I recently presented a workshop for teachers at each of the middle schools in Vineland, New Jersey. My session was titled, “Attitudes and Their Impact on Morale and Student Achievement”. I asked teachers to examine how their optimism impacted student learning and to what extent they thought they should have optimism as an element of their curriculum.
We explored that optimism isn’t a personality trait but a set of behaviors which one can consciously practice. If a person can learn helplessness than it makes sense that one can learn optimism. In the Power of Optimism by Allen McGinnis, I found 12 behaviors for teachers to consider in their own lives and as important items to embed in their students’ experiences.
- Are never surprised by trouble
- Value partial solutions
- Believe they have control over the future
- Plan for regular renewal
- Have heightened powers of admiration
- Interrupt their negative trains of thought
- Are cheerful even when they can’t be happy
- Have an almost unlimited capacity for stretching
- Build plenty of love into their lives
- Share good news
- Use their imaginations to rehearse success
- Accept what cannot be changed
In a recent article, in the March 2008 ASCD Educational Leadership magazine, Cultivating Optimism in the Classroom, Richard Sagor states that students are motivated to put forth their best effort when they have faith in the future and themselves. Sagor reinforces that optimism can be taught and learned.
Faith in the future is one of the building blocks Sagor believes is key. In my book Tapping Student Effort, I called this “pictures of the future” which are critical to the motivation of effort. I found an urban teacher who took her fifth grade students to the stage on the opening day of school to have their pictures taken wearing cap and gown and holding a diploma…a picture of a successful future. Students pasted the pictures into their planners to be reviewed daily. The teacher requested two journal writings-“What did you do yesterday to make this picture a reality?” and “What should you do today to help?”. I recommended that middle school teachers work toward all eighth grade students having a five year plan in writing before heading to high school.
Teachers need to have pictures of their students being successful. I suggested that graduates of the middle school (opened in 1958) be found and interviewed for stories to be read by teacher and students.
Sagor’s second building block is personal efficacy…a deep- seated belief in one’s own capabilities. That efficacy is what promotes perseverance when one is confronting difficult task. Setting complex goals, especially those found in “live events”, provides great opportunities for students to “effort” and discover the payoffs. (See Erica’s senior project.) Instrumental music programs build efficacy for many students.
Peer coaching can be a very helpful tool to increase teacher efficacy. Last week I observed a 3rd grade math lesson where the teacher asked me to focus on the “math thinking” her students were doing. As I described my observation, the teacher’s smile grew. She soon told me about the hard work she had done with a math coach and how the students’ responses that I observed showed the payoff of her efforts and the students’.
That efficacy will cause the teacher to “raise the expectations“ for herself and her students.
Sagor posed a great question for teacher reflection and coaching, “Will students walk out of my classroom feeling more capable than when they walked in?” That is teaching optimism.