/0002764203260208


Check out this free webinar featuring Phyllis Fagell sharing ideas for promoting student wellness during the pandemic.

Phyllis L. Fagell, LCPC is the school counselor at Sheridan School in Washington, D.C., a therapist at the Chrysalis Group in Bethesda, MD, and the author of Middle School Matters (Hachette Book Group, 2019). Phyllis also writes The Kappan's weekly Career Confidential column and tweets.
@pfagell
phyllisfagell.com

 


 
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