Practicing Resilience (Ep. 225)

Resilience is a skill we want all of our students to develop; we also, however, need to realize how important it is for ourselves as teachers. In today’s episode, art educator Sydney Snyder joins Candido to talk about the importance of resilience and looking after our mental health. Listen as they discuss how we can reflect on our teaching, why we need to step away from overwork, and how we can manage uncomfortable emotions. Full episode transcript below.

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Candido: Sometimes I wonder what the retention rate is of our teachers nationwide. While our profession is very fulfilling, some responsibilities and obligations can be very demanding, taking us to a mental or physical place we would prefer not to be. That’s not even taking into account the relationships with our coworkers or any personal and family situations we may be dealing with at the time.

What do you do when you realize something is wrong professionally? Do you walk away? Pretend like nothing is wrong? Convince yourself it’s just part of the job, or do you buckle down and reflect and analyze so you can figure out where the issues lie? And then, what do you do with that information? A dear friend of mine, Sydney Snyder, presents on justice. She asked teachers to define resilience, what it means to them personally, and how to identify how it’s played a role in their lives. Let’s ask Sydney about resilience in the art room. This is Everyday Art Room and I’m your host, Candido Crespo.

Sydney, welcome. I’d love to start by inquiring as to where you teach and what your current placement is.

Sydney: Hi, thanks so much for having me. I live and work in Los Angeles in the San Fernando Valley. Actually, as of last week, I’m teaching after school enrichment classes at the charter school I worked at as the daytime art teacher for nearly seven years. My last day in that particular role was last Friday. I actually decided to leave that particular role after a lot of reflection around resilience and self care and mental health. I’m not leaving the profession altogether. I have many friends who are and totally respect that but, for me, I’m just looking for new art teaching opportunities right now and seeking placement at a school in the fall.

Candido: Okay. I’m going to commend you on making such a brave decision, but we’ll get back to it later why it’s considered so brave. I was able to witness and participate in a presentation that you gave for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. During the presentation, you began with a mindfulness activity. I thought it would be cool if that’s where we started.

Sydney: Oh yeah. I’d love that. I’d love to share the five, four, three, two, one grounding technique for anxiety. It’s a technique that’s intended to kind of bring you back into your body, back into the present moment if you’re on the verge of experiencing a panic attack but it’s also just a great mindfulness exercise in general. The technique has you name five things around you that you can see, four things that you can touch or feel, three things that you can hear, two things that you can smell and one thing that you can taste. For example, I see Candido on my computer monitor. I see a cup. I see a cup of colorful pens. I feel the fuzzy softness of my jacket. Do you want to give an example?

Candido: Yeah. I see the yellow cup that I’m drinking water out of. I see the microphone that I’m recording this podcast on.

Sydney: Exactly. I do want to say not everyone has access to all five senses. Another route that you can go is just to pick one or two senses and do a five, four, three, two, one countdown with those. You could do five things you can see and five things you can feel, four things you can see and four things you can feel, three things and so on. It’s repetitive, but the repetition has actually worked really well for me in the past. It also kind of forces you to notice new and different things around you, which pulls you even more into the present. You can repeat it, either version, for as long as it takes to get back into your body or feel regulated. Your listeners can even pause right now if they want to try it out.

Candido: Yeah. Yeah. Hey, we’re not going anywhere so pause it, try it out and come back so we can keep the conversation going. Thank you for that. The reason I’ve called upon you is I want to talk about resilience but, of course, we have to talk start, really, at the beginning. What is resilience?

Sydney: Okay, great place to start. I don’t want to derail the conversation too much, but I do want to start off by saying that I think a lot of the time resilience is interpreted as sticking it out or remaining in an unhealthy situation and really plays into a grind culture that I think probably all teachers experience. Oxford dictionary’s definition supports that, it defines the word as toughness. When you examine the history of the word and its popularity in this country, you find that there’s a power dynamic at play. At a certain point in this country, we began to prioritize individuals and communities and even systems bouncing back or returning to the status quo after experiencing trauma, rather than changing the very systems that perpetuate harm against individuals and communities.

