Kaya Consulting

School leaders: How can we make ourselves and our schools more resilient?

Resilience. It’s one of those terms that’s in danger of becoming a buzzword, and yet it’s widely accepted as the key to a rewarding life and career. So, in an uncertain world, what does it really mean to be a resilient? And how can we nurture resilience as teachers and principals to create resilient schools and, ultimately, resilient students? This is the topic we explored at a recent Working Out Loud (WOL) meeting of minds, where we brought together a group of experienced principals to learn from the group’s collective wisdom.

First, what is resilience?

Our WOL principals considered a number of definitions for individual and organisational resilience, and focused on these key concepts:

• The capability and capacity to deal with adversity.

• The ability to learn from adversity, adapt and move on.

• Flexibility and the ability to stay focused on the big picture (to keep adversity in perspective).

What does a resilient school look and feel like?

With a remarkable wealth of real-world experience of dealing with adversity at our WOL table, our principals had a clear idea of what you would find in a resilient school:

• Collegiality, good humour and people smiling, with a tangible connection between teachers.

• An enduring sense of calm and capability, even (or especially) in times of crisis.

• Lots of open conversation, collaboration and engagement, including listening to students.

• The sense that we (everyone at the school) are part of something bigger.

• A visible culture of trust that ensures staff and students are continually growing.

“It’s a school that’s able to juggle, plan and adapt. You’ve got to be able to juggle day-to-day operational requirements, while keeping your school’s mind on the bigger picture and future.”

Our WOL group’s insights, tips and advice

1. Remember: Wellbeing and resilience are inextricably intertwined

Research tells us that individuals with good wellbeing are more likely to be resilient, but the reverse isn’t always true. That’s the difference between thriving and surviving – true, sustainable resilience is about thriving, not just getting by, which starts with taking care of your health and wellbeing.

“You have to recognise that you have a direct input into your own wellbeing– that’s the first step in resilience. A lot of people don’t understand this, and unless they get to that point, I don’t think they will ever be truly resilient.”

2. Wear a green hat and change the way you think about adversity

It can be hard to remain positive in a crisis, but the difference between effective, sustainable resilience and the less healthy kind of stoicism mentioned above often comes down to perception – your ability to view potential threats as opportunities to learn, improve and move on. So, acknowledge threats, challenges and crises. Talk about them. Involve people. Put the problem in context and make a plan (and a contingency plan), together.

3. Put a black hat on top of your green hat from time to time

We can’t tell what’s around the corner, but we can prepare ourselves by having tough conversations before adversity strikes. Start a what-if conversation with your team about potential threats. Discuss compliance issues, policy changes, new technologies, changing demographics and societal problems. You can’t foresee every challenge, but you can be mentally prepared to assess and adapt.

“Resilient teachers and leaders are connected, realistic and optimistic. They don’t ignore the challenge, don’t get caught by surprise. They are prepared for things to go wrong, and they seek the tools to manage challenges, change and adversity.”
4. Lead by example, but only if the example includes support

Leaders need to play an active role in nurturing resilience, managing adversity and overcoming crises, but resilient leaders never go it alone. You need to engage with your team and students, as well as external support services (Headspace, for example). It’s vital to draw on other sources of expertise (and be seen to do so). It isn’t about asking other people to solve your problem for you. It’s about giving yourself and your team the knowledge, information and support you need to succeed.

“They (resilient leaders) work with everyone around them, they listen to everyone. Then, once they’ve decided what they are going to do, they do it.”

5. Don’t be afraid to deviate

In an environment where benchmarking is increasingly prevalent, it can be tempting to simply follow a documented path, system or framework (like the curriculum) for fear of failure or blame. The problem is, doing so won’t necessarily help you anticipate, manage and move on from adversity. Resilient leaders and teams are responsive. They adapt. And sometimes that means adapting systems and frameworks.

6. Be prepared to change your expectations and plans

Things change. For example, in 10-15 years it’s expected that 75 percent of the workforce will be millennials, who tend to have a different view of work, life and the world to older generations. Consequently, as a boomer or Gen X leader, you need to be ready to adjust your expectations and plans for a more mobile, transient workforce. When you invest time in nurturing millennial teaching talent, be ready for the talent to move on before you reap the rewards of your investment. Your effort hasn’t been wasted, but it may be another school and leader that benefits from it.

7. Challenge complacency and build trust with (competitive) collaboration

There are a number of ways to combat complacency, build trust and, in turn, nurture resilience. Our WOL group discussed the concept of competitive collaboration, which has the dual benefit of shaking things up and building a collaborative, trusting culture.

For example, as a leader you could encourage teachers to team up and collaborate on developing initiatives or programs for students – a gentle form of competition that nonetheless raises morale and the quality bar. You ensure your teachers have the resources to conceive and drive something meaningful that will make a tangible difference, and a safe environment in which to try new things; they have the chance to demonstrate and share their expertise, making a difference for students and gaining valuable recognition – a win-win-win outcome.

8. Embrace mistakes and celebrate successes, together

Be honest when things go wrong, or when you need to alter plans. Acknowledge failures as opportunities to learn rather than blame. Encourage your team to reflect, respond and evolve. Provide recognition and praise where it has been earned, but make it personal – don’t assume a teacher wants public plaudits when a personal thankyou would mean more to them (and be less detrimental to morale and the culture of collaboration you’re building). And make sure you celebrate your wins, together.

9. Finally, think about resilience as a multi-faceted attribute

As a school leader – either a formal leader or an informal leader – resilience is the foundation upon which you and your school can build success and, importantly, move forward. But remember, resilience is a multifaceted skill – a resource that ebbs and flows in individuals, teams and schools. Our principals found this diagram useful in understanding how to think about, evaluate and nurture resilience. We hope you find it helpful too.