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A study of teacher resilience in urban schools.

This paper describes a qualitative research study that investigated strategies used by urban teachers to build their personal resilience. Sixteen resilient teachers from four urban districts that reported student achievement equal to or higher than the state average on standard tests of reading and mathematics were interviewed. The definition of resilience was "using energy productively to achieve school goals in the face of adverse conditions." A three cycle interview process included pre-interview, interview and review by the respondent for accuracy. Standard qualitative methods were used in the analysis. Results revealed four key findings reported in this paper. Resilient teachers act from a set of values that guides their professional decision-making. They also place a high premium on professional development and find ways, often outside the school district, to get what they need. They provide mentoring to others and stay focused on students and their learning. A teacher candidate who gives evidence of resilience, of taking charge to solve problems and find opportunities may add to the school in important ways that bolster student achievement and school success.

"Resilience is a key factor in how a teacher will hold up and perform in an urban school."

Elementary school teacher, 7 years experience


Much has been written over the last two decades about the difficulty of recruiting quality teachers for urban schools (e.g. Bobbit, Faupel & Burns, 1991; Darling-Hammond, 2000). Until recently, few scholars have recognized that the problem is not recruitment but retention (Salvador & Wilson, 2002). As teachers and teacher leaders in urban schools face the challenge of maintaining their vitality in an era of nonstop change, they struggle to remain resilient. Particularly in urban schools, teacher and teacher leader resilience is critical to schools accomplishing what needs to be done. The impact of teacher leader resilience is particularly important because of teacher leader's ability to encourage colleagues to change, to do things they wouldn't ordinarily consider without the influence of the leader (Wasley, 1991). Thus, the resilience of teacher leaders is a key factor in school reform (Patterson, 2001). The operational definition of resilience that guides this study of teachers and teacher leaders is using energy productively to achieve school goals in the face of adverse conditions.

Urban schools suffer from far greater complications than rural or suburban schools. High teacher and student absenteeism, high teacher turnover, high numbers of uncertified teachers and great numbers of inexperienced teachers (Darling-Hammond, 1998) all contribute to stress of urban teachers. Urban teachers are also more likely than their suburban and rural counterparts to teach more students with fewer basic resources like books, blackboards and paper (Farber, 1991).

These problems are exacerbated by federal legislation that demands a certified teacher in every classroom by 2005. For instance, a clash regarding California's new draft standards for certification demonstrated the potential financial loss to districts of the new federal legislation, No Child Left Behind. To meet the federal requirements, California proposed defining "highly qualified" teachers as including interns with emergency permits. When asked to evaluate this plan, the US Department of Education said it wouldn't meet the terms of the law. That could cost the state $5.4 billion in federal dollars (Chaddock, 2002).

Outside the school, the environment is also more complex as teachers are called upon to confront social issues that many believe belong in the home or larger community. It is not surprising that many urban teachers become skeptical, cynical and "burn out." Burn out can result in isolation and caring less about the students and other aspects of teacher's work or it may lead to working harder, sometimes mechanically, to the point of exhaustion (Farber, 1991). Teacher burnout has exploded in urban schools due to a variety of factors, including legislated standardization and competency testing, decentralization and site-based decision making, and high-stakes testing with accountability (Friedman, 1991; Dworkin, 2001).

Educational leaders have searched for the antidote for teacher burnout by focusing on a variety of organizational and instructional factors such as career ladders, and schools within schools, curriculum initiatives, flexible scheduling and team teaching. Although any of these factors may be good for the school as a whole, they may also contribute to individual teacher burnout (Farber 1991). In fact, a study by Dworkin (2001) confirmed what teachers already knew; each new wave of reform exacerbates teacher burnout for some teachers.

Recent research on resilience of school professionals offers one source of hope for urban schools. Based on their review of the literature, significant experience working in and with schools and research conducted in schools that refused to fail, Patterson, Patterson, & Collins (2002) identified seven key strengths that bolster school leaders' resilience: 1) be positive in spite of adversity, 2) stay focused on what you care about, 3) remain flexible in how you achieve your goals, 4) take charge, 5) create a climate of personal and professional support, 6) maintain high expectations for success for students, teachers, and parents, and 7) create shared responsibility and participation. The next step in this ongoing research agenda is to identify concrete strategies used by classroom teachers and teacher leaders to strengthen personal resilience as they pursue school goals.


