Riding the Waves of Change and Challenge in Middle School Leadership

Waves of Change

School Administrator Resilience is critically important as they strive to bring a sense of normalcy back into their buildings and support students and teachers. Principals can support teachers’ resiliency to improve teacher retention and build capacity. But how do leaders support teachers’ resilience and develop and grow in their own resilience?

Elena Aguilar defines Resilience in her book, Onward, as “how we weather the storms in our lives and rebound after something difficult.”  She further illustrates resiliency in a Resilience Pie involving four critical pieces of a person’s resilience:

  • The first is Who you are, which requires genetics, values, and personality attributes.
  • The second is What you do, involving your habits.
  • The third is How you are, concerning emotions and dispositions, and
  • The final is Where you are, involving your context.

Understanding how all four of these pieces fit together helps individuals better understand their resiliency and thus, enables them to assist others in growing theirs.

Developing Leader Resilience

As leaders, knowing ourselves is a powerful place from which to make decisions. Understanding our own emotions, thoughts, and beliefs facilitates more productive actions and interactions. Emotional intelligence is the ability to understand and manage our own emotions in ways that help us relieve stress, communicate effectively, empathize with others, overcome challenges, and de-escalate conflict. It is key to building strong relationships and achieving goals. Four key areas comprise Emotional intelligence: Self-awareness, Self-management, Social-awareness, and Relationship management (Goleman, 1995).


Self-awareness is the ability to recognize and name emotions. Psychologist Robert Plutchik created Plutchik’s Wheel of Emotions, which consists of 8 basic emotions: joy, trust, fear, surprise, sadness, anticipation, anger, and disgust (Plutchik, 2001). Each primary emotion has an opposite, and each emotion can exist in varying degrees of intensity. For example, anger is annoyance when it is least intense and rage when it is most intense. Emotions are complex, and being able to name distinct emotions is a helpful skill. If leaders can recognize their own emotions, they can begin to move into a more positive and empowering state.


Self-management is the ability to recognize how emotions impact behavior. It allows leaders to make thoughtful decisions about how to respond to events rather than reacting. Psychologist Shauna Shapiro calls this practice “mindful pausing.” According to Dr. Shapiro, a moment of pause between a stimulus and a response can make all the difference. But this is easier said than done. The limbic system, which controls our emotions, is typically the first to respond in a stressful situation, causing us to react automatically and quickly instead of slowly and thoughtfully. But a pause gives the reasoning prefrontal cortex time to get moving. A pause gives leaders the space to see a situation clearly and choose a response, rather than automatically reacting in ways that may not serve them, others, or the situation.

One way to maintain awareness of emotions and intentionally shift emotional states is to practice checking in throughout the day. Start by asking, “How am I feeling right now?” Try to name the emotion. Next, ask, “Where am I feeling it in my body?” A clenched jaw, tightness in the shoulders, or fast heartbeat can be signs of an unhelpful emotional response. Then, ask, “What thoughts are influencing my feelings?” Worrying about what may happen or ruminating over something that already happened can generate strong emotions. Finally, contemplate the need and how that need can best be met. Perhaps a few minutes outside or a talk with a friend could elicit a more positive and empowered state.


Social-awareness includes the ability to empathize and understand the emotions, needs, and concerns of other people. Educator and philosopher Nel Noddings is known for her work around the ethic of care. According to Dr. Noddings, caring is grounded in intention and attention. It is a focus on another while (explicitly or implicitly) asking, “What are you going through?” From the perspective of the ethic of care, the carer is interested in the expressed needs of the other person. As leaders inquire and receive information from others, those they lead feel recognized. This practice also contributes to relationship management, which is the ability to develop and maintain good relationships, manage conflict, and collaborate.

Relationship Management: Supporting Teacher Resilience

An additional key area for leaders to consider is how to foster a sense of community within the school. A thriving community is supportive, safe and builds a sense of trust between its members. Leaders must understand what builds trust and breaks trust within their school community. Supporting healthy conflict and addressing injustices are critical tasks in building a community. The positive school community helps teachers feel safe, supported, and encourages them to be brave enough to ask questions without fear of reprisal.

Leaders can support teachers by encouraging them to understand their sphere of influence in their professional and personal lives. In other words, what are the things teachers can control, and what lies outside of their control? Supporting teacher resiliency means engaging in critical conversations about focusing on areas that can make the most impact. Conversely, worrying about areas beyond their control will drain teachers’ energy. Reflecting on what is draining and what is energizing helps support resilience. Leaders can encourage teachers to let go of frustrating issues that are truly beyond their control and focus on those they can change.

Time Management is within an educator’s control and is a crucial strategy to manage difficulties and maximize resilient outcomes (Mansfield et al., 2015). Building relationships, long-range planning, reflection, and teacher self-care are areas that teachers and leaders often forget to intentionally plan into their schedule (Robbins & Alvy, 2014). These activities support personal growth, organization, and resilience.

Final Thoughts

Although challenging, key strategies can increase leader resilience and impact. Leaders are continually faced with impediments to resiliency (daily stressors, lack of time, sickness, competing priorities, lack of human resources), but with intention, leaders can employ critical strategies to support the development of resilience. Attending to the key areas of emotional intelligence can positively impact resilience while assisting teachers in developing greater resilience, too.


  • Aguilar, E. (2018). Jossey-Bass.
  • Goleman, D. (1995). Emotional intelligence. Bantam Books.
  • Mansfield, C. F., Beltman, S., Broadley, T., Weatherby-Fell, N. (2015).Building resilience in teacher education: An evidenced informed framework. Teaching and Teacher Education, 54, 77-87. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.tate.2015.11.016
  • N. (2005). The challenge to care in schools: An alternative approach to education. (2nd ed.). Teachers College Press.
  • Plutchik, R. (2001). The Nature of Emotions: Human emotions have deep evolutionary roots, a fact that may explain their complexity and provide tools for clinical practice. American Scientist, 89(4), 344–350.
  • Robbins, P. & Alvy, H. (2014). The Principal’s Companion Strategies to Lead Schools for
  • Student and Teacher Success (4th ed.). Corwin.
  • Shapiro, S. L. (2020). Good morning, I love you: Mindfulness and self-compassion practices to rewire your brain for calm, clarity and joy. Sounds True.