A few months ago, I found myself disappointed as a result of a decision over which I had no control. Truthfully, I was both angry and hurt; I had not achieved a goal that I felt I had earned and thus deserved. This was not the end of the world by any means, but it was, I confess, a blow to my ego.
I had choices—feel sorry for myself, let it go, or take it as a chance to reflect, figure out how I would adapt and overcome the misfortune. It might be that the necessary path to avoid failure is to not take the proverbial leap, but I’m of the mindset that to leap is what we’re supposed to do to achieve goals. Don’t we owe ourselves the hope of individual growth—both professionally and personally? None of us makes it through life without facing adversity—academic challenges, personal losses, professional obstacles, and so on. For all of us, but particularly for students, complications in and out of school, and life in general, are inevitable. How do we then equip young people with the skills to cope with emotional stress, adversity, and even failure? Are we doing all we can to help our students learn to deal with the difficult obstacles they will most certainly encounter?
Shortly after I had to come to terms with the aforementioned challenge, I happened to read an interview with Dan Rather, who in his early teens was diagnosed with rheumatic fever. At the time, during the nineteen-forties, the only treatment for this condition was protracted bed rest. To prevent permanent and fatal heart damage, Rather was bedridden for several years, taking solace listening to the “Murrow Boys” who captivated his attention with their vivid eyewitness reports of World War II.
In his autobiography, Rather had written that ……When they finally let me out of bed, I was pale and frail. I had absolutely no self-confidence. I’m not sure how, but my father knew this was a critical time for me. He arranged a summer job for me on a brush cutting crew. I was only 14, but it was expected that I would keep up with the grown men who worked along side me. I had to pull my own weight; no excuses. I must have been quite a sight: this scrawny toothpick with a red bandana tied around my head, railroad engineer’s cap perched on top, khaki work shirt buttoned to the neck, and a yard-long machete swinging in its holster from my belt. We worked through forests and snake-infested swamps all summer long. The work was all Indiana Jones and Paul Bunyan and no Edward R. Murrow, but I survived and eventually thrived. It was a lifesaving, life-changing experience for me, and a true turning point. As I got my strength back, my self-confidence returned as well.
He went on to play football, graduate from high school, and to become the first member of his family to earn a college degree. Later becoming a full time reporter, Rather was eventually offered a job at CBS news where he received numerous accolades over his forty year tenure. He was the reporter who covered the Vietnam War and the Kennedy Assassination, extending his astute journalistic efforts to 9/11, the Afghan War and even an interview with Saddam Hussein.
In 2004, Rather took an unexpected blow when he was forced out of his position at CBS due to a political controversy involving President George W. Bush. Rather had always been a resilient man, dating back to his adolescent days of recovery from rheumatic fever. Refusing to give up his career, he turned to other ways of conducting his professional passion. I must accept the cold, hard fact that the CBS door is now closed to me—but another door will fly open if I can stay positive, keep up my self-confidence and refuse to lose.
Rather went on to emerge as an Emmy Award winning journalist for Mark Cuban’s AXS TV, releasing his memoir Rather Outspoken: My Life in the News in 2012. In an interview with members of the Academy of Achievement, Rather said, My whole professional life has taught me of the importance of never giving up on your goals, and never letting dreams die. If you have a goal don’t give up on it. If you have a dream, don’t let the dream die.
Dan Rather is an amazing example of achievement as a result of his resiliency. Facing a personal disaster, he discovered an internal fortitude, a new level of perseverance that our students need to develop. As teachers and administrators we have the opportunity to provide academic environments for kids where we reinforce positivity, resiliency, safety, honesty, integrity, and so much more. In Havens of Resilience Nan Henderson writes …..Research shows that schools are filled with the conditions that promote resilience. These include caring, encouraging relationships, role models, and mentors; clear and fair boundaries and structure ; exploration of other worlds and possibilities; stories of overcoming adversity in literature, films, and history; and basic human respect and dignity that too many kids like me do not find in their troubled homes.
While I will never claim that I had a rough childhood, for years afterwards I dealt with the death of my mother, just as I graduated from high school. At that time, I lacked the introspection to properly evaluate my emotional stress—never thinking about how I would recover from this grief. I simply blamed others and thought the world owed me something. Time had to pass before I understood that I had a choice—feel sorry for myself or deal with the hardship and become a better person. Eventually I did turn it around, and I attribute my resiliency to the examples given to me from both my mother and father. Their lessons come back to me even now as I pick up my bruised ego and continue to figure out my next steps.
The more we are able to mirror resiliency for our students, and to teach them what the meaning of grit can mean when they experience perceived failure, the stronger they will become as they navigate the educational opportunities that are at the core of their lives. Even as I write, the struggles of students mirror exactly what what I too am continuing to understand about myself, and will hopefully become better as a result.
Check out these two terrific graphics on resiliency: