Resilience in the classroom and at work

Marcus Buckingham, an expert on talent at work, will speak to FETC attendees in the opening keynote about identifying strengths and building resilience in both students and teachers.
By: | December 11, 2020
Photo: Pasi Salminen

To Marcus Buckingham, a global researcher focused on unlocking strengths, increasing performance and pioneering the future of how people work, there’s an obvious reason people wake up at age 21 in a cold sweat because they don’t know who they are: schools aren’t focused on helping children to identify and nurture their personal strengths.

“Individual teachers absolutely are, in particular the really good ones,” says Buckingham, who will deliver a virtual keynote to kick off DA’s Future of Education Technology Conference on January 26 at 11 a.m. EST. “They’re super interested in the way one child writes an essay compared to another child. The best teachers are fascinated by that, but the school systems aren’t,” he adds.

Instead, society has decided “that the way to hold schools accountable is through measured goals, and the easiest thing to measure is standardized tests—or GPA, which is also useless in terms of measuring the uniqueness of the child,” he says. “So we’ve sacrificed our children for the sake of having a reliable goal for our system. All in all, the whole thing is bass ackwards.”

Buckingham’s strengths assessments have been taken by over 10 million people worldwide. Knowing what your strengths are and what makes you excited at work is a source of resilience. The title of his FETC talk is “Resilience: How to Build It in Yourself and in Those You Lead.” The most resilient people, Buckingham has said, are able to look at the work they do and figure out which parts of it bring them strength.

As 2020 wraps up, with all its challenges, educators should be thinking about resilience for themselves and for the students they teach.

Research has shown that only about 15% of people are fully engaged at work, and students and rising graduates have rising levels of anxiety, Buckingham says. While eight- and nine-year-olds tend to have a sense of who they are, when they get to about 10 years old “it all goes away,” he says. “We think education is information transfer and then confirmation; we test to confirm that you’ve acquired what we have transferred to you.” And getting promoted to the next grade level is dependent on whether one can confirm that taught facts have been retained.

Instead, he’s like to see educators “help students understand what they love and what their unique strengths are, what they hate to do but are good at, and how they can join a team and announce themselves to other people without sounding like a braggart,” he says.

One reason for the epidemic of anxiety and depression, and alienation at work, is that “we’ve lost sight in school that the uniqueness of the child is the point,” he says.

Ed tech to the rescue

Buckingham recommends putting three technologies into classrooms and schools:

1. Strengths assessments. “We ought to have some way for a student to have a language that begins that curiosity about how they learn, how they think, how they build relationships, and what drives them,” he says. Delivered electronically, such an assessment must be free, race-neutral, gender-neutral and focused on the uniqueness of the child, he adds. Buckingham just finished a youth version of his Standout Assessment, geared toward ages 11 to 18.

2) Check-in tools. “We ought to have a technology that allows each teacher to check in with each student each week,” he says. It would allow a student to share their priority for the week to come and what help they think they need. The teacher would see each response in an app and could respond there or through a conversation with the student. “We should tell every teacher that the simplest and most important ritual is a one-minute check-in. If you can’t do that, you shouldn’t be a teacher.” Such an expectation of teachers would require coaching and learning tips for the teacher should to respond to students with that student’s individual way of thinking and learning in mind.

3) A class engagement metric. It might be 10 questions that provide a reading or vibe of where students in a class are and how to engage them using strengths as a teacher.

Educator resilience–or lack of

Buckingham recently did a global study looking at resilience around the world, and other than health-care workers, educators are the least resilient workers.
“One of the biggest drivers of resilience is whether I feel like I’m on a team,” he says. “If you’re not on a team it feels really difficult to sustain and maintain. Teachers are on teams but in different classrooms in parallel disciplines. What’s great about the pandemic is that lots of teachers have come together in learning pods to help one another figure out the new systems supporting remote learning and are being supportive of one another. I hope that’s one of the things that sustains beyond the pandemic.”

Helping educators through teaching in a pandemic involves encouraging them to determine what they can currently control in their lives right now. Maybe it’s how they work and what technologies they choose to use. Educators can also control their own stress recovery rituals—how they move, how they eat, how they drink.

Buckingham suggests that educators think of themselves as swimmers. Maybe the lane they’re in is fraught with difficulty. “But the most resilient people can say, ‘I do have other swim lanes, where I can make progress and can make a contribution. Can I compartmentalize so I’m not just looking at swim lane 12, with a lot of problems, but also the progress I’m making in swim lanes 3, 4 and 5?” One can catastrophize—or think about what lanes they can focus on instead.

More about Marcus Buchkingham

A bestselling author, Buckingham is a global researcher, focused on unlocking strengths, increasing performance and pioneering the future of how people work. Building on nearly two decades of experience as a senior researcher at Gallup Organization, he currently guides the vision of ADP Research Institute as Head of People + Performance research. He founded The Marcus Buckingham Company in 2006 with a clear mission: to instigate a “strengths revolution” by bringing the message of personal strengths to the world through education and technology. Beginning with First, Break All the Rules and continuing through his latest book Nine Lies about Work, he is known for challenging entrenched preconceptions about achievement to get to the core of what drives success. He is widely considered the world’s leading expert on talent at work.

Educators should also be asking themselves: What in my work still brings me joy? “There are thousands of interactions and conversations, little moments that are going to hit you today,” he says. “Most are slightly negatively or positively charged. But some of these threads will be red threads. There will be moments that light you up, and it’s super invigorating.”

In addition, educators must be conscious about where their red threads are—what they have to look forward to. With just 20% of one’s day being activities that are loved, the chances of burnout are dramatically reduced. The reduction in burnout continues up to about 25% of joy at work. But research has found that 50% joy in work doesn’t reduce burnout anymore than 25% does, Buckingham says.

“This lets us all off the hook,” he adds. No job will ever be 100% loved, but anyone can find love in what they do.

“The opposite of resilience is vagueness,” he says. “When everything blurs together and we start not being able to see our red threads anymore, our life gets empty very quickly.”

What administrators can do

The best team leaders, believes Buckingham, portray this message: “I see you, I love you, we need you.”

The first step is recognizing that you can’t love what you don’t see. So he advises senior leaders to take every opportunity to listen to their teachers and express that they know this is hard. “Any chance you can get, say, I know this may be the most tricky thing you’ve ever experienced.”

Administrators should also individualize conversations with teachers—showing that they see what each person is going through. “Any time you can be seen by the person you report to, even if the person can’t do anything about the challenges you face, there’s power in that awareness,” he says. Education leaders must be aware of each teacher’s awareness of their own red threads.

Another worthy aim is to be one step ahead of events as much as possible. But, during a pandemic, how could anyone do that? “The best senior leaders don’t try to pretend to know what’s around the corner,” he says. “They say, ‘I don’t know what’s going to change, but I know what’s never going to change.’ They talk vividly about things around the corner that they know will not change.”

For example, who educators serve is not going to change. And a school’s values aren’t going to change.

He suggests having these kinds of conversations at least once a month. “You, as a senior leaders, should be sharing anecdotes, pointing to heroes—and saying ‘I see YOU around the corner, and we NEED you around the corner.’”

Buckingham acknowledges how much is on administrators’ shoulders right now. “But,” he says, “you’re not going to go anywhere without great teachers.”

Melissa Ezarik is senior managing editor of DA.

“The best senior leaders don’t try to pretend to know what’s around the corner. They talk vividly about things around the corner that they know will not change.” — @mwbuckingham, #FETC keynote speakerClick To Tweet