Case Study: Resilience for leaders in education

Adversity is a fact of (work) life. Things don’t go smoothly all the time. This is true in schools as it is elsewhere. However, school leaders are faced with some typical sources of adversity, resulting from the nature of educational organizations and their stakeholder communities. Luckily, our management development work in education has taught us that schools at the same time have much to offer to build leader resilience.

The problem

Where does adversity come from in schools? You may ask yourself that question first, reflecting on roles you may have had in schools or from personal experience. 

For example, consider the following situations where you may face adversity as a school leader : 

  • Someone in the team made a mistake, e.g. a misleading communication or a missed deadline.  Sometimes it’s not for the first time but we as a team have to make up for it now (again). 
  • We try to work out something new with the team that would really take things forward (e.g. more consistent assessment approaches throughout the curriculum); but we go around in circles and never finish it – things don't work as expected, people resist and keep arguing against it.
  • There is a student who would really benefit from taking a specific course in the next school year, but we don't get the budget for it. Now, we cannot offer the student the “best” solution but have to work on changing her/his mind.
  • We discuss with parents to put in place much needed extra support, maybe at additional cost for them. The student would really benefit from this new structure but they just don’t want to see it because it needs an extra effort from them. I can't convince them.
  • I have a teacher in the team who simply doesn't teach according to what we formulated as our school-wide approach to teaching and learning. The teacher just keeps doing his or her thing. So I have to evidence where change is needed and then have another round of difficult conversations ….
  • Parents are concerned about the school’s performance, e.g. in a specific subject area and grade levels – we all do our best but what we accomplish in our classrooms everyday is not at all appreciated. We are just getting another round of harsh criticism.
  • The school administration has made another decision that my team doesn't like at all and, honestly, it will make our daily work more difficult. I have to somehow straighten things out with the team. They're not happy at all.

Those are just some sources or situations of adversity that we have come across in schools (please feel free to share other moments of adversity that you experienced in the comments; we will share anonymously). They all have in common that they are baked into the particular institutional set-up of schools – a people context with diverse stakeholders, where value creation is inherently a dynamic social process which plays out in a multitude of structures such as school structures, governance, curricular or accreditation standards, and regulations, to name a few. 

In a perfect world, all of those adverse situations could be addressed before they arise. And for sure, emphasizing resilience should not be an excuse for not addressing root causes that may give rise to more adversity than necessary. However, frustrations like the ones above will never be fully avoided, especially if an organization strives for high standards and where its members care deeply for their purpose.

School leader strategies and solutions

When we discuss resilience with school leaders, we find that resources to deal with resilience are available in educational settings in a rich way. The task for school leaders is then to tap those resources and leverage them for their own development of resilience. 

Personal resources

The expertise as educators, including the experiences and techniques of teaching and dealing with educational stakeholders, often comes up as a source of resilience from leaders in schools. Leaders who are confident about their specific skill set draw on those very skills and knowledge to shift the perspective on a situation and respond effectively. Proactively expanding relevant expertise contributes to increased resilience.

Purpose and meaning 

When there is a difficult development with a student, a frustrating interaction with the team, or an angry discussion with parents, often leaders consciously put such adversity into the wider context of the ultimate purpose of education. This reference to purpose helps to get past a bad experience and put things into perspective. This can happen by way of self-reflection or in conversations with your one’s support network. 

Positive emotions and celebrating progress

Research on how our brain works shows a bias in our reaction towards more emotional situations, news, or communication. In line with that adversity often dominates our thinking and conversations and eats up energy. Intentionally counterbalancing this by celebrating the successes or small steps of progress can help to balance adversity and rebuild energy. These will still need work but the positive impact that smaller steps of progress causes is worth being acknowledged and celebrated.

Support networks

Thirdly, schools offer multiple opportunities to build support networks, e.g. with other leaders and educators, to share experiences and seek advice. Resilient school leaders are very conscious about those support networks and hone their relationships in order to receive and to give support when required. 

Simple steps to improve your resilience

Get the work tool on resilience. Work through the thinking questions along the four categories of

  • Personal resources
  • Purpose, meaning and commitment
  • Positive emotions
  • Social support and feedback

Then, define at least three specific actions for yourself to improve your workplace resilience in the face of adversity. Tip: make those actions specific, what will you do by when and what is the expected outcome for you? Find a way to discuss with a friend, colleague, or peer – thereby already tapping into your support network 😉.