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Perspective | Reflecting on what it means to overcome 

When our team from the NC Center for Resilience and Learning leads a training with a new school, we often ask educators to share a word or phrase that comes to mind for them when they hear the term “resilience.” One of the most common words shared in this exercise is “overcome.” I believe the word “overcome” has new meaning after these past three years when I think about all the ways our students, our educators, and our families have had to wake up each and every day and overcome something — the impact of Covid, the impact of a year or more in virtual learning, the impact of the Buffalo, NY, mass shooting at a grocery store killing 10 Black people, the impact of one of the deadliest school shootings in American history at an elementary school in Texas. 

Through our Center for Resilience and Learning, our team has seen firsthand how time and time again our school communities here in North Carolina continue to start a new day, overcoming and rallying for the sake of their students, even in the face of this growing list of traumas and tragedies. Many of our partner educators have expressed to us how tough last school year was. They felt like they had to “re-learn school” as educators and also “re-teach” what school was for their students. This fed into what many are calling “the great educator exodus,” as well as a significant increase in student mental health and social-emotional challenges. To read the news and sit with the statistics and the stories feels incredibly heavy. And yet, we know that our students and our families still need compassionate and caring educators, safe and supportive schools, and resilience champions, especially in the face of so much adversity. 

Thankfully, the tune we are hearing this school year is more hopeful and positive, with educators sharing with us that they feel their staffs have a renewed sense of energy and that the students seem genuinely excited to be back in the building with a normal routine. As I reflect on the past three years and experience the start of this school year that so many say finally feels “normal” again, I’ve narrowed down three themes that come to mind when I think of the ways I’ve seen our Center for Resilience and Learning partner schools “overcome” and get to this place of hope and promise this year. 

No more ’empty cups’

Educators are not only recognizing the importance of their own self-care, but are actually starting to put it into practice, knowing that the phrase, “you cannot pour from an empty cup” is more true now than ever before. 

We know that burnout is at an all-time high for educators, and that many are leaving the profession at an alarming rate. According to a recent survey by the National Education Association (NEA): “A staggering 55 percent of educators are thinking about leaving the profession earlier than they had planned … This represents a significant increase from 37 percent in August [2021] and is true for educators regardless of age or years teaching, driving buses, or serving meals to students.”

Self-care has been a long-time buzzword, but after the past few years, it seems that many educators are starting to take this more seriously for themselves and their colleagues. When our team leads a training with a new school, one of the four tenets of resilience we focus on is “staff wellness and self-care.” We have seen schools making this a priority more than ever. One school principal noted that rather than continuing to add things to teachers’ plates, even what felt like fun celebrations or gifts, she tried to take as much off of their plates as possible — fewer meetings, allowing staff to wear jeans during mask mandates, and offering duty-free lunch when she could. Several of our schools have also worked to create a true staff wellness lounge that allows staff a safe space to take a break and practice self-regulation skills. 

Another school that we’ve partnered with for almost three years shared, “Our first year together [partnering with the Center for Resilience and Learning] was pre-pandemic, and we really focused on students with the high flyers. And then our second year was when everything changed so much because of the pandemic, and we realized the importance of focusing on ourselves; this had been on the back burner but we started the restorative circles and wellness practices like yoga and Zumba for staff and started pouring into ourselves so we could pour into our students.”

Yet another partner school implemented morning meetings in each classroom for their students. A team member shared at the end of the year that, “Adults and staff need things we didn’t know we needed — some of the questions we used for students in the morning meetings, we needed to ask ourselves.” Our hope as a team is that this focus on and embedded practice of staff self-care continues beyond just this year in a way that helps retain more educators in the field. 

Removing mental health stigmas

Schools are serving more and more as champions for the whole child, recognizing the importance of mental health and working to remove the stigma that has often been associated with it. 

Many are studying the impact pandemic and school closures have had on student mental health and well-being. The numbers are startling no matter what source you use, but one research study reported on in a recent Education Week article found, “Eighteen percent to as much as 60 percent of children and adolescents across the board had strong ‘distress,’ especially symptoms of anxiety and depression, which affected more than 1 in 4 adolescents in some countries.”