The purpose of this descriptive research project was to build on the conceptual framework that described resilience in school leaders, recently reported by Patterson and colleagues, to examine strategies used by classroom teachers and teacher leaders in building resilience in large urban environments (Patterson, Patterson, & Collins, 2002). Further, teacher and teacher leaders identified as successful and resilient by their peers or supervisors were asked what holds them in urban schools.

Teacher and teacher leader success were defined in terms of student achievement being the same as or higher scores on reading or mathematics than the respective state average in 2000. Findings from this study will extend existing research by addressing how teachers and teacher leaders, who produce achievement beyond the norms of the state's school population within a context of ongoing adversity, have accomplished these goals. Although some believe that teachers who are personally resilient, who see themselves as having a positive capacity to cope with stress and direct their own lives are less likely to leave urban environments, there is currently no data to support this hypothesis.

Research Questions

At the heart of an ongoing research agenda were two burning questions relevant to urban teachers:

1. What drives those resilient teachers who maintain their tenure in urban environments, i.e. why do successful teachers stay in the schools facing the toughest challenges?

2. What strategies do resilient teachers use to increase their capacity for coping with adversity?


Participants. The population for the study was drawn from research conducted by the Council for Great City Schools (2001) that identified large urban districts that scored at or above the median on a standard score of student achievement in reading and mathematics. A purposeful sample was selected that consisted of two teachers and two teacher leaders from each of four districts with schools that reported student achievement scores equal to or above state averages in reading or mathematics, a total of 8 teachers and 8 teacher leaders. Two criteria guided the selection of participants: 1) having been an educator in an urban school setting for a period of at least three years, and 2) currently working in schools that, despite poverty and other indicators of chronic adversity, score above the state average in reading or mathematics according to the data reported by the report of Council of Great City Schools (May, 2001). From the pool of possible candidates, teachers and teacher leaders were selected from within these schools based on nominations from GCU and local district and school staff.

Data Collection. A three-cycle interview process was used with each of the 8 teachers and 8 teacher leaders during 2002 to increase the validity of responses as recommended by Seidman (1998). Interviews, conducted by these researchers, were audio taped and transcribed prior to analysis. See Appendix A for the interview protocol.

Data Analysis. Data were analyzed using qualitative methodology as delineated by Patton (2001). Interviews with teachers and teacher leaders were the primary source of data. Secondary sources were archival data provided by the schools and observations by the researchers while at the schools. Data were reported in aggregate form to insure confidentiality of the sample.


In this descriptive study, resilient teachers and teacher leaders who choose to remain in complex urban schools used common strategies in this descriptive study. Self-reports reveal that these teachers believe that the strategies they used to maintain their resilience contributed to their continuing work in urban schools. Limited space prohibits a lengthy narrative on each finding, but a listing is below. Following the listing, a brief expansion of the first four findings is presented.

1. Resilient teachers have a set of personal values that guides their decision-making.

2. Resilient teachers place a high premium on professional development and find ways to get it.

3. Resilient teachers provide mentoring to others.

4. Resilient teachers are not victims--they take charge and solve problems.

5. Resilient teachers stay focused on the children and their learning.

6. Resilient teachers do whatever it takes to help children be successful.

7. Resilient teachers have friends and colleagues who support their work emotionally and intellectually.

8. Resilient teachers are not wedded to one best way of teaching and are interested in exploring new ideas.

9. Resilient teachers know when to get involved and when to let go.

The findings from earlier research were extended in this study relative to teacher retention. Like those in previous studies (e.g. Corcoran, Walker & White, 1988), our respondents reported on the importance of a strong, supportive principal, high levels of collegiality, high levels of teacher influence on school decisions and curriculum and instruction decisions. A major difference evolving from this work is that resilient teachers and teacher leaders saw it as part of their responsibility to actively make these things happen in areas where they didn't exist. That is, they promoted student achievement in ways that were in keeping with the school goals, they developed strategies to promote collegiality in their schools, and they got involved to influence school decisions and curriculum and instruction decisions. We also found that in instances of a principal who was perceived as weak by the teacher leader, deliberate steps were taken to educate the principal and support the person when possible. In taking responsibility, they bolstered their personal resilience. For many of the teachers and teacher leaders interviewed, it began with a core of personal values about teaching.