If you look at COVID-19 relief efforts, I think that’s a great example. There’s some really eyeopening examples. We’ve had endless opportunities for reflection and change and just about every relief effort has been an effort in “getting back to business” or “back to the way things were.”

Candido: Right.

Sydney: We’ve seen this firsthand with the education system, in particular. Thinking about this conversation, I’m wondering if maybe it might be helpful to think about this more in terms of recognizing building and maintaining self worth, personal strength and problem solving abilities in ourselves and providing opportunities for our students to do the same.

I have to say, I think the self worth part is huge because when we don’t recognize our self worth, I think it’s really hard to prioritize our own health and happiness over the maintenance of inequitable systems like our education system or the schools that we work for. It’s hard to prioritize ourselves in education in particular because, as you know, the majority of our time is spent making art with super awesome little humans. It’s hard not to want to go above and beyond to serve them and just give and give and give until there’s nothing left to give. All that’s to say, when we talk about resilience especially with students, we need to be aware of that history and be sure to define clear goals that recontextualize resilience.

Candido: Okay. All right. That’s definitely helpful in understanding where we’re going with this conversation because I guess that stigma with the term is valid. That’s the way I would’ve known it elsewhere or when I’ve used it in conversation, it is about that toughness. This is important to us, but I’m also wondering how do we introduce it to students?

Sydney: In talking about presenting this to students, I want to start by saying I think that these activities and conversations around resilience are only possible if you take the time to really get to know your students and understand what they need right now during a pandemic. You almost have to triage a little.

Candido: Sure.

Sydney: Do they need a lesson on the elements and principles of design? Will they benefit from a lesson on resilience right now or do they first need a safe space to just push paint around and play? I know I need that sometimes.

Candido: Right.

Sydney: I think if you give them space to play, if you let them come up with their own project ideas, you’re instantly sending them that you trust them and I’ve found that it’s a really quick way to earn their trust. I think that’s a great kind of way into the conversation around resilience.

Candido: If I could jump in right here for a moment. When you’re talking about setting the stage, I love putting pressure on teachers. Should teachers undergo some type of training too, regarding resilience before they start suggesting it to their students?

Sydney: I think the most important thing is that you reflect on your own past and experience with the word itself and your own personal resilience. Because if we’re asking our students to have a conversation with us about resilience, we’re asking some really personal questions. I don’t think you can ask those questions of others unless you’re willing to really reflect on that yourself. I think it’s always good to give a little of that to the students as well. Whether it’s recalling an event that made you who you are today or just kind of comparing pandemic experiences and reflecting on our resilience there.

Candido: Okay, I’m going to give it back to you. It’s just that I love to make that clear to teachers that if we’re expecting something from our students, let’s play fair.

Sydney: Absolutely. Totally agree. In terms of actually defining it for students, once you’ve done your own reflection and gotten to know your students, when I introduced it to my students, I emphasize that it’s something we develop throughout life that strengthens our self-esteem, increases confidence in our ability to problem solve and helps us feel less afraid of change and uncertainty. I think the art room is the absolute perfect place to talk about resilience and, specifically, that problem solving thing, strengthening our problem solving ability.

We often hear our students express frustration over a piece not turning out the way they imagined. I experience this in my own practice all the time. Those are great opportunities to sit down with a student one on one or, with their consent, make it a whole class learning opportunity and brainstorm ways to problem solve for that specific issue.

I don’t know about you, but I feel like I pull crumpled up work out of the recycling bin on a daily basis and get to have these conversations.

Candido: Yeah, yeah.

Sydney: Interestingly enough, they almost always end with a student either being able to adjust their expectations and being really happy with where their “mistake” led them, somewhere they never thought they’d go with the piece. Or if it doesn’t lead to that, I usually like to ask them, “Okay, what did you learn? What can you take next time from this experience into your next art making experience?”

When you’re introducing this to students, I also think there’s some great artwork and organizations you can share with students to illustrate resilience and problem solving and all those points we were talking about because they’re pretty abstract. One of the pieces I shared during the LACMA presentation is Translated Vase by Yee Sookyung, but I also love the Mural of Brotherhood by Enrique Chiu and Vanessa German’s Love Front Porch. I could go on and on.

Candido: I’m sure.

