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How early-career teachers can develop resilience

Written By: Ian Flintoff
8 min read
An exploration of resilience and how new teachers can develop it, with help of their school

The abiding challenge of our times in schools is to recruit, train and retain our teachers. Effective teachers are those that have developed resilience within the many daily challenges and for whom their working environment provides the necessary support to maintain commitment over the span of a career.

This article explores the concept of resilience in psychological and educational research, what it might mean for early-career teachers and how it is built. I draw on the outcomes of my research with trainees on a large school-based training course to suggest what may be useful to both individuals and to schools in developing resilience in their early years of teaching.

The concept of resilience

Psychological literature

The nature of resilience is well-explored in psychological literature. In a review of 122 studies Meredith et al., (2011) use an operational definition “resilience is the capacity to adapt successfully in the presence of risk and adversity”. Other researchers suggest it is also dynamic (Windle, 2010), however – that there is no resilient personality per se (Sinclair, et al., 2013) and within the emerging science of applied positive psychology, it is emphatically shown to be a capacity that can be built up through mental training (e.g. Reivich and Shatte, 2002), mindfulness and exercise.

Neurological research

Some of the neurological research into resilience (Davidson and Begley, 2012) also focuses on the notion of bounce-back and speed of recovery from adversity which can be enhanced by thinking skills which utilise the brain’s capacity to adapt and change (neuroplasticity). Finally, a whole set of recent research conceptualises resilience as a process of post-traumatic growth following severe adversity where individuals learn to configure new ways of coping and living a full life despite severe setbacks (Leopore and Revenson, 2006).

Developmental psychology

In the field of developmental psychology, studies such as the influential Kauai project in Hawaii (Werner, 1993, 1996), studied resilience over time in children from a range of backgrounds and how certain risk and protective factors might have affected both their resilience and life chances. The researchers identified that about a third of the cohort with significant risk factors in their early life (e.g. domestic violence and substance abuse) went on to develop flourishing lives and summarised what they perceived to be protective factors in and around those individuals (extended family support, a strong and supportive school and local services).

This thinking around individual risk and protective factors has been very influential in sectors such as psychological and social work, but has been subject to significant critical re-evaluation by educational researchers when applied to the resilience of teachers.

The culture of the school and its leadership can make or break the most resilient of teachers.
Johnson et al., 2014

Teacher resilience in a school setting

In Australia, where issues of teacher recruitment and retention appear to have been remarkably like those in the United Kingdom, researchers have undertaken very large studies of resilience of teachers in their first five years (Johnson and Down, 2013).

The researchers indicate that the traditional psychological conception of resilience as an essentially individualistic appraisal of risk and protective factors, does little to address an occupation like teaching which they see as ‘complex, intense and unpredictable’ (Johnson et al., 2014).

The influence of relationships with children, colleagues, parents and outside agencies is significant and the culture of the school and its leadership can make or break the most resilient of teachers (Johnson et al., 2014). In addition, their more socially critical approach, questions whether the cultural norm of a successful, resilient adult just equates to a person in a stable long-term relationship with children, living in a house they own and with aspirations to progress in their career and move up the social ladder.

The Australian research involved teachers directly in developing models of teacher resilience (Figure 1) and as such has moved research on to focus on what professional and personal dimensions teachers would benefit from building individually at the start of their career. This is now encapsulated as an online resilience training package for pre-service teachers known as Building Resilience in Teacher Education (BRITE) (Mansfield, 2016).

Figure 1. The Resilient Teacher (Mansfield et al., 2012)

Figure 1. The Resilient Teacher (Mansfield et al., 2012)

Resilience is a capacity that depends not just on the individual teacher, but also the multiplicity of the relationships (personal and professional).
Johnson et al., 2012

Another research group in Australia used feedback and interviews with hundreds of early-career teachers and school leaders over four years and has taken a much wider view of resilience (Johnson et al., 2012). In their model (see Figure 2 below), resilience is a capacity that depends not just on the individual teacher, but also the multiplicity of the relationships (personal and professional) the teacher is managing in his/her life and the culture, practices and procedures of the school.

This research tends to support that completed in the UK where teacher resilience is seen as consisting of ‘everyday resilience’ where the daily complexity of dealing with the unpredictability of children, colleagues, senior staff, increasing workload, relentless accountability and national and organisational change is a major challenge for most teachers (Day & Gu, 2015).

These UK researchers summarise their own research into teachers’ lives and a whole range of international research. This emphasises not just, for example, the link between resilience and teacher identity and moral purpose, but also the importance of trusting relationships within and outside of the school, the vital role of school leaders and a leadership approach that builds trust and engenders a supportive learning community.

