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Staff Matters: Social Resilience In Schools

In the world of education, particularly in the United States, educational fads, policy agendas, and funding priorities tend to change rapidly. The attention of education research fluctuates accordingly. And, as David Cohen persuasively argues in Teaching and Its Predicaments, the nation has little coherent educational infrastructure to fall back upon. As a result of all this, teachers’ work is almost always surrounded by important levels of uncertainty (e.g., lack of a common curricula) and variation. In such a context, it is no surprise that collaboration and collegiality figure prominently in teachers’ world (and work) views.

After all, difficulties can be dealt with more effectively when/if individuals are situated in supportive and close-knit social networks from which to draw strength and resources. In other words, in the absence of other forms of stability, the ability of a group – a group of teachers in this case – to work together becomes indispensable to cope with challenges and change.

The idea that teachers’ jobs are surrounded by uncertainty made me of think problems often encountered in the field of security. In this sector, because threats are increasingly complex and unpredictable, much of the focus has shifted away from heightened protection and toward increased resilience. Resilience is often understood as the ability of communities to survive and thrive after disasters or emergencies.

In a recent paper, research psychologist Cacioppo and colleagues explain that resilience refers to capacities of individuals, but also of groups:

Individual resilience emphasizes an individual’s capacity to find opportunities in tragedy and to turn adversity to advantage. Social resilience emphasizes an individual’s capacity to work with others to achieve these endpoints and, consequently, the group’s capacity to do so as well.
Cacioppo and associates identify nine key resources that can foster social resilience, and describe a computer-based program designed to improve social resilience among troops in the U.S. Army. The training consists of a total of four short modules designed to stimulate an awareness of and an appreciation for the nine resources identified as important by the research.

For instance, one of the modules emphasizes that soldiers will fight more effectively and adapt to hardships and challenges when they are more inclusive about those around them. Another module addresses a common obstacle to social resilience: Viewing others as different from oneself thus, as a threat rather than a resource. The training illustrates how differences among group members can be assets and make the group superior (e.g., more adaptable), and how “team chemistry” can be more important than “the strength and talent of the individual warriors."

Might this framework help design training for nurturing social resilience among teachers in U.S. schools? I think so. In fact teachers demand this sort of approach and empirical evidence strongly suggests that when teachers work well together everybody benefits.

In both 1996 and 2001, teachers ranked “cooperative, competent teacher colleagues/mentors” as the most important factor helping them in their work – see here. Also, there is considerable evidence that teachers’ collaboration contributes to increased job satisfaction (here and here) as well as student achievement (here, here, and here) and that the quality of teachers’ social relations is key to the successful implementation and sustainability of instructional reforms (here, here, and here).

Along the same lines, recent research on teachers’ working conditions has established that the social aspects of schools and teachers’ work (e.g., the collegial climate, leadership) have the most influence on teachers’ career decisions (here, here, here and here). In sum, when teachers function well as a team —that is, when “social capital” is strong—everybody wins.

The problem is we don’t seem to be paving the way for any of this thinking but rather, quite the opposite. The dominant view is that schools can be improved by attracting and retaining excellent individual teachers. In the world of education, many still believe that “the strength and talent of the individual warriors” is more important than “team chemistry."

The Education Department has encouraged school districts to extend instructional time and some districts are considering doing so by limiting the time teachers spend working together – see here. While this may technically circumvent the need to revise teachers’ salaries, it also further restricts teachers’ opportunities to interact with one another, which is intimately connected with both what teachers say they need, and what research shows has the greatest impact on key outcomes such as teacher retention, and student achievement.

Fields and research traditions as diverse as social capital theory, social network analysis, and organizational studies are increasingly coalescing around the powerful finding that no human problem can be neither properly understood nor fixed without attention to the social relationships in which individuals are embedded. As Cacioppo and colleagues put it: “We may aspire to be self-sufficient and celebrate our individual achievements, but our remarkable accomplishments as a species are attributable to our collective action, not our individual might."

- Esther Quintero

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