Sydney: But there are amazing social practice artists you could share that are working to affect change in their communities like those last couple of artists. But you just want to make sure you reiterate to students that resilience isn’t mandatory and that it shouldn’t be the responsibility of those negatively impacted or harmed by systems to create change.

Candido: Okay.

Sydney: And then, I have an example of an arts organization that I love to share with students which is Creative Growth. It’s a nonprofit organization formed by artists in Oakland at the height of the disability rights movement to support disabled community members who are recently deinstitutionalized as part of that disability rights movement by providing a space to create art, which they saw and see, because this organization exists today, as a basic human right. They currently support over 140 artists with studio space and gallery representation. Their work is collected by institutions such as LACMA. And so, that’s a great example of artists working to bypass existing systems to provide immediate relief to community members. And then, after that immediate relief, working to change those systems.

Candido: Okay. During your presentation, I was kind of… I guess, well, I was floored in my emotion that I was overwhelmed, but you shared a student work that involved concrete and bandages and a seedling growing out of dirt, but I’m going to let you clarify what all of that means.

Sydney: Yeah, that piece of work is by an amazing eighth-grade artist who, at the time, was in seventh grade who had an idea for a piece and wanted to make a piece, I think it was going to be about deforestation, and had this very clear image in their mind and in their sketchbook of these hands that were holding some dirt with a little seedling growing out of it. There were no bandages at the beginning. The student told me that they were going to work with concrete, cement, and asked for some tips. I said, “I got to be honest. I’ve never worked with it before.”

Candido: Right.

Sydney: I suggested going to Home Depot or Lowe’s or any hardware store and just talking to the folks in the department there, just to see if they had any tips. I spoke to the student’s parents a little bit and the student got some rubber gloves to pour the concrete into and was so ready for this to work perfectly. We always are.

Candido: Right.

Sydney: Takes the hands out of the mold and they’re completely shattered. The fingers are falling off. They’re in pieces. The student attempts this two more times, three in total. The whole time the parents are sending me picture of this process and can you believe it? Here’s the setup, look at our front yard. Finally, the student realized that the piece had new meaning. It wasn’t about deforestation anymore. It was actually kind of a piece about resilience or persistence and took the two hands and wrapped a bandage around them and then kept the dirt with the seedling growing out of it. But I just felt like that was such a great example of that problem solving thing of an opportunity to discuss resilience with students and then a student coming to that on their own was just incredible.

Candido: Yeah. The piece is beautiful. The story is beautiful. I’m sure that kind of reinforced the definition for you as an artist and as a teacher as well.

Sydney: Totally. It’s an example that I’ll think of forever, I’m sure.

Candido: Yeah. For me, when I saw it in the presentation, it kind of summarized the whole thing and put it all into perspective. I’m much more of a practice person. I’m not too much into theory. It takes me a while to comprehend theory unless we’re just getting our hands dirty. For me, and no pun intended as a hands project, but for me seeing that piece, I was like, “Oh, this is it. This is what Sydney’s been talking about for this past hour, what we’ve been engaging with.” It all came together.

There are some other things in this presentation I want to pick out that I thought was pretty important. You ask the participants, what is one thing big or small you’re going to do to take care of yourself? In that case, after participating in the presentation. I’m going to use that same question and I’m going to tell the listeners, what is one thing big or small you’re going to do to take care of yourself? Anybody who’s listening, take that question into consideration.

Sydney: Candido, what is your one thing for tonight?

Candido: I’m going to give that to you in a little bit. I’m going to think about that some.

Sydney: Okay.

Candido: Yeah. Let me think about that some and I’ll come right back to it. The other thing is what is one healthy boundary you’d like to work on maintaining at work? I think we should expand on that one for a moment. Self care is a hot topic. There’s clearly some overlap in these two conversations but healthy boundary, it has to be part of resilience? I mean, without those boundaries, how could you possibly find your way?

Sydney: Oh yeah.

Candido: Why was that an important aspect of the presentation?