1. Resilient teachers have a set of personal values that guides their decision-making. Resilient teachers operate from a core of personal values that existed before they were hired. Teaching was an active choice for these resilient professionals, several of whom had previous careers. These teachers frequently spoke of the role of social justice in their classrooms, e.g. racial and gender equality, democracy, economic opportunity, intellectual freedom and human rights. The story of one teacher's decision to switch to teaching from an engineering career reflects the sense of values that drove her decision-making.
 In my four years riding the bus to
 engineering office, I would see this scene
 in the morning. There were all these
 kids that would ride to the city on the
 bus. They'd sit in the back, and there
 was cursing, bravado, whorish behavior
 from the girls. There was never a
 book. Nobody talked about lessons or
 what they were learning. I'd get off that
 bus and go to my job wondering what
 would happen to those kids.

 Then one day I got the big picture. On
 Fridays, they would release people from
 the penitentiary that would come over
 to the bus stop. Most of them would be
 riding the transit back to the city to
 disperse through other transit methods
 to their homes. There were all these
 guys at the bus stops in their tan suits,
 and they're all black and Latino guys.
 Some of the kids on the bus would talk
 to them.

 And I thought there's something wrong
 with this picture. I'm off to my engineering
 job, and all these black kids are
 going to school and it looks like they're
 not even into it. God knows why that is.
 Isn't somebody there making them into
 it? It just got to me. I felt there is
 something wrong with a society that
 doesn't make kids learn and then sends
 them to prison, and I couldn't be an
 engineer anymore. I just had to try to do
 something. So, I made a really purposeful
 decision to be a teacher.

This theme of a commitment to social justice or a "calling" was shared by many of the participants. They expressed that they knew that the students needed them. Some even acknowledged that they had an uncommon sense of compassion and understanding that helped them know what was needed to help students learn.

That personal focus on student learning had an impact on others. One teacher leader reflected on her time as a reading specialist in an urban school, "My principal thanked me because, since I'd taken the job, we didn't talk about or blame the children anymore for not learning. We now talk about what we need to do. Because I worked in Reading Recovery, you never blamed the children because you knew they couldn't read and your job was to help them improve." Without making a deliberate attempt to change others' attitudes, this teacher's personal values influenced others' thinking.

Resilient teachers and teacher leaders may vary from the norm in retention because their personal values guide their decision-making. Frequently, they used phrases like, "it's a calling," or "I have a responsibility to the children," or "I was put here to help my community." In spite of other research that talks about the importance of teacher salaries, it was not mentioned by a single respondent as important in their decision-making.

Although not solicited by the interviewers, 12 of the 16 teachers and teacher leaders pointed to their personal spirituality as a source of resilience. Irrespective of the nature of the spirituality, whether it was mainstream religion or metaphysical beliefs, these teachers reported turning to a higher power for strength on difficult days. One teacher reported, "... I pray a lot about it. I say the rosary every day before I go to school, and I can tell on the days that I miss it. I know I'm unraveling at the seams. A lot of it has to do with my faith. I don't know that I would be this resilient without my faith."

Whether Baptist or Buddhist, working with urban schools requires that "we go inside ourselves and find that part within us that is more than flesh and bones" (Houston, 2001). However, this does not mean that resilient urban teachers see themselves as saviors for their students. In fact, one teacher specifically stated that he does not believe it is his job to save the students, only to teach them.

2. Resilient teachers place a high premium on professional development and find ways, sometimes outside the system, to get what they need. In fact, 25% of the respondents reported that they developed their own professional development plan and implemented it. Sometimes the learning need was satisfied within the district. In fact, one respondent reported staying at a particular school longer than she might have liked because she believed it might increase her chance of receiving a sabbatical. She hoped to pursue a research project on education in international settings.

Some resilient teachers were not able to find professional development and support within the school district and sought creative alternatives. For instance, one teacher reported struggling to find opportunities within the school district to develop his interest in writing workshop. When that proved impossible, he affiliated with a large-scale writing project and taught a summer course at a local university to fuel his need for knowledge that would expand his thinking. He commented, "Not only did I learn what I needed to know about writing workshop, but I established connections with others who shared my interests. I'm now in almost daily contact with a couple of other teachers in different parts of the state through e-mail. We share lessons and other ideas."

Resilient teachers and teacher leaders recognized that much of their professional development comes from sharing and interaction with others. Some of them were lucky enough to be placed in schools with other like-minded teachers; others were not so fortunate and, like the example above, sought professional connections with others outside their schools and districts. They reported sharing knowledge over the Internet, by telephone, and occasional weekend meetings. See the work by Rust, Ely, Krasnow, and Miller (2001) for additional research on the role of outsiders in professional development.

