Beginning to Think About Optimism

I appreciate this quote by Mary Beth Hewitt: We need to assume an optimistic view in order for us to feel like we can make a difference in the lives of children. Furthermore, if we want our children to be resilient and optimistic, we need to model it. 

I'm reminded of one of my difficult conversations among teachers that happened more than fifteen years ago. A small group of primary grade teachers were preparing for mid-year parent-teacher conferences. I was guiding them in the process. Having spent years preparing for conferences and writing narrative reports on more than twenty-five children at a time, I know how hard it is to stay fresh and open-minded throughout the process.

I offered a strategy that had helped me to think "big picture" about all children and to frame my thinking in a hopeful, optimistic light. I suggested they list the names of each child in their class and then, next to each name, record something they knew that child did well, was interested in, or/and made the child laugh or smile (perhaps a book or an activity).

A veteran teacher in the group was stymied and got annoyed with me. She had a few things written next to a four or five names but mostly she had blanks. She thought the activity was pointless since conferences were short and she had to report the "truth" - not fluff. Most of her children had "weaknesses" that she was responsible to tell families. Others in the group engaged her in conversation but she was set in her thinking.

One boy in particular she insisted had no strengths - never smiled, enjoyed nothing about school (at the age of 6). Listening to her was painful. I asked her if she had seen him smile - even once. She responded with certainty that there was nothing he did right and she hadn't ever seen him smile.

Quieting my own anger (I was ready to punch her and tell her to get a different job), I continued to enlist the other teachers to brainstorm times he might laugh or smile. Perhaps outside playing with friends, while having snack, when listening to a funny story she read aloud. She remained skeptical, negative, and pessimistic.

We challenged her to return to the classroom and catch him smiling and maybe even to share a laugh with him. One teacher got a very funny book (Skinnybones by Barbara Park) for her to read to the class at the end of the day. I showed up during read aloud and observed the story time. She read the book gritting her teeth but to my delight, Derrick laughed throughout the two chapters she read. Afterwards the teacher was still doubtful and even a bit cynical, but she acknowledged that he she had seen him laugh. I asked her to begin the parent conference with his family by sharing the anecdote about how Derrick laughed when she read the book to the class. He comprehended the story. He responded to the text in appropriate ways. Oh... and by the way, that is a strength of Derrick's!

As educators, we must hold on to optimism and stay vigilant that we create optimistic atmospheres in our schools, programs, centers, and family child care homes.  Our educational system continues to make tests that highlight deficits - of children, of programs, of teachers. A deficit perspective leaves us defeated. And deflated by the things we do wrong. An optimistic view allows us to learn from our mistakes rather than feeling defeated by them.

Optimism doesn't just make us feel happier. Optimism helps us believe in our ability to bring about a solution. When we focus on what we can do, we acknowledge success and in turn, feel more optimistic.

I invited comments about optimism in advance of posting and was inspired by each one.

Karen said: Having the opportunity to work in several different schools, we observe the influence leaders and educators have on those around them. Like negativity, optimism is contagious, uplifting, energizing and effective. No matter what our role we should take the time to notice and foster optimism in others and point out how their optimism positively affects those around them. Conversely it's important not to become discouraged or take personally moments that are less than optimistic. We possess the capability to highlight the positive and effective moments for those who may be stuck. Being there for those who are down may be just what they need to be picked back up. Never underestimate the power of one moment... the power of you.

Lisa said: I try to be confident for future success, no matter how challenging things look today. This helps me to feel hopeful knowing that tomorrow I can start fresh again.

Jenna said: I was part of an educational PD where the message was that "educators are merchants of hope". I've held on to that ever since. Hope for children, families, and staff...

What are your thoughts about optimism? Would you agree that an optimistic view affects the culture of a school and for learning?