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Onward – Cultivating Emotional Resilience in Educators

Monday, August 5, 2019  
Posted by: Abby Schultz
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Reviewed by Anna Bacon Moore, Ph.D, Director of Student Support, The Westminster Schools, Atlanta, GA


“Being anchored in purpose makes you able to deal with setbacks and challenges.”

The Onward Workbook, p. 7

Our campus never fully quiets. Sports camps, academic enrichment opportunities, and professional development events keep things gently burbling all summer. As the calendar turns to August, however, the campus explodes to life in anticipation of students returning in two weeks. The metabolism of the whole community changes as we shift gears and begin to ready for our students to return. The air sort of crackles, copy machines hum all day and spit out colorful sheets of welcome, and the yard maintenance crews create perfect edges on lawns and beds of pine straw. Everyone eagerly prepares for the students. Serving students is our purpose. It unites us, in all our varying roles on campus. We are here to serve students.

From IT specialists to kitchen staff to school nurses to geometry teachers, we all want to be our best for the students about to arrive. I remember reading Parker Palmer’s The Courage to Teach years before I first entered a high school classroom. What resonated so deeply from that text was the notion that teachers teach with their whole being. Teaching is demanding physically, emotionally, and cognitively. When I think back to my first year as a teacher, memories of how surprised I was at the extent I was engaged in the lives of students stand out to me. One student stayed after class one day to cry and talk because his girlfriend broke his heart; in November of my first year, one of my advisees was diagnosed with an eating disorder and I was pretty consistently consulted about her state of mind; a student in my science class had to move out of his home in the middle of the year in order to find a space with some stability and routine. When I began my career as a high school teacher, I showed up ready to talk about photosynthesis, mitosis and evolution … not fear, anxiety, broken hearts, and depression. But, talk to anyone who works on a school campus, and you will learn quickly: teachers engage with their students in complex and critical ways that go far beyond math formulas, rules of grammar, and history timelines. During the school year, students can spend more waking hours on campus than in their own homes. Teachers are called upon to teach reading, writing, and arithmetic, but also to help students navigate complex news events, difficult peer relationships, parent divorce, panic attacks ... the list goes on. By May, the joyful anticipation of these weeks of August and images of our fresh bulletin boards and stacks of new books to hand out are long gone. Students and teachers alike count down the final days of school and eagerly await the much-needed break to come. But, this end-of-year fatigue and exhaustion doesn’t match the heart of those called to teach. And, maybe, just maybe, it doesn’t have to be. 

Teachers care. They care for their students and one another all year. But, as we all know, you can’t give away what you don’t have. To that end, it’s critical that teachers and those working in schools create time and routine for self-care, too. This summer, our school counselors began to make their way through Elena Aguilar’s Onward – Cultivating Emotional Resilience in Educators and The Onward Workbook.   

Aguilar organized these texts by month, so our team kicked off in June doing work focused on Knowing Yourself. Each chapter, or month of reading, guides you through the process of self-reflection, articulation of personal values with articulation of the socio-political context in which one lives, self-care, connection with others, mindfulness work, and seeking of and nourishment of joy. Aguilar opens each chapter with a broad-based context grounded in the life of a teacher; case-studies and real-life examples are used to illustrate and personalize concepts. Each chapter closes with reflections, and along with the workbook, the reader is offered daily activities for deeper dives into the work. The unifying threads of both texts guide the reader into clarity around their purpose. It is Aguilar’s premise that, once we can articulate our purpose, we can intentionally engage in behaviors and activities that not only sustain us but push us toward growth. My team will continue to use this book all year, with weekly check-ins and sharing. It is the ongoing work of self-care and growth that will carry us through a busy and joyful school year.

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