Lessons in resilience: be more honey badger.

Learning Power Kids was created to empower teachers and students. It’s supposed to be a little mine of resources and ideas to begin to build learning power in your classroom with your students. So far, it has been full of little (and big) ideas that, if embedded or adapted, will slowly and purposefully enable children to become independent, resilient, confident learners.

But what about you, the teachers and parents, who might want to toy around with these ideas? To build resilient children, you need to be resilient yourself and to model that resilience. Many adults have stressful lives. I mean adults in general but I am specifically thinking about teachers – teaching isn’t always an easy place right now, at least not in the UK anyway. And I don’t mean “easy” as in “not challenging” – teaching should always be challenging – I mean “not easy” because of the accountability and pressures that are (I think largely unnecessarily) put on teachers at the moment. These pressures are largely out of our control. What is in our control is how we deal with and respond to them.

If we truly want to develop confident, independent learners, we need to create an environment to do that. Part of that learning environment involves the adults in the classroom feeling as strong, refreshed and relaxed as possible. Also, we weren’t taught this stuff in school. We didn’t know then what we know now. So I thought it would be worthwhile dedicating a blog to building resilience as an adult …

Part of the reason many of these ideas have come to the forefront of my awareness is that I was diagnosed with a brain tumour about 9 months ago (don’t worry, I’m well on the road to recovery). At the same time, my job had become incredibly stressful and I wasn’t listening to the warning signs of being chronically ill. This year has been all about taking stock, and rejigging my priorities. This blog is made up of a reflection on those thoughts. Oh, and I’d like to dedicate it to resilience ninja, Jaz Ampaw-Farr. If you’ve even vaguely come into contact with her, you’ll know she’s all kinds of awesome. You will find many of her wisdoms in this blog. She does mentorships for teachers. I HIGHLY recommend signing up. And if you haven’t seen her TEDtalk, you really do need to watch it. It’s one of my faves (and I’ve seen a fair few!):

When do we need to call on our reserves of resilience?

We all face stressful situations that place demands on our reserves of energy. Sometimes, when they arrive we feel totally unprepared for them. Othertimes, they creep up on us and seep into our lives unawares. Here are some examples you might relate to (now or in the past):

  • Being bullied or singled out at work or school or feeling like you don’t belong
  • Facing a difficult family situation (people who don’t get along, family members who are difficult, partners who don’t seem like a good match)
  • Illness or health issues – you or a loved one. Someone close to you dying.
  • Feeling trapped in a situation you feel like you can’t get out of (a job you don’t like, negative relationships …)
  • Breaking up with a girlfriend/boyfriend/wife/husband
  • Feeling alone/isolated and no-one to share your experience with.

Whether it’s a culture thing (The British “stiff upper lip”) or something we impose on ourselves, we can often feel like we are floundering and failing when we’re faced with these situations. We can feel like it’s our fault and wonder why we can’t cope. So this is about honey-badgering your through life’s challenges and relentlessly committing yourself to being the best version of you (because, quite frankly, why else are you on this planet?!).

By the way, if you’re wondering about the honey badger, just look them up on You Tube.

Here are my top tips for purposefully cultivating your own resilience.

1. You are not alone – only connect

Okay, so it might feel like it, right now, because perhaps you can’t see anyone else around you in your situation, but, believe me, you’re not. Thousands of people across the globe are in a similar situation to you right now. Thousands of people have gone through your situation. I don’t say this to belittle how you are feeling or how difficult your situation is; I say it to give you hope – if other people have got through this, so can you, and if you keep reading, you can get through it more quickly and with more style than they have!

If you feel alone, find help, connect with people. Talk to your trusted friends if you’re lucky enough to have them. Don’t moan; ask them if they can see ways out of the situation. Do an online course. Sign up to a support group. Get a life coach. I got two for good measure. I can’t tell you what a huge difference my life coaches have made to building my resilience armour.