Other teachers took an active approach to resolve the problem at the school level. Six of the teachers reported volunteering to work on recruiting teachers for their schools and to serve on interview committees to assure that new hires also had potential as reflective colleagues. Some teachers volunteered to work in small teams to write grants, or engage in curriculum projects as a way to connect with others. These proactive strategies increased their resilience, their base of colleagues and also gave them influence on issues that were important to them. In fact, one respondent reported that the reason that she had not transferred to another school was because low-income schools got many more opportunities for professional development. Resilient teachers seek opportunities to learn and are willing to search until they find those opportunities in either formal or informal settings.

3. Resilient teachers provide mentoring and leadership to others. Some resilient teachers are realistic in their assessment of the schools in which they teach and recognize that the school isn't going to change much. Administrators will come and go, but the hard job of teaching, of educating children, will fall to those who stay and find ways to reach the students. Resilient teachers and teacher leaders reported seeing themselves as responsible for providing leadership to others in their schools. One teacher reported, "I do a lot of on-site mentoring of other teachers, especially new ones. It's informal and not structured into my schedule, but I want to help." In some cases, the mentoring included advising the new teacher on what paperwork is important and what is not, on the pros and cons of cooperative learning. One of the teachers reported on her role as a steadying force in the school. "With the frequent change of principals in my school, I slowly realized that if there were to be a steadying influence over time, I was it. So, I've tried to help where I can, both teachers and principals."

Although three of the teachers with less than 10 years experience told of being drawn to the school because of a dynamic principal, they also reported strategies they used to keep the dynamism alive when the principal faltered or was transferred. One teacher said she worked behind the scenes to "make the principal look good" because "we don't need another change in leadership." She described her frustration in trying to help her school score well on standard measures of achievement:
 Teachers were busting their tails to meet
 the needs of these kids, and we weren't
 scoring well because we weren't knowledgeable.
 We didn't really know what
 guided reading was. Then, once we
 found out, we started our research.
 Teachers who were serious about it were
 doing their work.

 Other teachers were waiting on the sidelines
 for someone to come take their
 hand and bring them to the starting line.
 You need to identify who they are and
 give them mentoring. I used to say we
 didn't need them in the profession, but
 now I know there's a huge need out
 there for teachers and you can't leave
 them behind. We need to mentor them
 instead of having the same teachers
 going through the same training and not
 gaining new knowledge that will help
 them in their classrooms. It's too expensive
 and takes too much energy to
 keep training new teachers.

Even though none of the schools had a strong, formal mentoring program, a frequently recommended strategy for teacher retention (Koppich, Asher, Kershner, 2002), several respondents reported on their efforts to guide others.

4. Resilient teachers take charge and solve problems.

Resilient teachers and teacher leaders were willing to ask for help when they needed it, even if it meant pursuing a non-traditional path. One example came from a seven-year veteran in an elementary school, Ms. Aguirre. She'd worked hard for three months trying to get Emilio, a fifth grader, to do his work. He was inattentive and had no interest in school beyond being with his friends. She reported, "Emilio really got to me, to my heart. I knew he had something so amazing to share; he just had fear written all over his face." She went to the school administrator for help and was connected with a community liaison. The liaison got to know him in a positive way. But, he still wasn't doing his classwork or homework. He did not care about school. Finally, the principal came to Ms. Aguirre and told her he was moving the child to another class because he felt the boy needed a "fresh start." Ms. Aguirre refused and explained that if the child were moved, he would think she had given up on him. She committed to finding a way to reach Emilio even if she couldn't do it by herself, even if she had to go outside the school district.

Ms. Aguiree talked with many people in the community and learned of a partnership with the U. S. Navy; she contacted the officer in charge and was assigned a mentor for Emilio. She described what happened next:
 I explained the problems with Emilio
 and told Lt. Romero, frankly, that I was
 out of ideas but that I would not give up
 on the boy. He and I established a close
 relationship because of Emilio. He
 would come in about once a week and
 sit with Emilio in the classroom for a
 couple of hours. Then, after a month or
 two, he started to take Emilio out on the
 weekends. They had activities that they
 would do together, like hiking. Romero
 set a purpose, and he would say, "The
 purpose of today is ..." He became a
 mentor for Emilio, helped him with his
 schoolwork and convinced Emilio how
 important it was to do his work, to get
 decent grades. By the end of the year, he
 was doing most of his work on time and
 was able to be promoted. If it weren't
 for Romero, I don't think I would've
 been able to reach Emilio.

Resilient teachers are not victims. They solve problems that are barriers to student learning, including creative solutions to school district bureaucracy.

