There’s a new documentary released around now called Far from the Tree. It is the film version of Andrew Solomon’s book of the same name, but the stories—case studies, really—are different, or told at a different time in the family’s life. The book and the film are the product of deep and intense research into the lives of families whose child or children are, in some profound way, exceptional. And it provides more evidence that happiness is not found in success or money or pleasure, but in meaning and connection and relationships. Educators, of course, already know this.
Sometimes, however, we need a little reminder. Maybe this reminder would be most timely halfway through the year, or during standardized testing, but hey, the movie is out in July.
I know that the folks in Region 14 think that they exist for me only as fodder for the Coaching Letter, and I very much regret that what I’m about to write will only reinforce this mistaken impression. I was with them this week during their annual leadership retreat. They all read the book Unbroken, and we spent a day talking about resilience—as it pertains to ourselves, to leadership, and to kids.
We talked about the potential upside of adversity:
- It reveals hidden abilities we didn’t know we had;
- It builds new ones, like resilience;
- It strengthens and nurtures relationships;
- It helps us keep our priorities straight.
These points, by the way, are from the book The Happiness Hypothesis, by Jonathan Haidt, which I highly recommend.
We know that some adversity under some conditions promotes resilience and even happiness. We also know that more extreme adversity causes toxic stress, which is far harder to recover from—and such a recovery appears to be highly dependent relationships—for a kid who has experienced or is experiencing trauma, it may be the case that just one strong relationship with a caring adult may make all the difference.
Here is a very useful working paper from Harvard on resilience—too easy to talk about the phenomenon as if there’s simple cause and effect relationship between adversity and resilience, and that, obviously, is not the case. Too easy, too, to adopt the “I did it/Hellen Keller did it/Louis Zamperini did it, so you can too” mentality, rather than ensuring that everyone in our schools has those strong relationships to draw on. This working paper is a useful antidote to that mentality.
Here is Andrew Solomon’s TED talk on resilience and identity. And I leave you with a quotation from Solomon, from his TED talk: As a student of adversity, I’ve been struck over the years by how some people with major challenges seem to draw strength from them. And I’ve heard the popular wisdom that has to do with finding meaning. And for a long time, I thought the meaning was out there, some great truth waiting to be found. But over time, I’ve come to feel that the truth is irrelevant. We call it “finding meaning,” but we might better call it “forging meaning.”
Isobel Stevenson PhD PCC
Connecticut Center for School Change
151 New Park Avenue
Hartford, CT 06106