2. YOU are in charge of your own well-being

This was a REALLY hard one for me to realise – Because I’ve been in many of the situations I listed above and sometimes I just felt downright sorry for myself. I’ve felt put upon and hard done by:

  • Why me?
  • Why doesn’t anyone help me?
  • Why are they doing this to me?
  • How am I possibly supposed to deal with this?
  • When or how will this end?

You might relate to a few of those. You might have some of your own. You might also realise how useless they are in taking control of your life and getting yourself out of a situation. Once you realise YOU are in charge, it’s actually empowering. Yes, it involves action on your part, but action means change and you CAN make that change. For me it was about two things:

1. I’d let myself get into the trap of working long hours
  • Always saying “yes” to work (because it was my job and I wanted to do my best). I had to rethink where the boundaries in my life lay to look after my wellbeing. One of my life coaches, Rebecca Hartnell, suggested I imagine I was wearing a space-like suit around my body and I could zip it up – this was my sacred personal space I needed to be well –  and nothing, and I mean nothing, should get into that space. That meant:
  • leaving work at 5pm (If my boss didn’t value this, it would mean finding a new job),
  • cutting family commitments that were tiring (Again, if my family loved me, they would understand, if not, I would explain and explain again – after all, isn’t that how you maintain boundaries?),
  • making space for yoga and exercise classes and committing to go.

If you’re in one of the other life situations, it could mean having a talk with your partner to establish new boundaries, making exercise a non-negotiable etc. You’re the one who gets to decide your own boundaries. The tricky bit is committing to building new habits to maintain them.

2. Priorities.

Mine were all skewed! Work was way up top, followed by my relationships, then my health. I had to work hard (and am still working hard!) on changing my habits and flipping those priorities upside down. For example, I get totally absorbed in writing about and researching good practice in learning power, but I plan in and commit to country walks, exercise, yoga and meditation because I know it keeps me sane. I find this really challenging because I get so engaged and inspired by all things “education” – this is a good thing, but it’s learning how to channel it and when to put it down.

My friend came up with an analogy for this, I thought was really good. Life is like juggling balls. Some of those you can drop and they will bounce back. Others are made of glass and will smash if you drop them. Which ones in your life will smash and which ones will bounce back (and, believe me, they will smash if you don’t take care of them)? That should sort out your priorities…

3. There is ALWAYS a choice

This one is hard too. It’s easy to make excuses and this is where the feeling of being trapped comes from. In my mentorship with the amazing Jaz Ampaw-Farr, she used a really useful metaphor for choice when talking to prisoners. She said it often seems like there is one choice – the obvious choice – it’s a big circle right in front of you, glaring you in the face. That’s the choice. But if you look really, really closely, there’s thousands of tiny circles – tiny, tiny, tiny circles – all around the big circle and they are all the other choices. So, one option might seem obvious to you (it’s usually the option that keeps you in the situation you’re in and ensures you stay miserable for quite a while longer, sometimes for life (and, quite frankly, who wants that??!)), but there are many, many other options you could explore. Have a go a writing them down. Go all “blue-sky thinking” on it. Write down some crazy choices. Maybe it’s joining a new club or learning a new trade, maybe it’s moving to Australia, maybe it’s just taking a break to sort your head out. Then start to think about which ones could actually be viable options. Some will feel risky, but that’s the joy. After all, life begins at the end of your comfort zone. By the way, this is exactly what Tim Ferris did in order to succeed. He talks about it here, in this TEDtalk about “fear-setting” – great concept!

My friend  also did this last year. She was stuck in a job she hated, working long hours and feeling horribly trapped. She quit her job to step into the unknown. She now reviews children’s books and supports SEN children. She frequently texts me to tell me how happy she is now. I love that. Being brave can get you your life and happiness back.

Natalie Scott is another shining example (Guess what?! Another TEDtalk!). She was also trapped in a teaching job that was grinding her into the ground. She was brave enough to quit and take stock. She ended up teaching refugees in France, writing an awesome blog about it and winning blogger of the year. What an inspiration! You can do that. Take the leap and I bet you’ll find wonderful things.