Sydney: It was definitely… And has been very relevant to me this year. I think it’s something in this profession that we forget to do, for that same reason I mentioned earlier. We’re not spending our time with leadership at the school and not even really with our coworkers. We’re spending our time, almost all of it, with these students that are just inspire us and we get so much from them so it’s really easy to justify working until 9:00 PM. You’re like, “Oh, but I’m coming up with the coolest presentation.”

Candido: Right.

Sydney: But we can’t serve our students if we’re in a puddle on the floor.

Candido: No, no way.

Sydney: We can’t serve our students when we’ve become rubble and I learned that firsthand. I got to a point where I was really unhealthy just from overworking and the whole grind culture thing. I was putting in way too much work over the summer and started the year just having to take some time off of work because I couldn’t be the teacher that I want to be for these students.

Candido: Right. When you were defining resilience, you made mention of these two elements, I guess, of the definition, better manage and tolerate uncomfortable emotions and stay flexible, focused and productive in good times and bad. If it’s possible, I’d like to break those down as well, because I felt like, for me, those were the most important. Better manage and tolerate uncomfortable emotions. For me, that immediately comes out, both in checking myself and watching my colleagues with the inability to separate their personal and professional experiences, emotions.

For an example, a teacher comes into a classroom, lots of coverages. No substitutes at the moment so everybody’s doing these coverages. I have seen a teacher come into a classroom and a first thing they tell the students is, “I’m having a really rough day, don’t start with me.” I’m like, “Why? Why there? Why would that be your go-to? What happened to the good morning part?”

Sydney: Yeah.

Candido: Is there something that you suggest to people in managing and tolerating uncomfortable emotions?

Sydney: I think taking your time because, whether it’s two minutes or 30 minutes, hopefully you have a little bit of time between classes. I know there are days that I did not. But taking time to do a mindfulness exercise. Spending time identifying what self-care means to you, because it’s not a PD that your school puts on twice a year and makes you attend after hours.

Candido: Right.

Sydney: But if you like to meditate, turning on something, putting on some nature sounds or reading a funny joke, listening to a podcast.

Candido: Right.

Sydney: But I also think just being able to name your feelings because that kind of, I don’t know, it helps me with the discomfort to say I’m feeling really anxious right now and that’s why my heart is racing and that’s why my cheeks are flushed and that’s why my sweat stinks.

Candido: Right.

Sydney: I don’t know. That’s been helpful for me and I think that’s a good mindfulness thing. I also think starting a class saying, “Don’t start with me,” is not helpful. But I know with my older students, there are times where I’ve had students completely break down and I’ve pulled them to go have a one-on-one conversation outside of class and told them, “I can totally relate to feeling really depressed right now. I can totally relate.” I think you have to have that relationship with your students and know when it’s the right time to do that. But I think there is a time and place to share some of those experiences and feelings with students because sometimes, especially with my middle schoolers, I know there are just times when they feel so alone and their feelings aren’t being validated at home.

Candido: Right.

Sydney: Just seeing them and kind of commiserating can be helpful.

Candido: Yeah. I have two examples this week. One was today. I had three consecutive classes that were extremely challenging, but I did take those three minutes in between and I spoke to the teachers like, “Hey, hold onto your class for one moment,” because I did need to reset. I felt myself losing all types of patience and the last thing I wanted to do, even though that second class was going to be just as challenging, I didn’t want to then, I guess, start compounding that stress. And then, then by class three, class three receives this alternate version of me, the multiverse Crespo, when it wasn’t their fault. You know what I’m saying? I definitely took those minutes today. It was still challenging, but at least it was three separate challenges as opposed to letting them stack together. And then-

Sydney: That’s a great idea. I think most teachers would be willing to just stand outside the classroom or play Simon Says or whatever with their students for a few minutes.

Candido: Yeah, or ask the teacher, “Hey, can you come and let your class sit in while you step into the hallway?” Just reverse the roles, so the students are still moving, but you’re just allowing yourself and giving yourself those minutes in between. The other thing is, you mentioned a student. I had that example. I had a fourth grader who, I’m teaching my lesson and she’s crying and she’s sitting in the front seat, and I definitely stopped the lesson. The lesson wasn’t nearly as important anymore at that point.

