Fostering Resilience Among Faculty and Staff

Article by Amber Stockham, NBOA

Jan 18, 2022

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Over the past two years, the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic have rippled through independent schools, leading to increased instances of burnout and resignations. Schools have addressed the strain of the pandemic on their community and their resources in diverse ways that are appropriate for their different missions and values. Yet common themes stand out across conversations on NBOA’s Connect discussion boards: Administrators say they are seeing a reduced sense of community with more interpersonal conflict on campus, and they report that this school year has been much harder than last year. They are wondering how they can build the resilience of their faculty and staff and deliver on mission through ongoing disruption and uncertainty.

In my role as NBOA’s director, human resources programs, I recently sat down with Maria Sirois, Psy.D., a licensed clinical psychologist and an expert on resilience, who has experience working with schools.

Amber Stockham: Why does this school year feel so much harder than last year?

This year feels harder because we’re even more tired, carrying the disappointment that this year is not the return to normal that so many hoped for. In some ways, it’s even trickier with the constant uncertainty.

Maria Sirois: I think most of us are optimists, and we figure things are going to get better a little sooner than they actually do. This year feels harder because we’re even more tired, carrying the disappointment that this year is not the return to normal that so many hoped for. In some ways, it’s even trickier with the constant uncertainty. School leaders are left to mull over thoughts like, Are we endangering the kids being in school? Are we foolish keeping them at home? These are tough choices with no clear, right answers.

Stockham: What do you think makes people resilient during difficult events, and how can schools apply that lesson to their faculty and staff?

Sirois: Organizational leaders need what clinical psychologist George Bonanno calls a flexibility mindset, one in which change is seen as normal, and uncertainty is normal. The most resilient of us are flexible and have a flexible approach to living. However, problems come in when we cling to perfectionism and black and white thinking.

Take, for instance, the work of authors Amabile and Kramer at Harvard. They noticed that high performing teams, even under duress, periodically pause and celebrate gains. In order to have the endurance to move forward, the best teams pause at staff meetings, and they celebrate progress. They say, “We’re not there yet, but here’s what we’ve done. Here’s what we’ve accomplished. Here’s how we move forward.” Celebrating the gains sounds really simple, but it’s incredibly impactful.

My brother designs missile defense systems — we’re completely different people. He hangs out with the kind of people you and I might loosely call rocket scientists, and I asked him at the beginning of the pandemic, “What do you do when the project seems overwhelming, and everything has gone wrong?” He thought about it and said, “We get micro-focused. If at the end of the day we have moved the model one step forward, we celebrate and acknowledge that. We’re looking for micro-gains.” I think in the school environment, if we could make faculty less consumed with what isn’t working and more focused on that one child who spoke up in class today or that one group who actually played well on the playground today, it gives them the energy to keep going.

Stockham: Acknowledging successes can be more challenging in a disrupted environment with a high number of absences. How do schools maintain that community focus when the community itself is in transition?

Sirois: It is really hard to do because of the inconsistency of who’s available. Here’s where a multi-layered approach is really helpful: Managers should be much more conscientious about one-on-one meetings, even via Zoom, and regularly take 15 minutes to ask how staff are doing. Use one-on-one meetings as well as small team meetings, and make them more frequent. They don’t have to be an hour — just enough for everybody to say, “Hi, good to see you.”

You can also form collaborations around meaning and get the department or the entire school participating in one thing, like a food drive. Find periodic opportunities for the community to participate. It seems ironic to ask them to do more because we know faculty are exhausted, but the more we elevate meaning, the more energy we have.

Stockham: What can schools do to support individual faculty and staff who are struggling right now?

I think we can all agree that we’re in an ambiguous state of grief for what has been lost and is not going to come back. Honoring and respecting that and giving permission to feel what we feel is crucial. The first step to being able to move forward is to say it’s okay to have felt this.

Sirois: We need to get better at building a culture of what I would call recovery, where it’s permissible in a regular work week to not be responding to emails on the weekend, to actually be able to say, “I’m going to take ten minutes for myself now.” High level athletes understand they cannot train every single day at the same level, they need to build in recovery because that’s how you get the muscles to respond the way you want them to. The same is true psychologically. We know that the number one preventer of burnout is regular recovery, and our [organizational] systems are just terrible at that.

We push our teachers to teach all day, then be in faculty meetings, submit reports, grading, and show up day after day. We need to integrate in much more consistent practices of recovery, from taking those ten-minute breaks or a half day off to saying, “No one ever has to respond to an email after six o’clock at night unless it’s an absolute emergency.” We need a systematic appreciation for what it means to be human.

I think we can all agree that we’re in an ambiguous state of grief for what has been lost and is not going to come back. Honoring and respecting that and giving permission to feel what we feel is crucial. The first step to being able to move forward is to say it’s okay to have felt this.

An important thing to understand is two years from now or twenty years from now, [resilient people] will say they don’t ever want to go through that again, but it was worth it because of how they grew. The work is to enable people to understand that human beings have been in crisis as long as we’ve been human beings, and yet we’re resilient, we find a way to grow. The most resilient of us orient ourselves toward [growth] so that two years from now, this will have had meaning for us personally, and it will have meaning for our teams.

Combine that with micro-focus, and when we learn to shift that lens toward the good that is happening and moments of connection, it provides meaning. Nobody’s looking for happiness right now. We’re just looking for that sense that we have enough sustenance in us to keep going.

Amber Stockham, SPHR, is NBOA's director, human resources programs.
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