More than anything else, these researchers point to the finding that, ‘Building and sustaining the capacity for resilience is more than an individual responsibility,’ and that, ‘policy makers, teacher educators and school principals need to design the means to build and sustain teachers’ capacities to be resilient’ (Day & Gu, 2015, p.146).

Figure 2. A Framework of conditions supporting early career teacher (ECT) resilience

Figure 2. A framework of conditions supporting early-career teacher (ECT) resilience (Johnson et al., 2012 reproduced in Johnson et al., 2014).

My work with schools and pre-service teachers on resilience utilises this model to audit and respond to ways of building and sustaining resilience based on research evidence for early-career and experienced teachers. This includes working with schools on coaching, team building and specific interventions from applied positive psychology to boost coping skills, provide stress management advice, practise relaxation techniques, mindfulness, explore techniques to enhance sleep, a healthy diet, exercise and use of signature strengths.  

My case study

As part of my MSC in Applied Positive Psychology, I undertook some detailed qualitative research on trainee resilience using a qualitative research approach called Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis (IPA). This approach was chosen as ‘IPA research is always concerned with the detailed examination of lived experience’ (Smith, Flowers & Larkin, 2009) and enabled trainees to explore what resilience meant to them during their training year.

The IPA approach also enables analysis of a few detailed individual cases, which leads to a consideration of the unique aspects of resilience for each person (idiographic approach) before developing the more generalised theoretical propositions (nomothetic) which are presented as overarching themes (superordinate themes) across the research participants. Both unique and shared aspects of meaning are important and should be reflected in an inevitably painstaking analysis of the transcripts of the semi-structured interviews with the four trainees, which is required for a quality IPA study (Smith, 2011).

The four emerging themes

Four trainees took part, with an age range of 22–45, three of whom had previous professional careers in a range of sectors, and one was a recent graduate with a year’s experience in school as a learning support assistant. Four superordinate themes emerged from the study:

The school as a surrogate home

All the trainees identified experiences in which the placement school could enhance or alternatively dismantle their resilience. In some instances, the trainee found their school and staff welcomed them, made time to understand their strengths, issues and needs. In others, trainees found themselves in situations which increased a sense of isolation and a feeling of being de-skilled in a ‘sink or swim’ environment.

The turmoil of transition

As most of the participants were career changers, the experience of trying to develop competence in a new professional environment with often impenetrable complexity and conflicting demands, left them feeling overwhelmed at times. This had an impact that was both challenging on a professional and personal level.  Navigating the emotional rollercoaster of training depended on the trainee’s range of coping skills and level of understanding offered by the placement school staff, and this is reflected in the fourth theme below.

Discovering a vocational identity

In every case, the trainees could describe very powerfully a phase of training, a week or event which led them to question themselves deeply about why they were putting themselves through such a demanding experience. In several cases trainees began to discover ‘the why of teaching’ as part of a pivotal experience with young people in the classroom when they realised they had made a difference, however small this appeared to be. In others, trainees found the confidence to deliver a lesson in which the young people were engaged, active and reciprocated their invitation to learn by responding in unexpected and positive ways.

Resilience is what you make it

The trainees describe quite articulately how they had found or developed intentional approaches to get through the toughest weeks. Some of the trainees acted in a stoic way, maintaining their commitment by a focus on the long-term goal of achieving Qualified Teacher Status. Others found perspective through talking to their peers, mentors, tutors and others in the support network. In so doing, they could cope with the emotional intensity and blows to self-belief that some weeks created for them. The trainees that often coped best made a priority of establishing a support network, for example a peer trainee group, and deliberately made time for self-care activities, such as running, regular social events, hobbies. Each trainee found their own unique set of coping strategies.

Staff who are healthy, well supported and trusted to get on with the job will deliver for the young people in their care.

Some reflections for training providers, teacher mentors and senior staff

  • Utilise the research and models of resilience to audit the ways in which early-career teachers are supported to develop a clear teacher identity, and personal and professional confidence.
  • Mentoring and advice for early-career teachers should focus on their strengths and a thorough understanding of their previous work/educational experience. Making time to listen to teachers is time well spent.
  • Senior staff could benefit from an honest audit of the school’s culture and practices to elicit from all staff what helps and what hinders their resilience and wellbeing. Regular staff feedback channels and exit interviews with teachers who leave the organisation can bring some evidence base to concerns about retention.
  • Senior staff can model positive self-care and place the wellbeing of all staff as an ongoing priority in staff development. Staff who are healthy, well supported and trusted to get on with the job will deliver for the young people in their care.
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