The “Add” in Adversity

I love it when I get to use puns in my titles–it’s not quite clickbait, but it’s almost just as good. Anyways, stress. We often feel defeated by stress. We think stress is a sign of failure and inadequacy (and then we get stressed out for failing and being inadequate), but according to Kelly McGonigal, that perspective on stress is incorrect.

Instead, she says, stress makes us stronger.

Perhaps feeling inspired by Nietzsche, perhaps by Kelly Clarkson, or maybe just neurochemistry, McGonigal has a point–and backs it up with evidence. When we reflect on prior stressful events, it helps us better cope with future stressful events. (And let’s be honest, no matter how much we overcome, life will always find a way to stress us out.)

The first part of today’s stress journal asks my students to write about the lessons they learned from a stressful event in their pasts. The time that comes to mind for me came about a year ago, during my second semester of teaching, in which all but two or three students failed our first exam of the year.

I felt horrible.

I thought I’d done a good job teaching, I thought we had done plenty of examples and that students knew their stuff, and as I graded exam after exam of failing grade upon failing grade, I just felt worse and worse.

I panicked. I felt defeated. I turned to my instructional coach for support.

Together, she and I identified some places where I had overestimated my students’ skills and not dug deep enough into the material to develop their understanding. We also discussed how I’d taught the material and ways I could teach it better. Not only did she provide some personal comfort and encouragement, she also helped me learn important things about teaching and observing my students and their skills before we take a test.

The next day in class, we returned to the topics students struggled with the most and we took three additional days to review the material. Then we all retook the exam–and scores this second time around were significantly higher. I felt proud, but not of myself, but of my students: they, too, had taken a challenge and worked to overcome it.

I learned a lot through that experience, and not just the hard skills of assessment and instructional design. I also learned that I had a community of educators around me willing to support me even when I failed, and failed hard. I learned that even when I have the lives of five dozen kids in the palm of my hand, we can still work through challenges together and all of us can come out stronger.

This same unit is coming up only about a month from now, and I’m nervous about it. What if I mess up again? What if all my students fail the exam again?

Those anxieties aside, I know that even if it does happen, I’ll still be able to make it through. More importantly, I also have an extra year of experience behind me now, and I know the changes we made last year during those extra review days that I can now bring into my instruction the first time around. All the things I learned through this failure last year, and all the things I’ve learned since, help prepare me for greater success this year.

Does that optimism mean I’m not nervous?

No, it doesn’t, but that optimism–no, that realism–tells me that I’m prepared to take it on.

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