TEACHING RESILIENCE AND BEING RESILIENT : Filling Our Tanks This Summer

About a month ago, I had the pleasure of attending the annual AALS clinical conference held  in Chicago.   The conference focused on achieving happiness and resilience at a time of challenge in legal education while exploring methods for becoming “better” clinical teachers.  Clin14BookletWeb

The Keynote opening presentation by Professor Nancy Levit from the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law outlined research about happiness,  lawyers and legal careers.   Professor Levit’s  book with Doug Linder, The Happy Lawyer: Making a Good Life in the Law, was published by Oxford University Press in 2010. Their sequel, The Good Lawyer: Seeking Quality in the Practice of Law is now available.  The Levit and Linder research helps answer questions for our students and ourselves about how and why lawyers find a  legal career rewarding.   Much of the research reveals that simple truths about happiness – such as feeling valued or being part of a community – bears repetition.   The presentation was informative and the research can be used in advising our students, supporting our colleagues and caring for ourselves.

After her keynote, panelists Professor Calvin Pang (University of Hawaii, William S. Richardson School of Law)  and Professor Joanna Woolman (William Mitchell College of Law) with moderator American University Professor Brenda Smith presented a few clips from a very realistic “role play” focused on a “devastating” day in court and the responses  of a clinical teacher, clinical student, and non-clinical colleague.    (The film will be available after the conference – I believe at the AALS site – for those who want to use it in their home schools.)  In the film, the law student  faces a surprising negative court ruling and then experiences his client yelling at him outside the courtroom.   In conversation with the clinical professor, the student expresses anger with his client and believes he should just “drop” clinic.  The clinical professor listens to the student and also explores other aspects of the student’s current anger and despair including his having received a number of employment rejections during this same time period.

The film was provocative and engendered good discussion about the role of law professors .  Many of us have experienced with our students or in our own professional lives the coinciding emotional burdens of dealing with difficult emotions in client’s cases and receiving negative news on the home or career front.   Managing and coping with all those emotions and burdens is a never-ending part of professional development and law schools can and should play a significant role in preparing students with appropriate skills, appreciation of professional values and coping tools.

In a final exercise, the entire room of about 500+ created word trees on three questions:

1.  What do you do as a teacher to “fill your tank.?”

2. What do you do to encourage your students to adopt habits to make themselves whole?

3. What are the barriers and obstacles to the first two?

In asking myself these questions and watching the hundreds of others eagerly participate, I reflected on the particular importance of the resilience, holistic, and happiness theme at this moment in time.   Students and recent grads need our positive support.  Institutions need our creative, optimistic energy.   But providing that energy and support can be personally tolling.

Student-centered faculty – and in particular clinical faculty with summer burdens or untenured faculty with heavy writing demands – must  carve out some real off time or vacation in order to be effective in the long term.  Their institutions must support their need for renewal.  Filling  our personal “tanks” with sunsets, summer treats (ice cream for me!), some  relaxing days, renewed commitment to exercise or getting outside, and time vacationing with loved ones helps form the foundation for resilience in the academic year.  We need to do this not only to support our own resilience but to equip ourselves with the experience-based wisdom that will be needed in great quantities in the coming semesters.  In order  to assist our students and our institutions at this precarious time for law schools, we need to nurture our whole selves now.

3 Responses

  1. The notion of “refilling” is a great one. It’s made me picture, literally, opening up a barrel, maybe a compost barrel, and adding in all the nutrients that will, over time, break down into lush loam. That loam, for us as clinical profs, is the positive energy we need to inspire our students and the others with whom we work to do the difficult work it takes to practice poverty law, to do it really well, and to do it with love. But as was the theme at the AALS, an empty tank, an empty compost barrel, an empty life, one devoid of time to “just hang,” however we each define that, will result in an engine that seizes up. To this moment, I never quite pictured what the term “burn out” really meant: picture an engine without fuel, or without oil; or a garden with dessicated soil, or a clinical professor with no means to re-charge. The engine, soil, person, literally burns out.
    So, get on the road, swim, hike, read, walk, bike, soar, or whatever. But do SOMETHING different for yourselves this summer, and not just for 3 days. While you’re doing it, realize that you’re essentially adding fruit and veggies from the kitchen into your compost barrel.

  2. Well said Irene!

  3. Good ideas for lawyers in this profession. It is always important to take time to fill the tank.

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