What precisely does resilience mean and what does it look like in the English classroom? Zoe Enser tackles this head-on in her latest piece for HWRK Magazine…


Resilience is a term which we hear a lot about at the moment. The ability to persevere, particularly in the face of difficulties is a much-valued quality and knowing how to ‘bounce back’, especially when struggling or things have not gone the way we hoped is something that is at the top of many agendas, both for adults and children. Increasingly I see people worried that students are showing less resilience and the race is on to ensure that they are taught how to deal with complex situations and scenarios. Often people think resilience relates to either something transferable or something inherent in the learner. You either can be taught it as part of a program in tutor time or some people are more resilient than others. It is an idea which has much in common with ‘growth mindset’ and having this outlook is often seen as a key factor in achieving this. I have heard many teachers being told they need to build their own resilience. To that I’d say, walk a day in my shoes and you will see how resilient I am. And the same is true of our children.

Our students have lived through exceptional circumstances in recent years and have had to deal with things which we would never have imagined as children. Their perspectives are different to ours, but there is no doubt it has been hard on them, changing huge aspects of their lives which they had only just started to explore. Still, those same children arrive at school with smiles on their faces, greeting their friends, and, in most cases, ready for whatever new set of challenges come their way. Indeed, some young people have experiences which we would never want to have to imagine and their resilience to keep going despite this is to be applauded.

However, what I think is often left out of the resilience conversation is context. Resilience is related closely to the knowledge we hold and the experiences we had to obtain it. I would question the notion that resilience is something that can be taught in isolation and, much like confidence, it is something that we develop as we learn and experience things in a domain-specific way. Therefore, I know I am very resilient when dealing with difficulties in a classroom as I have many years of experience about how they work, whilst I may be less resilient when encountering new situations which might occur outside of them. Resilience then needs to be looked at within the context we are in and what challenges they present.

Resilience can also be a difficult thing to explain. It seems intangible. As adults much of the knowledge we have accumulated which allows us to be resilient, has become tacit; that is, it is so embedded into our schemas it has become automated. We no longer need to think about it, we just do it. As a result, we don’t always recognise the complexity of what we are asking students to do as it is just there at our fingertips. Read a book, write a paragraph, complete an equation are easy things when you have the knowledge and experience embedded, less so when you don’t.

The same is true for me when I move outside of my area of expertise. When tackling something challenging in English, even if initially I may find it hard or get it wrong, I am going to be much more resilient than if you ask me to do something in Science. When I step outside of my comfort zone you might see my resilience waning regardless of how resilient I might be elsewhere. You may even find me having a quiet cry if it was something to do with Physics.

Young people also do not have the experiences and knowledge to deal with the difficulties of interpersonal relationships, things so complex we as adults often find difficult too. Generic conversations about ‘being more resilient’ or ‘get more grit’ are unlikely to help them navigate these then either. They need concrete experiences and knowledge of different situations in order to be able to develop this in a meaningful way.

Having reflected on the idea of resilience over time, my approach, both in English and in pastoral care, has changed over time. Instead of rousing speeches where I aim to get students to feel determined to achieve, although these still have a place at the right moment, I aim to provide explicit examples of how this relates to my subject or the context of the situation.

When starting a new challenge, I will link this directly to the learning students have already encountered. I support them in making these clear connections to their prior knowledge and experiences, so they have an opportunity to allow them to activate what they already have available to them and to get them to think about it in a metacognitive way.

As they consider what tools they have available to them they become more able to plan the approach they will take, drawing on the familiar despite the unfamiliar framing this new task may have. They are then much more able to monitor their progress and evaluate how they are doing as they go along. I use pause points during the task to help them to do this, asking questions that we ultimately want them to be able to ask themselves when they work alone at a later stage.

Therefore, when I am asking students to complete a thesis statement for a literature essay, I may get them firstly to look at models and examples we have created in class. I would then ask them to consider what worked well when they previously did this, referring back to their previous work, including any developments they made based on feedback. I then give them reminders as they go through the process to check for the main components, including clarity and accuracy, and then consider at the end, sometimes through sharing with the whole class on a visualiser or through peer and self-review, how effectively they achieved what they set out to do.

Over time scaffolds are removed as processes become more automated which leads students to increasing independence, even when attempting something extremely challenging. This, to me, shows they are resilient, but of course won’t mean they are resilient when tackling a problem in Maths or Science or History, although having known what it feels like to struggle and succeed in any area can have a positive knock-on effect. It just needs to be replicated in the other areas to really have an impact.

The same process has also become embedded when talking to students about dealing with wider problems with their peers, their self-study and their lives generally. I try to give them the tools and the time to explore how they will go about this, even encouraging them to rehearse a conversation which they need to have, making use of words and phrases which they know have had a good effect previously and discarding those which have had a less positive outcome. So, ‘based on your experience of calling someone a name in retaliation, what do you think might happen if you take that approach?’ They might belligerently think they might feel better for a while, but logic will eventually tell them they need to choose a different path.

Relating whatever the task might be back to their previous successes and struggles is an important aspect of the process though. Being able to draw on clear examples of where they have previously found something difficult, for example when asked to write an essay in English or read an unfamiliar text, and showing them what they achieved, can really emphasise how resilient they have already been. We can then reflect on about the steps they took to achieve this, recalling how they felt before they started and at the end.  This helps them to have the resilience to keep going in the face of some real difficulties in the subject and to once again be successful. It can help them to have an understanding of their self-efficacy empowering them to take greater charge of their own learning over time.

Therefore, embedding resilience into their learning, not waving it like a flag in assemblies or simply telling them to get some quickly, is ultimately more successful. It clarifies for students what it really means to persist and be resilient. Experiencing success leads to more success and motivates us all to stretch ourselves beyond the bounds of where we went before. Children learn to be resilient as we guide them through these stages. Once they know how to do this then they always really amaze us.

Life can be hard, we all have moments when we may not feel as resilient to deal with the knocks we receive, but taking the time to reflect, supporting each other to do so, might mean we are in a better position to bounce back more quickly when they come.


Zoe Enser was an English Teacher for over 20 years and is now working as the Specialist English Adviser for The Education People and an ELE (Evidence Lead in Education) for the EEF (Education Endowment Foundation) in the Kent area. She is also the co-author of Generative Learning in Action and the upcoming CPD Curriculum: Creating the Conditions for Growth, both written in collaboration her husband, Mark Enser.

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