Resilience: The Skill That Keeps Teaching and Learning Thriving at Pasadena ISD

By: Melissa McCalla

Educators often talk about the importance of fostering resilience in their students—the ability to respond to challenges and adapt to change. Over the past few years, we’ve learned that resilience must be a community effort, and students need our support to respond to today’s challenges more than ever before.

In the fall of 2017, Hurricane Harvey landed on the Gulf Coast and caused severe flooding throughout southeastern Texas. Our Pasadena Independent School District was hit hard, with some schools suffering physical damage and others being turned into makeshift shelters for families displaced by the hurricane. Fast-forward to the spring of 2020, and a crisis nobody saw coming impacted all of us: COVID-19. Then, in February, Texans got hit with the worst winter storm in modern history.

But we persevered through each crisis and rallied together to rebuild, both physically and emotionally. I can’t help but reflect on the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey on our community as I think about these current catastrophes. In many ways, our PISD schools emerged from the hurricane stronger than before because of the profound lessons we learned and the resilience we showed. I truly believe that when this pandemic ends, we will have a similar result and be a stronger community for having gone through this together.

As a district community, we’ve focused on social-emotional learning (SEL) for both students and teachers. Our top priority is always our students. Through Summit Learning, we are confident our students are receiving the well-rounded education and mentoring that helps meet their needs and prepare them for life beyond the classroom.

At Jackson Intermediate School in Pasadena, Texas, Principal Jennifer Stewart has made mentoring and goal-setting the primary focus of this year. During the first weeks of school, Stewart could tell that her teachers and students were feeling overwhelmed with all of the changes. So she decided to simplify the overall vision of the school.

Rather than highlighting many different priorities, Stewart implemented school-wide goals that were focused on mentoring and individual goals. By December, Stewart sensed a positive shift in the school’s culture and often overheard the seventh- and eighth-grade students chatting in the hallways about their goals and how to achieve them.

The mentor program at Jackson Intermediate pairs each student with an educator so they can connect weekly in a one-on-one meeting. The time is there for our students to discuss whatever they want, from how things are going with their learning to how they are doing personally. Some students are dealing with real trauma and it is important to give them the space to discuss their feelings, their fears, their aspirations, and their hopes.

During mentor sessions, teachers also use the time to reinforce life skills. Focusing on the skill of setting and making goals – both personal and academic – has been a cornerstone to fostering a community of resilience. Regardless of the size and context of the goals, teachers use them to show students that no matter what is happening in the world, they still have the potential to keep growing.

“It has helped them break down what was truly overwhelming into manageable chunks,” Stewart said. “In the long run, this practice is helping us develop resiliency in a way that we would not have before.”

This pandemic has made it clear that our teachers also need to be supported in all aspects of their life to keep their morale high. We talk about “filling the buckets” of our educators by revising their daily routines to provide more space for them to interact and socialize while maintaining social distance guidelines. We want to recognize when they’re in need and encourage them to try new instructional strategies to engage their students.

Along with filling our teachers’ social-emotional buckets, we’re filling their stomachs thanks to our partnership with several local businesses that regularly bring food trucks to our schools. Our community understands how important it is to create moments in the day – such as enjoyable lunch breaks for our staff – that offer positive experiences amid the daily challenges of this school year.

We are proud to support our teachers so they can support our students, wherever they are receiving their learning. We are in a hybrid model, with half of our students learning in-person and half learning from home. This creates unique concurrent teaching experiences, with our teachers going above and beyond to teach both sets of students at the same time.

They’ve engaged their students with more activities to build connections, such as sharing photos of their families for Grandparents Day or making videos for a fun cake-baking contest. We also know that parents play a huge role in our community engagement efforts and our campus leaders have placed an emphasis on ensuring that parents feel involved in their students’ learning.

We don’t have a crystal ball that magically tells us when this pandemic will end. But our tight-knit community emerged from the devastation of Hurricane Harvey and continued to thrive, and we will do the same after COVID-19.

As educators, we must display our resilience every day to ensure that our students will be prepared for whatever challenge life throws at them next. No matter what happens, we will get through this – together.

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Melissa McCalla is the Executive Director of Innovation & Development with the Pasadena Independent School District in Pasadena, Texas.

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