For Teachers

Milkshake Strategies: Fortifying My Own Resilience while Teaching

By Darri Stephens December 11, 2019

When it comes to resilience, an interesting exercise is to take a look at the multitude of quizzes available online. From the popular BuzzFeed to more of a magazine format to pop-psychology evaluations, you can get a generalized sense of how resilient you are/aren’t compared to the masses (always keep in mind there can be a self-serving bias in such assessments — that you behave a bit out of your norm when you know you are being assessed).

My key takeaway from all of these quizzes was less about my results than about the language being used — each was chock full of such idiomatic sayings! I don’t know if this applies cross-culturally, but I was surprised to see the results full of expressions like:

  • Weather the storm
  • Fight in your corner
  • Pull yourself up by the bootstraps
  • Look adversity in the face
  • Come out the other side

All are relevant, yet still, well … interesting. It reminded me that the idea of resilience is very much couched in culture. Our country’s forefathers (and mothers!) were the epitome of resilience, and that ideal has been much lauded since America’s early days. We grew up hearing about those who faced the tumultuous seas on the Mayflower, those who braved the foreign climates and terrain in the colonies, and those who exemplified what we now call the “pioneering spirit” as they traveled West.

All of these expressions brought me right back to my first year of teaching. As a TFA corps member in Compton, CA, I was often in tears on the drive home, overwhelmed by all I was seeing and experiencing. And the typical response I got from sympathetic non-teacher friends was: You’ve got this! Buck up. If at first, you don’t succeed … What they weren’t quite understanding was that teaching, unlike many careers, has such a diverse set of circumstances that change year over year, day over day. From positions to budgets to programmatic resources, from schedules to lesson plans to activities, never mind to the 20-30+ “projects” that change (and grow) every minute, I challenge anyone to name another industry that has such variability coupled with such high stakes and expectations (futures are in your hands!). And what happens inside of the classroom is further compounded by the complex social contexts that surround an individual student and the school as a community.

When I attended grad school two years later, I remember telling my professor, who was head of Boston Public Schools at the time, about the ups and downs of my illegally overcrowded classroom of 44 students. His first response was to chastise me that I didn’t “just say no” to having the extra students. What he apparently didn’t understand was that all the classrooms were equally overcrowded, and I couldn’t say no without betraying my co-workers — plus the kids needed to be in classrooms, bottom line. What he also didn’t bother to acknowledge was the exponential number of concerns that came with each additional child. What he didn’t recognize was the number of milkshakes I drank on my rides home trying to soothe my frayed nerves (not a resilience tactic I’d recommend).

Milkshakes aside, what I needed right off the bat were not just the pedagogical strategies — I needed survival strategies. I needed tactics and techniques to apply on a daily basis to better steel myself, to better prepare myself to face my daily job. It became clear that I needed more intel, more background, more insights around my 40+ students than what was listed on my attendance sheet.

What I ultimately did find helpful was an idea I begged, borrowed, and stole from my college psychology professor. In our first class, he had all one hundred of us freshmen fill out a questionnaire, and then he blew us all away with follow-up phone calls that first week of class. So I began to ask each child to fill out a similar (grade-appropriate) questionnaire. Even with one-word responses, these forms proved to be a starting point; they were the nurturing seeds I needed to then follow up with each individual student in a one-on-one, meaningful conversation.

Next, I sent a form home to the families. Often parent-teacher conferences, if they happened at all, came too late in the year. On this form I carefully crafted questions to inquire about the child’s home life: what was the primary home language, how many siblings, who else lived in the house, any recent moves or changes in household; I asked about the child’s passions, interests, and strengths; I asked about any concerns that the family wanted to share. For those that didn’t return the forms, I would pick up the phone or pay the family a visit — again, extra effort but the connection and insight were well worth it. Nowadays there are many digital ways to maintain more consistent contact with family members too. Check out Common Sense’s recommendations such as Remind, Seesaw, ClassDojo, and many newcomers on their Top Picks list, Apps and Websites for Improving Parent-Teacher Communication.

I didn’t want any of this information to color my view of a child, but rather provide context so that I wouldn’t be as surprised when a child came in exhausted because they hadn’t been able to sleep soundly in a crowded bedroom or was hungry because they couldn’t reach the cereal when mom or dad was out of the house working. My first year, I quickly realized the need for a ramen noodle soup station in my classroom since the free and reduced lunches consistently were corndogs day after day (we melted three hot pots that first year!); I was willing to have a crowded classroom at lunch versus hungry, distracted students in the afternoon. And this plan of action took some of the emotional toll off of me because I felt like I was being proactive.

These questionnaires proved to be a much better tactic than my daily milkshakes. While there was some calcium in my afternoon milkshakes, those weren’t the fortifying strategies I needed. With a better plan of action, I was able to “face the storm” and be more flexible and nimble versus overwhelmed and stuck. What strategies or tactics have helped you face the ever-changing tide of classroom life (see what I did there)? Leave us a comment on our Facebook page!

Darri Stephens is a former member of Teach for America and a seasoned educator, with more than 10 years’ experience in Los Angeles and New York City public schools. She’s a published author, who has also worked for education-focused media companies including Nickelodeon, IMAX, EdSurge, and Discovery Education. With master’s degrees in education from both Harvard and Stanford, she’s passionate about creative curriculum development that pushes boundaries, especially considering the influx of today’s technologies. Her most recent positions as Senior Director of Content at Common Sense and Director of Education at Wonder Workshop underscore her love of instructional design, writing, and the ever-changing edtech world — so much so that she has now founded her own content consulting agency, Darrow Ink.

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