When I pulled her outside to speak to her, I have known this student now since she was in first grade, I asked her what’s wrong. She just said, “I’m just so sad. I don’t know why.” I just let her cry. I stood there with her for a moment, let her cry. I knew the students in the classroom, they were fine. Eventually, she was just like, “Okay, I’m ready to do art.” She really loves art. She’s an artist. She’s one of us. As soon as she went inside, that was her healing. I guess she just needed to let it out. We have the power to allow that for them.

Sydney: Yep. It’s important to acknowledge that when you have a student sitting there, whether they’re crying or kind of quietly experiencing these uncomfortable feelings, they’re not learning. They’re not tuned into the lesson. They’re not gaining what you want them to gain from that lesson. It’s okay to shift gears to change what you’re doing, to scrap your whole lesson and say, “We’re going to make art about our feelings today.” Whatever.

Candido: Okay. I want to start closing out this conversation. I don’t know that this is an answer, but feel free to share. Is healing considered a resolution or another practice to be aligned with resilience?

Sydney: I don’t consider it to be a resolution because, to me, resolution is a terminal thing and I think healing is an ongoing thing, more similar to a practice like resilience. But I certainly think it should be a goal because I think a lot of us live in and stay in situations that are causing us to continue to be unwell or kind of suck the joy out of our profession or personal life.

Candido: Right.

Sydney: And so, I think healing is how you kind of grow from those experiences.

Candido: All right. That makes sense. And then, I really can’t let you go without learning more about Adding Voices. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

Sydney: Yeah. Adding Voices is a lot of things. It’s a movement, really, started by your friend and mine, artist and educator, Flavia Zuñiga-West. It all started with a virtual conference for Educators of the Global Majority and Allies put on by Flavia in June of 2020. After the conference, it became clear that there was a desire for Flavia to keep Adding Voices going beyond the conference.

Candido: Right.

Sydney: I began to partner with her at that point to help create resources for a Patreon page and Instagram. I have to be honest, I have not been involved as I’d like to be recently due to some health issues, but I can share some very exciting news.

Candido: Yes, yes, yes.

Sydney: Which is that Adding Voices will host the first of its kind in-person conference for art educators, community leaders, administrators, artists of the global majority, this fall, October 1st and 2nd at Moore College of Art and Design in Philadelphia. We’ll feature many amazing presenters like the host of this podcast.

Candido: Hey.

Sydney: Keep an eye on the Adding Voices website, which is just and the Instagram, which is just Adding Voices, for more information. I think registration is going to happen in June.

Candido: All right. Sydney, thank you.

Sydney: Candido, hold on. What’s your thing. What’s your one thing?

Candido: Oh yeah, you got me. My thing is actually the same as my resolution this year. My resolution this year is really to rest. I have played this… It’s a very scary game with wanting to do things and sacrificing sleep in exchange for it. I think what the scary part is that I’ve been able to do it. There’s that idea of would you do something as long as you could get away with it? And so, I’ve been able to do that. I’ve had these a small amount of rest every night, but I feel like I’m accomplishing things so there’s a wicked balance. But I made the agreement this year that I would force myself to have those nights where I’m not going to be allowed to be creative and a project will have to wait until tomorrow. Rest is that thing. Yeah.

Sydney: That’s a good one. Because we’re asking the listeners to do the same, I’ll share mine as well.

Candido: Sure.

Sydney: That is, and usually is, to take a bath.

Candido: All right. All right. Sydney, thank you.

Sydney: Thank you, Candido.

Candido: The career I’ve had, to this point, has been one filled with blessings and good fortune. However, most of it required work, emotional labor to be exact. That can take a toll on the effort and love I can deliver to our students. Take the time and measures you need to correct whatever you must to remain great at what you do. I’m so grateful Sydney was able to share this conversation with us.

For more resources on this topic, check out the AOEU course titled Art Therapy for Art Teachers and The Art of SEL podcast hosted by Jonathan Juravich. Thanks for listening to Everyday Art Room. I hope you’ve learned enough to want to know more. Catch you next week.

Magazine articles and podcasts are opinions of professional education contributors and do not necessarily represent the position of the Art of Education University (AOEU) or its academic offerings. Contributors use terms in the way they are most often talked about in the scope of their educational experiences.