Most educators, when sharing with us what their greatest challenges of last school year were, have named behavioral challenges at the top of their lists, recognizing that most of those behaviors are a result of lack of routine and structure, too much screen time, and a lack of connection and relationships with peers and adults as a result of the social isolation and school closures. 

Our partner schools are seeing and experiencing the impact of this mental health crisis each and every day and are seeking resilience-building strategies to support the needs of students. We’ve seen schools work to better tie social-emotional learning into their multi-tiered system of support (MTSS) to ensure that there are universal supports that every child can access, as well as targeted interventions who need more support.

Educators are understanding that they have to be champions for the whole child and not just academic learning. One teacher shared with us at the end of last year, “I’m seeing children go through things that I have never seen before … We have had lots of referrals in which I’m looking for what might be wrong. Everyone has a little something that’s different — each student. Different doesn’t mean wrong. Along comes a little anxiety but that anxiety is not the whole child. I can ask myself, ‘Now what are the next steps to take?’” 

Resilience teams across our partner districts come together on a regular basis to have these conversations — why referrals are higher, how to support kids going through things they’ve never seen before, and how to ensure the whole school is providing proper supports and interventions for students in every tier. We have seen our partner educators put in the time and take that leap to see, understand, and prioritize students’ mental health.

Building community

Educators and schools recognize that relationships and connection are what build safety and are willing to take the time to create this sense of community so that every child can feel supported and regulated in order to better learn. 

With studies and conversations centered on learning loss, it feels nearly impossible for educators to think about anything other than doing everything they can to help their students “catch up” academically. However, the reality that our partner schools are sharing with us is that they clearly see now, after the past nearly three years of Covid, that in order to even begin to get to academic learning, they have to create connection and community in their classrooms.

After multiple years of no routines, no sense of structure or safety, and a lack of connection and in-person relationships, they’ve had to rebuild this in their schools and classrooms in order to help students be in a state to learn. Many have done this by implementing things like morning meetings, saying things like, “We have seen a difference in our students and our relationships with them.”

Another common school-wide strategy in our partner schools has been implementing restorative practices in their approach to discipline. One educator shared, “Learning about restorative practices for students to rebuild relationships when things have gone wrong, even with teachers and students together — this has led to such growth as a community and a classroom; we are able to get more teaching done and focus on academics, and instead of something stewing and building, we’ve been able to discuss it, address it, and create a plan and build it back up into something positive.”

Outside of bigger school-wide strategies, another educator shared about the smaller every day practices that have helped make their school more trauma-informed by saying, “It looks like people having conversations with students when no one is looking. It’s with care and concern. It just comes from a place where teachers really care about children.” 

In a world where it feels like all teachers should be doing is spending every minute of their day focused on curriculum and academic learning, educators are wisely focusing on relationships and safety first, understanding that when students feel safe, secure, and connected, their innate capacities for learning will accelerate. 

A mindset shift

In a world where each day we wake up hesitant to open our phones for fear of what bad news may come across our screens, in a world where we feel scared to send our kids to school and unable to tell them with 100% certainty, “You are safe here,” and in a world where we are all still trying to find our new sense of normal , none of my words feel like enough.

But what I can say with certainty is that one of the places I have found my own ability to “overcome” and practice resilience has been through the educators and schools in which we work. To see the ways they have shown up day after day for their students, the ways they have been willing to attend resilience team meetings even on days when it all feels like too much, and the ways they have been willing to try new things all for the benefit of building safety and community; these are the things that have given me hope this past year. 

One educator shared in a closing resilience team meeting this year: “[This trauma-informed work] may feel overwhelming, because it is another thing you are learning, but to really remember that resilience is not what you do, but how you do it — it is a mindset shift rather than something new you have to do.”

This resilience mindset is what I believe has helped educators come back strong and ready to overcome this fall with a new year of supporting one another as educators, supporting our students’ mental health and social-emotional well-being, and building those safe and supportive communities that we know are needed for all kids in every school in our state. 

Elizabeth DeKonty

Elizabeth DeKonty is the Director of the North Carolina Resilience and Learning Project with the Public School Forum of North Carolina. The Project is in its third year of implementation now leading trauma-informed schools training and intensive coaching in over 20 districts across the state.