Toxic resilience has helped my students through tragedy, but teachers deserve more.
It’s impossible not to give a piece of your heart to every student who walks into your class. If you are an educator, you know this truth. When tragedy strikes, you feel it in your chest.
I received nothing, other than the news that my student was gone and a reminder to speak to someone if I needed to. There I was, a young teacher with little experience dealing with trauma, let alone helping others. Yet, I was expected to return to my classroom and find a way through this tragedy for the students and myself.
It was a terrible, gnawing feeling to be alone. Teachers are constantly expected to give their all for their students, but when they need support they are often left on their own.
Following the news, my lesson plans for the day suddenly seemed ridiculous. I knew I had to change what I was doing, but I didn’t know where to start. I had never been confronted with such a situation as a teacher. At that time, the bell rang, the students started to come in, and I had to do something. I relied on my own experience with an unexpected loss to find something that felt meaningful to them to do.
A space to reflect
My students’ journals hadn’t been touched since the beginning of the school year, so much so that the journal at the top of the pile was beginning to gather dust. I was told I couldn’t talk about what happened, even though many of my students already knew it by the time they arrived at school that day. So, I dried my tears for now, and when the first lesson came, I gave each student their journal and asked them to write a letter to someone and tell them what was on their mind. to heart. I promised them that I would read every entry they wrote.
My students wrote in their journals every day for the coming week. I spent hours reading their entries and responding to them so they could write again the next day. Seeing them being so vulnerable and honest on the page was humbling. I picked up their heartache, grief, and confusion and carried them with me as best I could, while trying to carry my own. They shared with me not only their sadness at the loss of their classmate and friend, but also their joys, their hurts, the things they held dear and the things they preferred to give up. As a result, I felt new bonds begin to form between me and students I had never come into contact with before, and I felt existing bonds grow stronger. Getting to know them through their writings was a powerful experience that softened me and allowed me to become a more empathetic teacher.
I felt them slowly begin to heal. Of course, many were still sad, angry and confused, but they were laughing again and the classroom didn’t seem so dark anymore. As an educator, these were moments of joy for me. Unfortunately, those moments were short-lived for me.
I learned a lot from the experience of having to quickly decide on and execute a new plan. You could say that this whole experience has made me a better teacher. A stronger teacher. A more resilient educator. But at what cost ?
Something was eating me inside. I was still so full of pain and pain and raw, unbridled grief that – by focusing only on my students – I had left my emotions unattended. I was angry. I was so, so angry. I felt abandoned by my school. I was simultaneously navigating through trauma and burnout, and my own health was suffering.
In the weeks since what happened, I have done what teachers are expected to do time and time again. Make your way. Move heaven and hell if you must. Descend into the mud and plod through the darkness. Do not weaken. Do not stop. Show no weakness. Keep going until you can’t keep going because if you don’t then you’re a terrible teacher and you just don’t care enough about your students. It is the poison of toxic resilience.
Toxic resilience can manifest in different ways. As noted in this Harvard Business Review article, “Faced with seemingly hopeless circumstances, some people are like a superhero cartoon character walking through a brick wall: emotionless, fearless, and hyper-phlegmatic. ”
The idea of “resilience” has become very popular in education, both for students and teachers. While I think it’s helpful to encourage strength, circulating the word ‘resilience’ has become a scapegoat for those unwilling to address the real underlying issues that have created the need for courage and tenacity. in the first place.
An obligation to change
Marching is not the solution, even if the leaders want it. I understand. It’s easier to ask someone to keep going than to step back, reassess, and recreate a support system.
Teaching is always hard, but it doesn’t have to be so hard. Teaching is a heart-centered profession, so to some extent the grief comes with the job, but the supports for teachers don’t work. At this point, we are no longer discussing whether to change. Now is the time to rebuild our support structures.
The work culture of teaching is rooted in the unyielding expectation of toxic resilience, and the broken system we operate on totally depends on it. Anything less than that, and you’re labeled as lazy, bitter, and selfish. This puts educators at extreme risk of unnecessary stress, burnout and, in some cases, leaving the profession altogether.
I am not made of steel. I am human and I deserve to be treated as such.
My heart has not quite recovered from the grief of losing a student. In all honesty, I don’t know if I will ever be the same person as before. But I believe the teacher support system can be rebuilt. It will take honest discussion, dedicated time led by administration, and vision driven by teachers.
But for now, for the teachers who have been there and will be there, standing in an empty classroom wondering what to do, you are not alone.