By: Linda Dale Bloomberg

Linda Dale Bloomberg holds the positions of associate director of faculty support and development, and full professor of education in the School of Education, Northcentral University, San Diego. Dr. Bloomberg received her doctorate in 2006 from Teachers College, Columbia University, where she completed the AEGIS Program in Adult and Organizational Learning. Her new book is titled Designing and Delivering Effective Online Instruction: How to Engage Adult Learners.

What educators have confronted and addressed this past year is nothing short of miraculous, having faced an abrupt and transformative shift to online teaching, while coping with the pandemic stress of their students and colleagues. The pandemic overtook our world and the way we teach, and early on, the tendency was to resist that change. We may have looked for every reason to rationalize why teaching in person was superior. And we yearned for the return to the traditional classroom, naïvely hoping that day would be just around the corner. But those days of online classes soon became weeks, weeks became months, and months eventually became semesters, and we inevitably found ourselves at a crossroads: survive or thrive. Should we drudge through our online classes, anxiously anticipating when the world would revert to “normal”? Or was it worth taking the time to learn, grow, and flourish in an online environment and strive to provide a quality educational experience for our students?

To stay afloat, we had to come up with new ways to create accessible and inclusive online or hybrid courses, continue to teach our classes, and ensure that our students remained engaged and motivated, and serve our institutions and professional organizations. As we look to the upcoming semesters, we all are looking for ways to build and improve upon what we did up till now. The truth is that the next several months—including the start of yet more “pandemic semesters” for many—will continue to drain and demand. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by ongoing changes and challenges. But you are stronger than you think! So, how can each of us consciously cultivate an attitude of resilience in the face of the ongoing challenges that confront us?

How Resilience Works

What exactly is the quality of resilience that carries people through life? Why do some people and some organizations buckle under pressure? And what makes others bend and ultimately bounce back?

Academic research into resilience began over 40 years ago with pioneering studies by Norman Garmezy, now professor emeritus at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. After studying why many children of schizophrenic parents did not suffer psychological illness as a result of growing up with them, he concluded that a certain quality of resilience played a greater role in mental health than anyone had previously suspected.

In 2020, the ADP Research Institute conducted two research studies on resilience in the workplace. One study identified the sources of resilience, pinpointing the best questions to measure it, and providing specific prescriptions to increase resilience in yourself and those you lead. A second study, a global study of resilience, measured aspects of resilience among 25,000 working adults from 25 different countries. Two key findings emerged from this research: 1) Resilience is a reactive state of mind created by exposure to suffering; and 2) The more tangible leaders make the threat, the more resilient people become. This suggests that it is the unknown that frightens us, and that a better understanding of the truth about the threats that confront us will reveal the true reserves of our autonomy. When we come up close and personal with what real-world changes we will have to make in our lives, what the “new normal” is and why, then we can trust ourselves to figure out how to live happily and healthily within this “new normal”.

Today, many ideas abound about what makes for resilience.  Many early theories stressed the role of genetics; contending that some people are simply born resilient. Recent research, however, indicates that resilience can be cultivated and nurtured; and that resilient people possess three characteristics: a strong acceptance of reality; a deep belief, often buttressed by strongly held values, that life is meaningful; and an ability to improvise or “make-do”. These three characteristics become, in effect, the “building blocks” of resilience.

Facing Reality

A common belief about resilience is that it stems from an optimistic nature. This is the first building block of resilience, and is true only in so far as such optimism does not actually distort one’s sense of reality.

The Search for Meaning

The ability to see reality is closely linked to the second building block of resilience, the propensity to make meaning of bad times. We all know people who, under duress, throw up their hands and cry, “How can this be happening to me?” Such people see themselves as victims, and living through hardship often carries no lessons for them. In contrast, resilient people devise constructs about their suffering to create some sort of meaning for themselves and for others.

This dynamic of meaning making is, most researchers agree, the way that resilient people build bridges from present-day hardships to a fuller, better constructed future. Those bridges make the present manageable, for lack of a better word, removing the sense that the present is overwhelming. This concept was originally articulated by Viktor E. Frankl, an Austrian psychiatrist and an Auschwitz holocaust survivor. In the midst of staggering suffering, Frankl invented “meaning therapy,” a humanistic therapy technique that helps individuals make the kinds of decisions that have the potential to create significance in their lives. As Frankl writes in his book Man’s Search for Meaning, “We must never forget that we may also find meaning in life even when confronted with a hopeless situation, when facing a fate that cannot be changed.” His theory underlies most resilience coaching in business today. Since finding meaning in one’s environment is such an important aspect of resilience, it should come as no surprise that the most successful organizations and people possess strong value systems. Strong values infuse an environment with meaning because they offer ways to interpret and shape events and occurrences. Value systems at resilient organizations remain stable over the years and are used as scaffolding and reinforcement in times of trouble.

Ritualized Ingenuity

The third building block of resilience is the ability to make do or improvise with whatever is at hand. Psychologists follow the lead of French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss in calling this skill bricolage. The roots of that word are closely tied to the concept of resilience, which literally means “bouncing back.”  Bricolage in the modern sense can be defined as a kind of inventiveness, an ability to improvise a solution to a problem without proper or obvious tools or materials. Bricoleurs are always tinkering, building and fixing. They make the most of what they have, often putting objects to unfamiliar and novel uses.

Final Thoughts

Now that the post-pandemic days are inching closer, can we harness the changes that have occurred to ensure that the past year was not just a challenging speed bump, but an on-ramp to an even better model for higher education? Higher education institutions will likely continue to experience high demand for digital courses, content, educational materials.  Certainly, there are significant benefits to in person classroom learning. But as the world continues to become more interconnected, there are indeed additional benefits to online learning that are significant in their own ways. So, don’t recoil in the face of challenge and change. Instead, draw on your inner resilience, take the time to embrace your online platforms and be open to learning. Resilience is a way of facing and understanding the world, that is deeply etched into a person’s way of thinking, perceiving, and doing. Resilient people and organizations face reality with staunchness and resolve. They make meaning of hardship instead of simply crying out in despair. And they also tend to be open and willing to improvise with the resources and opportunities that are available and accessible to them. Disruption means you have an opportunity to try something different. You can do this!

Reflective questions

  1. What learning do you take away from this overview?
  2. Which of the resilience “building blocks” resonate with you?
  3. In what main ways has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted you as an educator, and why?
  4. Where do you think you can enhance or improve your own resilience?
  5. How and in what ways do you think you can enhance or improve the resilience of those you teach and work with?

Further Reading

Current theories relating to resilience and young people: A literature review

Resilience theory and its relevance for social work: A critical review

How people learn to become resilient

American Psychological Association: Building your resilience

Psychological resilience: Defining resilience and resilience research over the decades A theoretical review

Image credit: SBT4NOW via Flickr