REVIEW: What Sustains a Fulfilling Life in Education?

‘Resilience is essential to the good teacher’ is the opening statement of Barnes’s paper that looks at the perseverance and fulfilment of teachers (p74). I think there are very few people who could dispute the validity of this statement and quite rightly so. I feel that this study is a very important one to consider when discussing resilience and efficacy in individual teachers as well as teacher retention strategy. Barnes’s methodology is a very interesting one; his paper presents factors that have sustained his commitment and resilience in education and are compared to the narratives and experiences of nine long serving and fulfilled teacher friends for correlations and themes. The method of autoethnography is used for data collection, choosing to explore the self-reflections, autobiographies, diaries, conversations, personal accounts and discussions of his sample, which includes Barnes himself, to define good resilience and its affecting factors. What is dynamic about this approach and makes it different from traditional studies is that Barnes’s literature review is an autoethnographic account of his own experiences, how he is a fulfilled teacher and his sample are his friends. I like how this brings a human essence to the research, rich with qualitative data, which includes unbounded and free conversations and reflections with friends and people of trust and at the same time are able to define key factors that affect and form teacher resilience. It’s an uncommon method to come across but one that I believe will prove enriching in answering the title question of the paper.

The suggestions

To simply state what Barnes’s research suggests, it is that resilience is achieved when the role of being a teacher is aligned with an individual’s personal values, where that individual has a chance to build supportive and friendly relationships with others and can teach and express their personal interests through creative contexts. Barnes proposes that these factors should be central to initial teacher-training programmes to increase the competency of resilience in teachers. It’s an idea that almost invokes the concept that teaching is a vocation and the ability to be a teacher, a good teacher, is in-built in some people and not in others. Personality and psychology are emerging to be prominent considerations when assessing teacher efficacy and resilience and there have been many studies that have looked at these areas when evaluating teachers. However, how far these considerations are taken when recruiting, training, developing and supporting teachers is not so clear and is a worthy line of enquiry to make. Another interesting question to reflect on here would be this: are there some of us who are innately more suited than teaching than others and if so, does that mean teaching is an exclusive profession?

After evaluating the data sources provided by his sample, Barnes was able to find correlations and themes including family, friends, love, emotions, religion, work and place as elements considered to be the basis of fulfilment and that from these themes and their sub-categorisations, values, creativity and friendship did the most to create feelings of resilience. When presenting his findings after an extensive analysis of individual comments and experiences, Barnes categorised his findings under four main headings in order to answer the title question of the paper: values and resilience, creativity and meaning, friendship and community and teacher education and children.

‘If schools are to help create a happy, present and sustainable future for children, their teachers should be confident, emotionally intelligent, flexible, healthy, optimistic, positive people’. (p74)

Values and Resilience

Barnes’s findings suggest that work-life factors of resilience such as hopefulness, fulfilment and joy were present more in scenarios when professional and personal values matched. He found that all participants evidenced and expressed how they were able to express their personal values through their teaching and believed that this had a positive effect on their students. Although a number of the participants had admitted that teaching was not their first choice of profession, they did realise and acknowledge that being a teacher and working in education had taken them further towards their ideals, which brought them great satisfaction.

In addition to this, as Barnes had previously stated that values, creativity and friendship did the most to create and strengthen resilience as well as the expression of personal values through teaching, the participants also acknowledged that their personal values could be creatively played-out in the classroom where they could be appreciated and shared, therefore bringing about satisfaction from having their personal values developed, sustained and appreciated. This could be misunderstood as vanity, egoism or narcissism but when you look at the values that these teachers held including family, love, friendship and religion amongst others, one could argue that fulfilment is a justified interest for teachers to find in their professions upon an acceptable basis. Now of course, values will differ from teacher to teacher, Barnes acknowledges this quite early on in his paper, but there are shared values amongst a teaching staff that can be identified like the ones Barnes was able to find amongst his sample group. The suggestion therefore arises that it is a worthy investment of time and effort to identified shared morals between a staff group through which resilience can begin to be formed. How to define which values are acceptable to base teacher fulfilment on will need a researched informative test in order for the process of fulfilment not to become one of vanity, egoism or narcissism, three factors that are often stated to be characteristic of poor teachers and leaders.

Investigating resilience involves searching beneath the selves we habitually present to the world.’ (pg75)

Creativity and Meaning

Expression is key not only to this study but to life, so it is asserted in the discussions that Barnes quotes and comments on during his analysis of findings chapter, notwithstanding that fulfilment can come from a personal acknowledgment that one is expressing himself freely through creativity, Barnes also finds and states that fulfilment is also formed and sustained to higher levels if an individual knows that others are benefiting from their creativity as well.

In addition, Barnes’s findings affirm that individuals feel competent, fulfilled and are more capable of growth and progress, extended and progressive learning and sustained relationships when they feel that they are directly engaging and working with their creative strengths and talents. Taking this into consideration, when we think about factors that teachers and educators often stipulate as burn out factors such as exhaustion, lack of development opportunities, lack of resources and fraught relationships with colleagues and leaders, Barnes’s finding places creative expression with personal meaning central to the prospect of growth and learning, which leads to fulfilment and results in resilience. It’s the idea that teachers as professional and educated individuals should be provided with opportunities to express their creativity and talent, not to be stifled, overlooked or assigned CPD that does not suit their creative strengths. It’s the realisation and understanding of the teacher as an individual which then motivates teachers to actualise their potential, build resilience and remain in teaching because they feel recognised by colleagues and leaders, forming a strong sense of identity and self worth.

