Adversity, Hardship, and Teachable Moments

How do we make sense of adversity? We all face daunting intellectual, physical, emotional, interpersonal and spiritual challenges. Many of us rail against the pain associated with the challenge. We lament that it is too difficult, too overwhelming, too upsetting to handle. We interpret related experiences through this lens as we continue to spiral downward into a funk or downright depression. Yet, from adversity comes learning. As educators, we can use struggles with adversity to open up the potential for understanding and compassion in our classrooms and our community.

Over the past eighteen months, I have had my fair share of adversity in health-related challenges. On March 27, 2010 I had an acute stroke. While my family and friends showered me with love and support, I knew that it was up to me alone to chart my own course for recovery. I held fast to my unwavering belief that I could recover and tried to enlist help from the medical community. Throughout it all, my husband and children witnessed my struggles, anticipated what I needed, consoled me in my disappointments, and celebrated my victories.

Initially, I viewed my stroke as both unpredictable and patently unfair. Yet, it focused me in a useful way ultimately. It slowed down my thinking, my travel schedule, my multi-tasking to the point where I could actually start showing up in the present. I became more receptive to sharing what I was going through, listened more intently to others, and had a greater appreciation for the challenges people faced. I have learned first hand that adversity brings people together; once I started sharing my story, many others followed suit. I actually told a close friend that I was grateful that this life-changing event had happened to me.

And then tragedy struck again. Three weeks ago, my ten-year old son was diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes. After he was stabilized and moved to the ICU, we learned about his condition (his pancreas no longer produces insulin), what the “new normal” will be (checking his blood glucose levels, taking a minimum of three shots per day, making food selections based on carbohydrates), and how we will pull through this together as a family. He looked deep into my eyes and smiled.

“Don’t worry, mom. I got this.” He squeezed my hand. “I had a good teacher.”

As the tears streamed down my face, I thought about his wisdom in that moment. By walking shoulder-to-shoulder with me through my adversity, he had significantly honed his own bravery, compassion, and kindness. Since then, he has been the most courageous kid I know (okay, I am just a little biased) — he is proactive in adding up carbs, taking his blood glucose level, and communicating when he doesn’t “feel right.”

His teachers, principal and nurse have also been phenomenal. From the get well cards, to assigning him a weekly buddy to take him to the nurse’s office to a Q and A session about what diabetes is and giving students the opportunity to share about their family members who have this condition — the entire class grew and continues to grow through my son’s adversity.

Often times, however, the adversity we face is not so public. Many struggles are closely guarded and we are left to make sense of them on our own. What my story should remind us as educators is that helping kids (and colleagues) tell their story is a crucial part of learning and growth. And sometimes to get them to tell their painful story we sometimes need to tell ours, to develop empathy and resilience.

To that end, here are a few suggestions that will take the struggles that people face and bring them out into the open so we can grieve, learn, and understand together.

IDEA #1: What if every student had to walk in another person’s shoes — in the classroom, school, community — to see what his or her life is like and to better understand how he or she wants to be treated by other people? This can be done as a whole class or small group interview with young students via a guest speaker (in class or Skype). In older students, it is important to have them identify the type of adversity, seek out an interview subject, create questions to focus the conversation, and use the questions to guide the conversation. After the conversation is done, students could write a summary from the point of view of the interviewee and/or could write a reflection of how they felt and what they learned from the experience.

IDEA #2: What if every student had frequent opportunities to self-reflect about ongoing and/or unpredictable struggles that he or she was facing, thus empowering the student to take a small action to improve the situation? This could be directly connected to a particular subject where he or she faces an academic challenge or to frame a special period (homeroom period or guidance counselor, social worker, or school psychologist plan) for a personal challenge. If the challenge is private in nature, the educator can teach the class about “naming the adversity” and what constitutes a small action that is under their control. The student then is responsible to document the adversity, one or several action steps to take, and time to implement the step(s). Then, the student can evaluate how the action step(s) went and make adjustments accordingly. This not only focuses the students on a meaningful goal that can impact their lives, but also teaches them to develop action plans — identify the problem, identify the goal, create a plan, monitor and evaluate the results, make adjustments.

IDEA #3. There are countless stories about how people overcame difficulty or failure to produce some of the most powerful, beautiful, and innovative ideas, products, and performances of our time. Here are just a few recognizable individuals who can be directly connected to a range of disciplines.

Albert Einstein
J.K. Rowling
Mahatma Ghandi
Isaac Asimov
Steve Jobs
Booker T. Washington
Walt Disney
Michael Jordan
“Colonel” Sanders of Kentucky Fried Chicken
Stephen King
Ludwig von Beethoven
Vincent Van Gogh
Bill Gates

What if every student had to do a research project on the significant failure(s) that one of the greats had experienced and how he or she overcame that adversity? This can be directly connected to the development of research, critical thinking, and communication skills. A student also can use a teacher-generated list (perhaps targeted to a specific discipline) or a student-inspired list (so that they can read with empathy because that student is struggling with the same challenge). This time the communication should be public (as opposed to IDEA #2). Students may also be comfortable sharing with the class (or small group or perhaps just a staff member) about how this gave them inspiration, hope, or another way to think through their own adversity.

Everyone learns from pain — it may harden our outer shells, it may open us up to new opportunities, it may make us more compassionate, it may send us spiraling down to a dark place, it may do all of the above… —but there is so much power in knowing that you are not alone, that it can get better, and that even the smallest steps toward the larger goal should be celebrated. This is not tangential to our aims as educators, it is at the heart of our mission: to make our students (and ourselves) more decent human beings and responsive citizens.

How do you teach adversity and resilience to students in a meaningful way? Would love to hear your thoughts and ideas.

For more information and ideas, check out my latest book: Breaking Free from Myths about Teaching and Learning (2010)