Coaching Emotional Resilience: How will we bounce back?

by Tammy Gibbons, AWSA Director of Professional Development

“How you interpret and make sense of events is a juncture point where emotional resilience increases or depletes. You make the choice about what story to tell.  When you tell empowering stories, your optimism may expand and optimism is a key trait of resilient people.” -- Elena Aguilar

Just a few short months ago, I received the news that my children had a sibling born.  My husband and I are in our 50’s, adopted our two children in 2017 and now found ourselves at a juncture we knew may come.  Ultimately, we made the painful decision that while we would love to continue to adopt more children, it simply isn’t the best decision long term for this child or our own.  So, I spiraled.  I cried.  I worried.  I reached out and sent emails to people who would oversee the placement of this child. I believed that the child was going to enter a system that would somehow fail him. That we would never have contact with this child and my children would have their hearts broken when they learned I don’t know where he is.  What I was doing is called “catastrophizing”.  A cognitive distortion, that if not tended to, can impact a person’s well being, outlook, health, relationships, work productivity and more.   People who catastrophize see worst-case scenarios and continually tell themselves how horrible the situation is. Resilience is a tricky thing.  Your life can be healthy in all kinds of ways and then one situation, one incident, one decision can throw any human being into a spiral.  

As leaders, how do we recognize when we find ourselves in these cognitive distortions?  And just as important, how do we help coach educators and colleagues to recognize when they are consumed by them?  Coaching for impact in schools is essential, health emergency or not.  It’s essential because student engagement and achievement is our business.  The adults that serve children of all ages, in an era of unprecedented change, experience loss, overwhelm, grief, isolation and yet are needed to be resilient as they serve families and our communities.

Imagine a time when your school or district made a decision you completely disagreed with.  There’s a chance that you too, drifted into the land of cognitive distortions.  Did you jump to conclusions?  Personalize the decision? Are you a black and white thinker and the decision forced you into the grey? Did you hold unrealistic expectations?  (See chart for descriptions). Now consider who you confided in when you needed to talk/vent about this decision.  Did the person listen without judgement?  Did they ask you what might be possible if you thought differently about the situation? Or perhaps ask you if you’ve considered what effect this thinking might have on you (emotionally, productively)? Or maybe even, what are the unintended consequences of teaching/leading from this thought process?

In the book Onward: Cultivating Emotional Resilience in Educators, ©2018  Elena Aguilar writes; “How you interpret and make sense of events is a juncture point where emotional resilience increases or depletes. You make the choice about what story to tell.  When you tell empowering stories, your optimism may expand and optimism is a key trait of resilient people.”  The book and it’s handbook companion provide a good perspective as well as activities for teachers, leaders, schools and districts to participate in to cultivate such resilience.  There has never been a better time to address educator resilience than right now.

As we all navigate through the experience of COVID-19, something not a single one of us was fully prepared for, it’s the stories that we choose to tell ourselves and other people that will reflect how truly resilient we all are.  For example, I’ve learned a more effective way to navigate my workspace during virtual calls and coaching sessions and feel better equipped to conduct business virtually in the future.  I can see how valuable this experience will be for schools to genuinely reflect on how critical standards-based teaching and learning really is because we had to prioritize what we teach and maximize learning opportunities for students.  Thinking this way restores my confidence in the impact schools and classrooms can and will have in the future.   And yet, we are forever changed.  We have learned, we have problem solved, we have failed forward.  We are more resilient than we were before.

As you think about ways to support teachers and other staff members who may be suffering, stuck or not overly optimistic about the future or current situation, consider what it is you are doing to grow your own skills in this area.  Cognitive Distortions is one of the many topics discussed in the Impactful Coaching Academy and Impactful Coaching: Advancing your Skills Academy as it’s vitally important to recognize in our colleagues when we are trying to support and coach for impact.

As for my family, the baby was placed in a very loving home.  All my worry, sadness, and anger was not allowing me to be as optimistic and thoughtful as I should be.  I’m back to my old self and am grateful to the small “team” of coaches in my life who love me unconditionally and can walk with me when I too, tend to demonstrate a lack of resilience, hope or optimism.

Be well school leaders, we need you.