#womened are big advocates of being your best self and pushing yourself. Sue Cowley came up with #10%braver. Love that idea! It’s not that much of a push to be 10% braver than you would have been otherwise. Take a small risk this week. Did it make you grow? More on this later …

4. Look for the lesson – what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.

This can be hard too (but whoever said building resilience was going to be an easy ride?!). You’re going through a tough time, you feel unbelievably low, it feels like everything is against you, and now I’m telling you there’s a lesson in this. But there is. And that’s the best bit. If you become amazing at this, your kneejerk reaction to a bad situation can be:

  • “What is this trying to teach me?”
  • “What good will come from this?”
  • “What’s the twist in the tale?”

My knee-jerk reaction to getting a brain tumour wasn’t any of these. It was, “Am I going to die?” But my second reaction was, “Something good will come of this.” This became my reaction through years of cultivating a positive attitude to life (see below). And guess what? Loads of amazing things have come out of this year. I’ve developed lifelong habits for looking after myself, I’ve connected with the EduTwitter community (they’re lovely by the way. If you’re a passionate educationalist, please join us!), I’ve had time to research and write a book with Guy Claxton, and so on … None of this would have happened in the way it has and to the extent it has without my diagnosis. So in a real weird messed up way, being chronically ill has been a blessing.

And what is life trying to teach you? Is it that you need to learn how to put firmer boundaries in place? You need to reach out to others more? You could change something in your attitude? There are always lessons to be learned and improve from …

5. Find your ikigai

Originally, I thought this one should go at the end because it’s all about self-actualisation. I changed my mind and put it in the middle because you might need time to think about it but, with a bit of effort and reflection, it could actually be the one that turns your life around.

Here’s the thing. No-one “just knows” what their ikigai is. You find it through exploration, playing around with ideas and focussing on what you love. When you do find it, life will take on a whole new meaning and you will be able to be more purposeful. Why not start with thinking about what you love AND that which the world needs. The world is full of problems – the upside of that is that you have a lot to choose from! What floats your boat? What would you like to change?

Jaz Ampaw-Farr has done an awesome video on this, talking about whether you are “suffering, surviving, seeking or serving”. Which state are you in? What are you going to do to change that? I remember her saying “seeking” mode was her favourite – it’s when your open, learning, exploring. Then she said, “that’s great, but how are you going to use what you’ve learned to serve others? What’s the point?” Food for thought …

6. Be a positive wizard

I first came across this idea when working with my first partner teacher, Julian Swindale. He used it to mix up groups of children (see here for more ideas on that). “Make sure every group has a good mix of positive wizards!” He’d say. You know them if you’re a teacher. Those ones that always see the best in things and always try to make the best out of any situation. Why not learn to be one of those? Who wouldn’t want to be one of those kinds of people? Be a person that makes the world better just by being in it. This isn’t something you are or you aren’t. It’s something you purposefully work at. By cultivating a positive mindset, you will feel better about yourself, feel better about the world around you and make other people feel better in the process. Try trying to see the positive in everything for a day. I do it when I feel like I’ve had a day nagging my class. The next day, I’ll go in and purposefully only pull out the positives. Changes the day around for everyone.

7. Be resourceful, find your own way out

So when a life crisis hits you, suddenly or slowly, take stock and think about all the resources you have to get yourself out of your situation. Friends and family are an obvious one. Let them help you. Sleep on their sofas, let them cook you dinner, have tea and talk it all out. You’d do the same for them, right? And, I’ve found anyway, it’s these times that make your relationships stronger because you suddenly realise what your friends are made of (if they’re not ready to help, I suggest you seek out some new ones!).

What else do you have around that could help you? How else could you help yourself? Maybe you could skill yourself up and do a course – either leading to a career step/change or just in something you’ve always fancied doing. This could be a great idea if you’ve either just come out of a relationship or are fed up with your job – who knows where it may lead? This might mean being brave and stepping outside your comfort zone (this is a good thing – see above).

