To say that being an educator in today’s sociopolitical context is challenging is the understatement of the year. Educators are dealing with unprecedented demands at this time including the varying needs of the student body recovering from the traumatic experience of the COVID-19 pandemic, being targeted by culture warriors for teaching students about racial justice or being inclusive of the LGBTQ+ community, and the urgent need for everyone to tend to their physical, emotional, and mental health needs. Not to mention the random acts of violence that can occur at any time in any school. It’s enough to make anyone throw up their hands and seek a career in another, less stressful field and many have done just that. However, the teachers, administrators, paraprofessionals, and other support staff in schools that continue to show up every day and do their best in this highly challenging climate are nothing less than modern-day heroes and deserve our utmost respect and gratitude. How do they do it? What has kept them coming back day after day? Why do they continue to show up for our children despite the difficult circumstances? No doubt, there is a myriad of reasons that motivate educators to continue to do their job. But, in addition to an unshakeable commitment to children, I imagine many have tapped into the reservoir of resilience available within their relationships.
What is relational resilience?
Relational resilience happens when we withstand adversity because we have predictable physical, emotional, and psychological safety within our relationships with others. Although there are many benefits to relational resilience, to appreciate them, it is essential first to recognize and respect the impact of trauma on the brain. When the brain experiences stress, it becomes flooded with cortisol, the stress hormone. Too much stress over long periods and cortisol becomes toxic, causing the stress response system to remain activated and release the hormone even without a safety threat. An overloaded stress response system can severely affect our mental and physical health, causing us to become more anxious, depressed, tired, and moody; it can even increase the risk of hypertension, heart attack, or stroke. Additionally, when the stress response system is constantly on high alert, the neural connections in the brain that support learning and reasoning decrease in strength and number, making learning extremely difficult.
Responsive and predictable physical, emotional, and psychologically safe relationships build resilience and can help buffer the negative impact of toxic stress on the body. In addition, caring and supportive relationships alter the brain to the same degree stress does. The ability to adapt and thrive despite adversity develops within the context of supportive relationships. It is impossible to erase the experiences of adversity; however, it is possible to provide responsive, secure, and connected experiences in our interactions. Resilience is not about individual “toughness”; the essential building blocks for boosting the ability to stand firm in the face of adversity are the dependable presence of at least one supportive relationship and multiple opportunities to develop practical coping skills. The quality and stability of a relationship are more important than the number of relationships, and they affect virtually all aspects of functioning —intellectual, social, emotional, physical, and behavioral.
When we support and lean on each other, we tap into the power of resilience available in relationships; this helps us counterpoise the negative factors and tip the scales toward the positive. At our core, we need each other; we are not fortified by rugged individualism; the ability to adapt and thrive despite adversity develops within supportive relationships. Building safe and nurturing relationships in moment-to-moment interactions counter the impact of stress and increase commitment to the profession and satisfaction with the job; this gives adults and students a sense of safety and belonging that is the foundation of resilience and a positive school climate.