‘Reasons given for teacher dissatisfaction include: lack of support, increasing complexity, discipline problems, pension changes and declining resources.’ (p74)

Friendship and Community

Barnes states that ‘enduring relationships are crucial to personal well-being and the sustainability of communities’ and that ‘friendships and communities grow from shared, active situations where people support each other in addressing genuine challenges.’(p84) When teachers are engaged in this manner, they become more receptive, are open to new relationships as well as sustaining the ones they already have and are relaxed and confident in their role. The key conditions here are shared efficacy and camaraderie, a collective effort and support network that you form with others so that you can fulfil your roles and responsibilities as a teacher.

Teacher Education and Children

Teacher education is the idea of initial teacher training provision for teachers and how it must change to create the found conditions above that would aid and provide opportunities for teachers to develop fulfilment and resilience in their roles. ‘Contributions from neuroscience and psychology add weight to my argument that teacher education must change if we are positively to affect the resilience of teachers’ (p84) – it’s the idea of looking at personality and psychology as mentioned earlier and how values, creativity and friendship in addition to the sub-categories of efficacy evaluation in this project are to be emphasised, worked on and considered when recruiting, training and retaining teachers. Without sounding too simplistic, the findings that Barnes presents are elements of an effective formula for a very important and serious question that education leaders should be asking – how do we keep our teachers? The emphasis here returns to knowing teachers not just as employees and within their teacher persona but as a whole individual, understanding their expertise, experiences, values, interests and strengths and allowing them to flourish within and through them whilst providing development and support opportunities. This seems to be the foundational condition for good resilience in teachers, which then allows for creative and value-driven expression and also to foster and sustain good relationships; the growth potential is perpetual.

‘…teacher education courses in England devote very little time to developing positive, sustainable and moral attitudes towards self and teaching, and even less towards helping trainees mature as individuals. (p74)

Conclusion

There are clear strengths and limitations to this project. By delving into personal histories, characters and opinions with a sample of ten participants including himself, Barnes uncovers some very important, valid and useful findings that through mere hypothetical application can be considered to be effective in understanding what makes teachers feel fulfilled in their roles. The term ‘fulfilment’ can be defined in a number of ways and the fact that Barnes does not define the term in the project does not weaken or skew his findings because true to the discussions of self efficacy, character, personality and psychology, fulfilment is a subjective term – what fulfilment is to one teacher may not be for the other. This being said, if I say here that fulfilment means to achieve something or meeting a standard set by an individual, does the argument exist that this is something we do not want our teachers to have? The problem is not that fulfilment is subjective and difficult to define but why is it that so many teachers do not feel fulfilled, because if they did, they wouldn’t be leaving the profession.

Leaders need to take Barnes’s declaratives and turn them into interrogatives and ask themselves:

1. Do I know my staff well as individuals and as a group?

2. Do I know what their individual and shared values are and where their strengths lie?

3. Do we provide relevant development and support opportunities for our staff to be able to express their values through creative contexts and do we help them face the challenges of being a teacher?

4. How strong are our colleague relationships?

5. How strong is the rapport and relationship between leaders and staff?

Although this is not an exhaustive list of questions that can emerge from this study, the positive responses to these questions would be good standards to use to establish a culture and climate where teachers are able to build resilience and find fulfilment. These are very important considerations for school leaders to have when forming performance management, CPD, staff recruitment and retention strategies if they want to achieve a staff body that thrives in their professional lives. Surely this is the ultimate goal, isn’t it?

In terms of limitations, we have a small sample of male teachers who are friends from which these findings have been uncovered. It can therefore be argued that pre-existing friendship made it easier for Barnes to draw correlations and identify themes such as family, friends, love, religion, work and place as friendship is usually formed with people in whom we find similarities, shared values and morals as well as shared histories and experiences. Additionally, the lack of gender, ethnic or age variation within the sample can also be considered as an influential factor in the correlated and thematic findings therefore rendering the framework limiting and the findings manipulated and too obscure to be applied to the teacher workforce. What would be interesting to conduct to verify Barnes’s findings would be to apply the findings to a random, wider and more representative sample of the British teacher workforce so that the validity and impact of his researched findings can be accurately evaluated. Are these conditions for good resilience only applicable to Barnes and his nine friends or can they be useful for other teachers too that do not share the same values, experiences, autobiographies, religion, moral codes and characters as the participant sample? Looking at the evidence of the effects of Barnes’s findings on the participants in this project, I am led to believe that they can have a wider effective application and relevance but I wonder what other common themes would come from a wider application that would better inform what leads to fulfilment in teaching.

Barnes concludes his paper with a very important statement:

‘If resilience is related to congruence between personal and institutional values, if supportive and flexible environments nurture resilience and if resilience grows by identifying and extending our creative strengths, teacher education should be founded upon these things. Teacher remain the most important resource for the education of children.’ (p85)

Can anyone reasonably disagree with this?

References:

Barnes, J. (2013). What Sustains a Fulfilling Life in Education?. Journal of Education and Training Studies. 1 (2).

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