Whatever you do, don’t just sit around and feel miserable. As soon as you take control and commit to doing something to get yourself out of this mess, I guarantee you’ll feel better.

8. Cultivate gratitude

This one is sooooo important. This time last year, I felt utterly desperate. I could not cope. I made a pact with myself to start to mentally note all the things I was grateful for. It felt a bit fake at first, but after a while, I started to get more into it. I started to make “a thing” of it and walk up the hill by our house, sit on a bench and enjoy the view. I’d take some deep breaths, get a warm feeling in my tummy (you know the one where you feel genuinely happy and grateful to be alive?) and go through all the things I was lucky to have. The list was long. The more I did it, and the more regularly I did it, the smaller my problems seemed and the more I realised I had to be truly thankful for. Getting a brain tumour really shone the light on this one but you don’t need to go out and get one of those to feel grateful! Take some time to really think about it and notice all the small things that make your life amazing. No matter how tough things are, I bet you can come up with at least 10. Repeat daily, build on your ideas. Notice the difference.

Another thing my husband would say when I came home crying was, “How important will this be in a year? In five years?” That really helped to give me perspective. Your brain likes to exaggerate things – apparently, this is an evolutionary thing – we pay more attention to the negative than the positive because it used to help us stay alive. You need to actively work to counterbalance the negative. Why not start right now?

9. Find flow

This idea comes from a book written by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. He discovered that humans were happiest when they were in “flow”. Flow is found when you get totally lost in an activity, when time stops and you are completely absorbed in what you are doing. Some examples he found were in rock climbers and when people spent time with their children. I don’t know if you’ve noticed that? When you spend time with children, they bring you into the now and stop you over-thinking your problems. The same happens with animals I find. There are so many ways you can find flow – sewing, painting, or anything “making” for that matter. Also, team sports, swimming, running. Find something you love doing, can do regularly and get better at. Notice how it strengthens your happiness and your ability to bounce back after a hard day. By the way, it’s even better if it’s a bit of a challenge or you are learning or developing a new skill – Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi found that it is when we are grappling with new learning and mastering a skill that flow is at its strongest.

10. Strengthen your parasympathetic nervous system

This links with the above point. I learned a lot about strengthening the parasympathetic nervous system through yoga nidra and my nutrionalist (who also picked apart what a horribly negative effect stress had had on my body!). Basically, in our stressful lives, we are constantly activating our “fight or flight” response. Over-activating this response, activating this response frequently and doing nothing to counteract this response, can lead to chronic stress and an array of unwanted health conditions (believe me, I’ve been there!). So we have to eliminate as much stress as possible from our lives (I know, easier said than done!) and purposefully take steps to counteract the stress response. One way of doing this is activating and strengthening your parasympathetic nervous system, and releasing all those happy hormones. There are many ways of doing this – meditating, deep breathing exercises, yoga, tai chi … and equally, walks, running, exercise. If you’re like me and you have (or had in my case) a very stressful job, I would tap into as many of these as you can! They’re also going to help for any other resilience-requiring situation mentioned at the beginning of this blog. Personally, I love meditation, but if you’re new to it, I’ve had many friends and family enjoy using the Headspace app because it’s down-to-earth (and free!). On difficult days, I found that when I exercised after work I came home in a much more positive mood than if I came straight home. I’ve also found that using a guided meditation before bed helps me switch off and sleep better.

I would also try to rethink your priorities and workload if you are finding your job is endlessly stressful (like mine was!). Working with my life coaches, we discussed the staffroom “competition” in some schools about who was working the hardest – late evenings, weekends, in your sleep … My life coach wrote on my notes: “Beware the martyrdom of teachers!” Again, I don’t want to belittle teachers’ workload. It is HUGE and a lot of pressure is put on teachers to produce more and more (sometimes meaningless) work and evidence. BUT, if we want this to change, working longer and longer hours and telling everyone about it probably isn’t going to make a positive difference. Why not try the opposite? Set boundaries. Be the one who models being there for the children and getting a proper rest. If your work doesn’t appreciate you putting time into looking after yourself and being fresh for the job, I would be tempted to look elsewhere …

11. Random acts of Kindness

This is a great way for you to step out of your own problems and doing something positive for those around you. There’s nothing like putting yourself in someone else’s shoes or talking to another person about their lives and problems to put yours into perspective.

