As educators, we know the satisfactions that accompany our work. But as with any job, a good deal of resilience is needed to bounce back from frustrations, disappointments, and hard knocks. Changing expectations in education, lack of strong leadership and resources, negative community attitudes, and challenging students are obstacles educators face despite the rewards that will surely come during their careers. Several people on the NSTA Retired e-mail list shared their perspectives when asked how resilience has helped them through difficult times. Several noted that teachers who have a deep sense of mission and care about students will be more inclined to throw themselves into situations in which resilience is needed. These situations might range from taking a troubled student under one’s wing or tackling a new program or teaching strategy, to speaking up when one disagrees with policies or colleagues. Because these teachers have their hearts and minds deeply involved, it is difficult when situations prove more challenging than expected or don’t turn out as they wish.
Many teachers face being transferred from school to school, and from grade level to grade level. They know what it means to have to start over again in new settings with a new curriculum, staff, and administration. They have to make the best of their situation, and they do so time and time again.
One NSTA retiree recalls being assigned by the superintendent and principal to a new school with a team of teachers committed to developing a unique program within the school. Success ultimately proved fatal, though, even as the program received positive publicity in local newspapers and attracted visits from aspiring teachers in training and college professors coming for observations. Unfortunately, other staff members worked to undermine the principal spearheading the project, as well as the teachers engaged in it. The principal left, and the program was disbanded, much to the dismay of those who had worked so hard to develop it. “Despite what was a heart-wrenching upheaval, I felt I rose above the experience and went on to use what I had learned from it. Ultimately, I continued to thrive in my career,” she observes.
Another retiree who taught young children vividly recalls her experience when the first HIV-positive student was assigned to her classroom. Though his parents did not reveal his condition, she noted his lethargy and difficulty in learning. One day in class, the little boy quietly told the teacher, “I am going to die.” He said his parents had told him he had a disease that would make him get sicker and sicker and that one day he would die. Shocked, and not knowing how to respond, she hugged him and tried to say just the right thing, something she would do many times throughout the year. The child’s revelation was reported to the principal who immediately conferred with his mother. She reluctantly disclosed a diagnosis of full-blown AIDS, but asked that her child’s name be withheld. The superintendent and school board implemented a plan to inform the community of the anonymous child’s presence in the school. District administrators and the child’s doctor presented reassuring research about the safety of including children with AIDS in school settings. From then on, the teacher met regularly with parents to answer questions. Children in the immediate classroom also had to be reassured. Each day was a challenge. Though reporters were staked out outside the school, the child’s name was not revealed until after his death. He was fortunate to be in a caring, supportive environment in his classroom until he was too sick to attend.
The teacher remembers, “It seemed like every day there was something new to face, and I just did my best. I’m grateful I was able to make his school time happy and that the children were part of his life up to the end. When I look back on that time so many years ago, I think that little boy was a gift to me. I loved him.”
A colleague remarks that “only a wise, compassionate, and experienced teacher could handle that situation. She was there in the life of that child just when he needed her most, and she didn’t let him down. People don’t realize what it takes to do our jobs given some of the situations we face.”
Those of us who have spent our careers in the trenches know we will always face stumbling blocks, letdowns, and failures when attempting to achieve our goals, yet we pick ourselves up, summon new strength, and move on. As one person wrote, “We continue to give the best of ourselves—our hearts, minds, and spirits—for the edification of the hearts, minds, and spirits of our students.”
Judy McKee is a past chair of the NSTA Retired Members Advisory Board and currently serves on the board of directors for the Council for Elementary Science International. She has spent her own “retirement” running a consulting business, teaching methods courses for graduate school, mentoring new teachers, and writing.
Marlee Tierce (standing) says scientific inquiry can teach students resilience.
Persevering—in Life and Professionally
Overcoming adversity is fundamental to living. Researchers claim both nature and nurture are responsible, saying children are born with an innate capacity for resilience that strengthens through life experiences. Sue Vogel, a retired teacher in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and a 2002 recipient of the Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching, admits her training in overcoming adversity through resilience began early in life when she lost three immediate family members in a car accident and overcame childhood abuse to become a successful, award-winning educator. After being diagnosed with a brain tumor in 2008, she told her doctor she simply couldn’t take time off to have surgery. Committed to her work, she believed her students, their parents, and her peers depended on her to teach and manage a large high school science department. Her doctor took her by the shoulders, looked her straight in the eye, and said, “You have to put yourself first!” She resolved to beat the odds and was back at school three months after surgery. She attributes her swift recovery to a positive attitude; tremendous support from family, friends, and doctors; her faith; and the resilience she developed as a child.
Before she retired, Vogel left an annual inspiring message to graduating seniors who knew her story. “Everything in life, both good and bad, is a learning experience. It is our responsibility as humans to take our experiences and learn from them. Never, never stop learning.”
Marlee Tierce taught elementary students in Tennessee and Georgia before she worked in curriculum and instruction in Georgia, and then with the Georgia State Department of Education. She knows teachers influence resilience by taking special care and interest in students, helping them gain confidence, acquire knowledge, and learn important life lessons. She modeled it in her own teaching experience.
Tierce, now retired and presenting teacher workshops, believes scientific inquiry helps students acquire resilience. “Students must continue to search for the answer even when the journey is long and difficult. The lab may not work the first few times. We hear stories of Edison and others who continued to pursue challenges over and over again. What fostered their push to achieve? It is not a magic bullet or a right click. It is believing that the goal is important enough to continue. Teaching a student to persevere, to learn from mistakes, to try new ways, and accept challenges [is] not listed in lesson plans. Science taught in a masterful way motivates even difficult students to survive and persevere. That is why we do it…for our students to succeed and have a better life than they would have had without our instruction.”