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Building resilience in students

New York Teacher

Summer is just weeks away! The final days of the school year, though they may feel hectic, can also provide opportunities to reflect on your practice as a teacher and explore new routines and strategies that you can carry into the next school year.

As a new teacher, one thing that has likely become apparent to you is that even the most engrossing curriculum can’t engage students if you’re not able to manage your classroom well. You’ve probably discovered the importance of clear expectations and consistent routines inside the classroom.

But you also probably know that your students are dealing with challenges and complex emotions outside the classroom that can affect their learning. It can be tempting to dismiss these issues as distractions from the curriculum. But if you can instead think of them as opportunities to help your students build resilience, you can begin to establish a classroom environment that supports your students’ social and emotional needs as well as their academic ones.

“Our kids come into school with so much going on behind the scenes, and what they really need is an outlet,” says Betty Nieves, a middle school educator who is now the UFT Teacher Center site coordinator at IS 240 in Midwood, Brooklyn. “We need to find ways to accommodate that; otherwise, we’re not going to get teaching or learning done.”

She acknowledges that it can be challenging for new teachers to maintain a sense of authority and also build personal relationships with students.

“Just letting kids know that you are in tune to them and concerned about them is a big deal,” she says. “It lets them know, ‘I respect who you are; you need to respect who I am.’”

Nieves recommends trying to start and end the school week with a “mindful moment” or a brief session during which students can express themselves freely.

“Kids have a world outside the classroom, and to honor that goes a long way,” she says.

She recommends starting by incorporating three small changes — something as simple as leading a one-minute stretching exercise every day — in your classroom routine to see if these changes make a difference in students’ attitudes.

Cynthia Sow, a teacher at IS 96 in Bensonhurst, practices mindfulness with her students “to refocus and energize ourselves,” she says. To head off potentially awkward feelings about doing breathing exercises in the classroom, she prepares her students with a conversation about appropriate language and provides opportunities for role play.

For teachers who are interested in introducing mindfulness in their own classrooms, Sow recommends the free website GoNoodle.

Both Nieves and Sow agree that it’s crucial for new teachers to take time to center themselves as well as their students.

“I liken it to the instructions about oxygen masks on airplanes — you have to put the mask on yourself first,” says Nieves.

The UFT’s Member Assistance Program, in collaboration with the UFT Teacher Center, offers workshops on building resilience and other helpful pedagogical topics for new teachers in the fall and spring.