If you make it a habit to think of others, do things to purposefully make others feel good about themselves and cheer them up, I can guarantee you will also feel better yourself. Who do you know who could do with some appreciation or kindness? Could you get them a card, pay them a compliment, buy them a present, spend some time with them? Can’t think of anything? Do something random, for someone random. When I was travelling, someone I’d made friends with bought a bunch of flowers and started handing them out to people down the street. Made their day, made his day, made my day. See how you feel after doing something like that. Does something like that sound a bit outside your comfort zone? Great, all the more reason to do it.

12. Make change the habit/Do something every day that scares you.

And we leave the best two until last. I believe this one is one of the keys to life. You see, if you live life through habit, never making many purposeful changes, letting the days, months, years tick by, when a big change happens (and it WILL happen), it comes as a huge shock and you’re suddenly thrown out of your comfort zone into a situation you never felt prepared to deal with.

Here’s a different way of doing things. Make change the habit. Purposefully build your life. Purposefully seek out things that are new to you. Try new challenges. Learn new skills. Put yourself out there. Scares you? Do it anyway. Do it even more. Make sure it scares you actually; it’s probably not worth it otherwise. Then you force yourself to deal with new situations. You force yourself to think on your feet. You learn, you fail forwards, you grow. Then the curve ball still comes. You’ve practised this a bit. You know how to begin to deal with it. Because change and resilience are already the habits you’ve already purposefully cultivated

13. Model your fallibility

Oh, this is so important! We don’t like to talk about failure. We don’t like to let others know that actually this is bloody hard and we don’t know how to cope. And when we don’t share these things, we set others up to fail. Because when they come across these situations, they think they are the failures because they haven’t seen anyone else around them go through this. They think it’s their fault, they wonder why them, they think they are alone. This is important for adults, but I’m mostly thinking about young people. I’m thinking about the “mental health crisis” and the many young people I know and care about. If we don’t model our own failures and struggles to children, how do we expect them to have the tools to cope in the future? If we all keep calm and carry on, what will our children do when they hit their first life crisis? Because it’s going to come. Maybe it has already come (I definitely had a few well before the age of 20) … So model your fallibility. Share when you’re finding things difficult. And share the strategies you are going to put in place to go through those challenges (this is another way of showing “the guts of learning” or “the guts of going through a crisis”!). I promise you it will make you more resilient and purposeful and enable and empower those around you to be more resilient when their time comes too.


6 thoughts

  • Oh Becky! Ths is truly a fantastic manifesto for resilience! Massive congrats on crafting an article that has so much value and resourcefulness. It’s made more powerful because of your willingness to be authentic and vulnerable which encourages the rest of us by reassuring us we are not alone. Resilient kids start with resilient adults. It’s not like teaching Year One swimming, where you just stick the blue bags over your shoes, wrap them up in floatation vests and shout encouraging phrases from the side! As the lead adult you’ve got to get wet! This article is a fantastic read and one I’ll be sharing far and wide – it’s going on the reading list for all my courses!

    • You’re a positive wizard Jaz 🙂 Your comment about Year One made me laugh out loud! “Resilient kids start with resilient adults.” Another Jaz quote. Yes!

  • I love this Becky, we have talked a lot about building resilience in our children (the starting point for our interest in learning power) but I think we really should be talking about our own resilience as well. We have done work with staff on being self aware and ready for change but maybe encouraging them to explore and grow their own resilience is the best next step we should take. Thank you

    • Hi Michelle,
      That sounds like a really productive idea. I think staff reflection with a purpose to move forward can be a really useful process. I would be interested to know how it goes!

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