Bounce back unbroken

30th March 2001 at 01:00
You have two choices when it all goes pear shaped. One is total collapse. The other, John Caunt says, is avoid knee-jerk reactions, learn and laugh

I have a vivid recollection of the first setback of my teaching career. I spent days preparing an activity to fire the imaginations of my torpid charges, certain it would be a springboard to weeks of happy investigation. Like an over-optimistic general, I had misjudged the enemy's ability to remain firmly dug in throughout the opening artillery bombardment.

The grand plan collapsed in the first half hour, my confidence drained away and a career selling double glazing looked increasingly attractive.

Confidence and resilience are important attributes in most jobs - they can be just as vital as technical competence. The first year in any new job, when the day-in, day-out realities start to bite, is particularly tough.

Teaching certainly has its share of confidence-sapping circumstances - disruption, hostility, overload, criticism, or simply no recognition for something you've slaved over. It's easy to let them get on top of you. One thing is sure: you will never entirely rid yourself of setbacks.

But by approaching them in the right way you can minimise their impact.

Here are some strategies to help ensure you bounce back: Take an organised approach to weathering crises and disappointments. Avoid panic and knee-jerk reactions, but plan and set yourself targets which will see you back on track. Keep these realistic and flexible. Excessively ambitious objectives are a way to set yourself up for failure and further loss of confidence.

Be ready to adjust your targets in the light of changing circumstances. A tried and tested way of making steady progress towards major objectives is to break them down into smaller steps. As you climb each step, the feeling of achievement helps maintain your confidence and motivation.

Try to ensure that benchmarks for achievement are within your control, not reliant on the approval of others. You may be fortunate enough to work with kids who appreciate what you are trying to do, but you'll be lucky teacher indeed if it's always apparent.

Other staff may be working to their own agendas, or just too distracted to notice what you are doing. So clarify in your own mind the criteria that will represent a job well done. Then reward yourself for achieving them.

This does not mean that you should cut yourself off from help. Support networks are tremendously important. When you are under pressure it's easy to believe you are the only one. But if you are finding it tough, it's likely others are too. Encourage a spirit of mutual reinforcement by offering help when others are down.

Moreover, don't assume your more experienced colleagues are unaffected. Setbacks occur at every career stage. It also has to be said that in most organisations you can find a few people who act as a drain on the energy and commitment of others. They may be hardline cynics, looking for ulterior motives in everybody's actions but their own. Some are ultra-dependants, seeking approval and recognition for every move they make. Take such people in small doses.

Bank your successes. One blow to self-confidence can undo months of building. So it is important to use past positive experiences as references that will help you to weather the inevitable dips. Writing down your strengths can help. So can a diary in which you record your achievements, however small, and challenges overcome.

Recognise that there is something to be learned from every crisis and setback. By focusing on what that might be, you are already making the first move towards strengthening your confidence and coping skills. In most situations there are aspects you cannot influence. Concentrate on those you can.

Acknowledge your mistakes without dwelling on them. No one is infallible. Other teachers are more ready to support colleagues who come clean about mistakes than those who try to maintain an aura of infallibility.

Finally, don't forget to laugh. Searching out the humour in your situation helps to put the petty crises of working life into proper perspective. The well timed joke is an essential skill for any survivor.

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