“It’s tough in the industry” is a line I have spent my career listening to – and yes, on occasion I’ve parroted it myself.
It is easy to see our challenge as educators (particularly in vocational fields) as moving our students from the gentle nurturing of school and further education to the ferocious fires of “industry”, and the nefarious, exploitative bosses they will inevitably meet on the journey to their chosen career.
In recent years, we have tried to temper this scenario, and build our students’ ability to cope in such hostile climes.
I’d like to think that as educators we have moved on from the practice of emulating such pantomime villains ourselves, ditching the tradition of withering feedback and language deemed “good for them in the long run.” What has emerged in its stead though, is a curious word I have never been fully comfortable with: resilience.
I think I am beginning to understand why, and the fog began to clear after I received a diagnosis of autism earlier this year. I have spent much of my previous forty-three years considering myself a bit of a soft touch, prone to overthinking, and no doubt a prime candidate for a daily resilience supplement alongside my morning orange juice.
However, I am beginning to understand that these are not character flaws that speak of my privileged grammar school education having failed me in the grit and fortitude department; they are part of me. And if they are part of me, I do not need to apologise for them, nor do I need to raise the drawbridge and staff the barricades. Furthermore, I’m not going to let the world tell me I have a resilience deficiency.
The term has certainly gained traction in recent years, but our use of it (particularly in education) gives it an uncomfortable undercurrent. Resilience is a word that centres itself on an inner weakness. The subject needs to build resilience to account for that “lacking” within, that they are inherently flawed in some way, which requires specific focus and attention to redress. It is saying some people are strong, but some need to become stronger. It speaks of a need to fortify oneself against some unspecific onslaught to come. It is a word of conflict, and more importantly, of being the weaker power in that battle.
Shouldn’t we instead be building courage in our learners? Courage is something that can be grown and nurtured, and is relative to the individual.
To inspire a courageous learner places the individual at the centre of their own story, rather than setting them at odds with the world they hope to enter. For a neurodiverse learner, courage may simply be feeling empowered to use their camera in an online class, or finding their voice in a classroom discussion. It could even be learning to harness their own thoughts and emotions, understanding what works for them and when to walk away.
It certainly doesn’t have to revolve around contacting people from industry via telephone (a barrier for a lot of neurodiverse people) “because that’s the way it works in industry.” Just as the world is adapting to a landscape that enables and empowers neurodiverse people, rather than simply acknowledging them, we as educators should cultivate that environment in our teaching.
Courage can be grown organically, and will be greater as a result, rather than resilience forming like calluses on worn and beleaguered palms.
Beyond non-stick pans
At open days, I am far happier talking about developing courageous individuals than resilient ones. In fact, it becomes a delightful conversation to have, discussing all the positive ways in which projects, opportunities and events give an individual time, space and nourishment to find themselves and their style, to determine the shape of the footprints they want to leave on the world.
Rather than focussing solely on the skills and knowledge we think they need, we should be housing that amongst stimuli, inspiration and challenges to widen their perspectives, grow their awareness of the world around them and to consider themselves within it.
Surely it is far better to send our graduates out into the world with an open and questioning mind, hungry for inspiration and practised in engaging on complex topics, than it is to harden their hearts and deploy language of greater use to the non-stick frying pan industry; tough, durable, hard-wearing and “resilient”.
Just consider some alternatives to those four words; kind, adaptable, open-hearted and courageous. If we centre our approach and pedagogy on what we hope our students will be, rather than what we fear they might encounter, they will be far better prepared regardless of what the future holds.