You may have noticed the word “resilience” being bandied about by Ofsted, employers and leadership teams over the past year or so. It’s worth taking a closer look at the concept and how it is being applied to the teaching profession.
Teachers in further education are reporting high levels of stress, anxiety and disaffection, due to the relentless churn of policy changes, funding cuts, job insecurity and high-stakes accountability.
Such measures increase teachers’ bureaucratic workloads and intensify the pressure to prove their effectiveness through intrusive monitoring systems such as lesson observations and learning reviews. Ofsted inspection is the accountability measure that has caused the most pressure and disquiet recently, with the process being perceived by many in the profession as punitive and inconsistent.
But instead of listening to teachers and working with them on the concerns they have and the challenges they face, lately the official response has been all about “resilience”.
Self-help is no solution
The gist is that teachers need to toughen up in the face of changes and extra pressures. The problem, the proponents of resilience seem to suggest, lies with teachers themselves.
The solution is easy as far as they are concerned – teachers need to take responsibility for acquiring resiliency so that they can better cope with the challenges in their work. The assumption is that resiliency is simply a matter of self-help, and the significant difficulties experienced by teachers are ones that they, individually, have the ability to cope with if they could only acquire resiliency.
Resilience is defined by education authors Qing Gu and Christopher Day as the “capacity to continue to ‘bounce back’, to recover strengths or spirit quickly and efficiently in the face of adversity”.
So what do FE teachers do that requires us to be resilient?
We work under increasingly pressured conditions, because of squeezed budgets and the expectation of meeting the complex needs of learners – which, more often than not, have been exacerbated by cuts to welfare and public services.
We keep up with the relentless pace of change in policy to meet accountability measures from external agencies. These require us not only to plan lessons for our subject specialism but also to embed maths, English and employability skills, to promote British values and prevent radicalisation, and to develop learners’ character.
We pick up the roles and responsibilities of colleagues who leave or are made redundant, often without prior consultation.
We regularly provide sick cover for colleagues at the expense of time to plan, mark, create resources or take up CPD.
Are we not, therefore, resilient enough already? Is our commitment to our learners, despite these increasingly adverse conditions, not evidence of this? From what greater lows are we expected to bounce back?
In the 1970s, the idea of developing resilience fell within the domain of psychiatry and complex trauma. Yet now, it is a popular CPD activity being offered to teachers.
In reality, though, the notion has added to the burden of teachers, as we are now expected not only to be role models for resilience but also to teach it. The Department for Education has stated that developing character is a central part of its plan for education: to create a generation of confident young people with the resilience to help them succeed academically, improve their job prospects and recover from setbacks.
Yet this requirement for staff to bounce back has the effect of stopping them from speaking about the stressful experiences they encounter on a daily basis. Advising teachers to develop resilience does nothing to address the causes of adversity: it is about maintaining the status quo.
In fact, it could be argued that resilience is being propounded as a way of combating resistance. We need to ask whether this is all sleight of hand on the part of policymakers, with the aim of preventing protest from FE professionals. It signifies a deficit model, yet another yardstick by which to judge teachers, the message being that if you cannot cope with the stress and pressure, then you are clearly not up to the job.
Rather than working in a supportive and democratic environment designed to help teachers who are struggling, we are told that we are responsible for our own failures, without any acknowledgement of the adverse working conditions we face.
I do not have an issue with developing resilience per se, as long as it is not confused with “competence”. Research could illuminate why many teachers stay in the profession and maintain their commitment to promoting achievement in all aspects of learners’ lives despite adversity. It could even help to give the profession the recognition it deserves.
Instead of this narrow focus on resilience, I would rather see college leadership teams challenging unrealistic diktats from above, tackling unnecessary workloads and creating more supportive working environments that enable teachers to be in the now.
Sasha Pleasance is an FE teacher educator, a founding member of Tutor Voices and author of Wider Professional Practice in Education and Training, published by Sage