Tip #11
Activating Resilience

Over the past two months, you have learned several things. You learned about mindfulness and how to pay more attention and manage your own reactions in your teaching. You learned about trauma and the negative effects that abuse, violence, and poverty can have on children. You also learned about resilience and the fact that, not all, but many, young people do overcome these very challenges.

As a teacher, you have an incredible opportunity to influence this process. If a young person has experienced trauma, and yet, no one expresses care or concern for that child, the outcomes are not good. However, if one of your students has experienced a higher than usual dose of difficulty, but, he or she has just one person who communicates to that child that she or he has worth, that makes all the difference.

In the last tip on resilience, you learned about the ten most commonly cited strengths that help students overcome adversity. The most important is relationship. Children who state they have just one person who treats them like they matter do much better. For children who do not have one person who has communicated that he or she has worth, the outcomes are not good.

We aspire to have a society where all children are raised by loving parents. However, the reality is that we have not yet achieved this goal. This means that many children and teens do not achieve their goal of having at least one person who cares through their family relationships. Whether fair or not, teachers often do far more than teach about math or science. Teachers are, in many of these cases, THE person. The one person who speaks into the life of a child and reminds that young people that they matter, that every child has inherent worth and dignity. Your capacity to activate the process of resilience in the students you teach who have no one else, is incredibly strong.

Story from the Field

People enter the field of teaching thinking about how they will set up a classroom, plan appropriate lessons, and deal with discipline, and those initially will be their main concerns. What most teachers quickly realize is there is a complexity of dealing with a variety of students from all walks of life, and that our role is often much more than simply being a student’s first period teacher.

As a coach and club sponsor, I realized that seeing kids outside of the classroom and getting involved in their interests helped build relationships and bonds with students that sometimes carried over into their lives outside of school. One example of a student is one of my former cross country runners named Jose. I knew Jose as an athlete and saw him daily for a couple of seasons, but in his senior year he asked me if I could be a bigger part of his life and in essence become a surrogate parent. He came from a single-parent home with a mom suffering from disabilities, and she was scheduled to be away from home due to surgery and recovery time. Jose was the oldest of three, and his family was low income with some monthly support, but still enough that had to budgeted properly.

After discussing it with his family, I began to spend time with him after school on a daily basis. Jose really craved a normal family life, as his Dad was basically a monetary support living in another state. I work at a school with many low-income students, but it was the first time I truly spent time actually seeing a student’s life. I had him over at my place most nights so he could have dinner, because they often were short of money by the end of the month. Jose would call me so I could take him shopping for basic necessities for his family, like detergent or food, of which he would use his family’s money for purchasing things. I saw a kid who knew how to do all the household chores, including laundry, who knew how to shop for clothes for his own mom, because she was wheelchair bound most of the time, and who had no family car to get anywhere. He and his mom would often travel over a mile each way to the supermarket, he on foot and his mom in a wheelchair, just to shop for groceries.

As I spent more time with Jose, I learned more about kids like him. I learned that you could be entertained by just regularly walking through Walmart and looking at all the things on the shelves that you could never afford but yet dreamed of owning. I saw that many parents like his had limited contact with the school and had difficulty getting there for any type of conference. Many kids chose a different path of getting involved with drugs, getting pregnant by the first guy that showed any interest in them, or getting locked up before they were eighteen. Kids like Jose knew that they had to stay on the straight and narrow to get anywhere, and that the roadblocks and diversions were in front of them every day. Jose knew that he had to be a role model for his younger siblings, and one of his goals was to be a stable father when he grew up, so he had to stay focused on school and sports to stay out of trouble.

I made him do homework, or at least attempted to get him to do his work on some days. When I took away his phone because of his grades, he told everyone he knew that he was grounded, and he wore it like a badge of honor because no one had held him accountable like that before. I gave him driving lessons, taught him how to tie a necktie, and helped him get ready for prom by going to the restaurant in advance and checking the menu so he could afford the meal for his date. I got legal paperwork so he could travel with me for the holidays to visit my family in the Midwest, which was his first adventure with snow. When he got an award at our cross country banquet, this kid with the tough guy image said he fought back tears when I gave him a hug and told him I was proud of him, because he never heard that said to him. Jose told me he wished he had me in his life starting out in his freshman year because he knew he would have been a better student all four years of school and not just his last year.

Jose and I continued to be part of each other’s lives after he graduated. I drove him to work for his different jobs and helped him get cleared for entering the Army. We had many ups and downs and a period of three months where he wouldn’t speak to me, but that time passed and we became closer. Today Jose is finishing his drill sergeant training in the Army, and is a married father of three. He used to call me by my last name, but now he just calls me Dad.

Jose is just one story of so many of our kids today. We do not have to become a surrogate parent, but doing little things like getting to know kids and their interests can go a long way in helping a teacher deal with students in the classroom. Some of our kids do not have food at home, a parent who supports them, or a safe place to go home to at night. Many of them see no reason for going to school and have no direction in life. We are often the only stable thing in their day, and taking the time when we can to get to know as many of our students as possible can go a long way to helping them cope with life.

Dan Zarbock
Cibola High School
Yuma, AZ

Take Action

Watch the following video and think about how you can teach your students that nothing can knock them down: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sKpBJjsZ7EE