Resilient teachers recognize the bureaucratic demands can sap their energy for teaching and find ways to avoid it. One 10-year veteran showed us a large box in his closet "filled with every administrative memo I've ever received." He explained that if he really needed to know what a particular piece of paper said, he could find it. Otherwise, he protected his time to work with students. As superintendents, school boards and others pass through urban schools, the resilient teacher stays focused on student learning.


Beyond the value for teacher educators and for individual teachers who wish to bolster their resilience, school administrators in large urban areas may find the data reported here useful in interviewing prospective teacher candidates. A candidate who reflects personal values that transcend teaching and that relate to social justice and education for all children deserves to be considered for employment. Similarly, a candidate who gives evidence of resilience, of taking charge to solve problems and find opportunities may add to the school in important ways that bolster student achievement and school success.

Finally, there is an important message here for school administrators who wish to increase their retention of urban teachers. They are advised by these teachers to provide ongoing opportunities for professional development as identified by the teachers according to individual needs. As one teacher noted, "I don't need another round on the importance of writing workshop, I need more ideas for implementing it in my classroom." Respecting individual teachers' self-defined needs for ongoing learning not only bolsters teacher resilience but also is likely to boost student achievement.

Appendix A

Resilient Teacher Interview Protocol

Introduction: Your principal (or other person) has identified you as a resilient professional, someone others turn to during tough times. I'd like to talk with you specifically about the strategies you use to be resilient. By resilient, I mean using personal energy to achieve goals in the face of adversity. It's important that you know that nothing you say will ever be tracked back to you. No one but me will ever know what you say because you will be assigned an ID number and never identify you, your school. And, of course, this includes never repeating anything you say to me to anyone in your district or elsewhere. Our interview should last approximately one hour. I would like to audiotape the interview and may take notes at key points. Tell about the special challenges you face as a teacher in this school.

1. How long have you been teaching here?

2. Why do you stay at this school?

3. On a scale from 1 (low) to 10 (high), how would you describe your personal resilience?

4. Have you ever felt "burn out"? If so, what did you do to recover?

5. Tell me your personal beliefs about teaching in a school that faces what some would call tough conditions.

6. What strategies do you, personally, use to stay positive during difficult times?

7. Give me an example when you had to face a tough professional challenge and had to be resilient. What did you do?

8. Do you talk to yourself? What do you say?

9. Where do you draw support and strength?


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Farber, B. A. (1991). Crisis in education: Stress and burnout in the American teacher. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

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Houston, P. (2002). Spirituality in leadership. Retrieved on August 30, 2002 from

Koppich, J., Asher, C. & Kerchner, C. (2002). Developing careers, building a profession: The Rochester career in teaching plan. New York: National Commission on Teaching and America's Future.

Patterson. J. H. (2001). The role of teacher leaders in educational reform. The Internet Source for Schools. Retrieved June 15, 2001 from

Patterson, J.L., Patterson, J. H. & L. Collins (2002) Bouncing back: How school leaders triumph in the face of adversity. New York: Eye on Education.

Patton, M. Q. (2001). Qualitative research and evaluation methods, 3rd Ed. Thousand Oaks, Ca.: Sage Publications.

Rust, F.; Ely, M.; Krasnow, M. & Miller, L. (2001). Professional development of change agents: Swimming with and against the currents. In F. O. Rust. & H. Freidus (Eds.), (2001). Guiding school change: The role and work of change agents. New York: Teachers College Press.

Salvador, R. & Wilson, C. (2002). Teacher shortage question unraveled: NCTAF Challenges the Nation to Address the Teacher Retention Crisis. Retrieved from on August 29, 2002.

Seidman, I. (1998). Interviewing as qualitative research. New York: Teachers College Press.

Wasley, P. A. (1991). Teachers who lead: the rhetoric of reform and the realities of practice. New York: Teachers College Press.

Janice H. Patterson, Assistant Professor, Department of Curriculum & Instruction. Loucrecia Collins, Assistant Professor, Department of Leadership, Special Education, Foundations and Technology. Gypsy Abbott, Professor, Department of Leadership, Special Education, Foundation and Technology. University of Alabama at Birmingham.

Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Dr. Janice H. Patterson, Assistant Professor, Curriculum and Instruction. The University of Alabama at Birmingham, 112 Education Building, 901 13th Street, S., Birmingham, AL 35294-1250; email:
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Title Annotation:United States
Author:Abbott, Gypsy
Publication:Journal of Instructional Psychology
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 1, 2004
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