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Where Has All the Optimism Gone?

I have always been an admirer of John Wooden, acclaimed teacher and coach of the UCLA Bruins. I grew up as the daughter of a basketball coach from Indiana. An autographed copy of his Pyramid of Success hung on Dad’s office wall. He shared Wooden-isms in his work as a special education teacher and director. He taught his players the proper ways to put on their basketballsocks and lace of up their shoes. basketball A worn out copy of Practical Modern Basketball still sits in Dad’s office, years after his retirement. Admiration for Coach Wooden has not come from his proficiency as a coach. My respect is for Coach Wooden, the man. I have just finished a book titled You Haven’t Taught Until They Have Learned by Swen Nater and Ronald Gallimore. This book takes a careful look at the teaching principles and practices of Coach Wooden, creating a direct connection with their use in the modern classroom. I had the intention of creating a series of blog posts to reflect on the whole book, but I am re-thinking that idea now. Instead, I am hung up on one thought.

Teaching is the greatest act of optimism.

The day we made the choice to become a teacher, whether it was a young child or a college student or after years in an alternate profession, is one where we accepted a tremendous amount of responsibility. We decided at that point that there weren’t bad kids. We were convinced that every child could and had the right to maximize his/her potential. We accepted the moral charge to self-examine and reflect on our practices. I truly believe that choosing to teach is a self-sacrificial decision and one that reinforces the idea that the world and its children are worth the time, effort, love and emotion. It’s the ultimate act of optimism.

So, why do I hate the teacher’s lounge? Why are conversations so full of negativity? Why is change that is in the best interest of children so easily dismissed? Why are working with antiquated practices that do not reflect the needs and challenges of a modern society?

Can optimism survive the reality of teaching? A better question may be, can learning survive without optimism?

I believe the pessimism comes from a lack of focus and understanding as to the true focus of education and the practices that we know are most successful for fostering learning. When I focus on the individual student and set appropriately challenging goals for each student, while providing the proper support, I am never disappointed. Students feel encouraged and proud of themselves. They strive to achieve these goals because they are surrounded by the comfort that your belief in them creates. When I create meaningful assignments around rich curriculum and using engaging tools, I am never disappointed. My students remind me that they are truly willing and eager to learn. When I remember that equal foes not mean fair, I find that my students respond to the idea that the worst thing I can do for them is to treat them all exactly the same.

Hmmm. Maybe our pessimism is a reflection on ourselves. It’s not about the kids. Are we willing to accept that? If we are, what are we willing to do about it?


10 Responses

  1. Very insightful post and leaves me with a few things to think about. Almost every day I get asked why I am always so happy and my response is ‘because I decide if I am having a bad day, not my situation.’ The students in our schools see and become what is modeled in front of them on a daily basis. If they see negative, they become negative just as if they see positive it will increase the chances of them becoming positive. I believe that it boils down to this- If a person is blaming an external issue for their problems, that is their biggest problem.

  2. Enthusiasm is the key (well one of many keys) and it is terrible to be leeched by colleagues, who are often the purveyors of sad wares. I smile and be relentlessly cheerful (mostly) and try not to be dragged into the whirlpool. Actually, I notice smiling at people as I approach helps but one wonders how cheerful these teachers classrooms are (shudders).

  3. John Wooden’s words and thoughts give me something to inspire to mimic. His book, My Personal Best: Life Lessons… stand proudly on the shelf behind my desk at school.
    The enthusiasm in teachers creates a positive environment for students to learn in. I like Ed’s response when asked why he is always so happy. I am cheerful and excited while in class, that the kids sense and are just as motivated for their own learning. As darcymoore stated, a smile can go a long way when someone is having a bad day. The enthusiasm for learning that my collegues and I show, has motivated our students to be positive about their learning. Unfortunately, not all teachers have the same positive attitude and show a lot of pessimism. Modeling those positive behaviors in hallways, the lounge, during staff meetings, can also rub off onto those negative teachers as well.

  4. We’re trying to turn our school around, to build back the optimism and positive presence that seemed to have slipped away as we focused so heavily on NCLB accountability. We know our kids can and do learn; we know that focusing on the student strengths, interests, and needs provides the foundation for their future by drawing out talents and allowing them the dignity of discovery and developing deftness.

    It is so true that when we develop engaging projects with powerful tools, then students thrive and succeed beyond what is expected.

    What am I going to do about it? Discover my personal learning network as a source of encouragement so that I, along with my students, develop my deftness in ways that exceed standards and enlighten spirits.

  5. “can learning survive without optimism?” Really says it all. And you are right, we focus on espousing the importance of “choice” for our kids…we need to walk the walk as well.

    Could the pessimism also stem from external forces? Administration? state mandates? more demands? The great thing about teaching, is when the door closes, it’s you and the kids…where the optimism can flow!

    You got me excited! Thanks.

  6. Kelly, thanks for bringing up these ideas. I think there is tremendous optimism out there, when you can find it. The sad thing is, many of those optimistic people aren’t in the same building. The mandates that are leveled on teachers from all over help to drown that optimism for many. Even teachers who are attempting to differentiate learning for their students can become weary when they are given “mandated” differentiation programs for 6 to 10 kids in an oversized class of 28 to 30.

    You’re opening reminded me of the Haim Ginott quote that many folks see early in their education careers, file away, and eventually forget:

    “I’ve come to the frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element in the classroom. My personal approach creates the climate. My daily mood makes the weather. As a teacher I possess a tremendous power to make a child’s life miserable or joyous. I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration. I can humiliate or humor, hurt or heal. In all situations it is my response that decides whether a crisis will be escalated or de-escalated and a child humanized or dehumanized.”

    There are however several examples where the optimism still exists in large numbers. Take, for example, the teachers at Science Leadership Academy, the location for EduCon 2.1. My 20 minute conversation with one of the students told me that he certainly sees optimism from his teachers. And not just from pockets of them, but from all of them.

    Also, I shared with someone yesterday the National Middle School Association’s “This I Believe” statement. Now by no means does hanging a poster in a classroom imply optimism, but the simple fact that folks DO follow the ideals set aside in this short statement implies that optimism still exists. This statement was designed for middle grades educators, however, it can easily fit many other grade levels. A copy of it can be found here: http://omlea.org/TIB.pdf

    Perhaps in addition to Gary Stager’s “Worksheet School” and his “One Cello for Every Student” program we should develop the “Optimistic School.” Anybody care to join?

  7. The contrast between the bleak and negative conversation between some teachers in some staffrooms and the spirit of this post couldn’t be stronger!
    As I read what you wrote, I thought that the key was maybe not optimism (lots of new teachers have optimism, but it doesn’t always last and it isn’t always strong enough to withstand the pressures). I thought the key was in your second last paragraph, in that series of statements about what you have come to know about students and learning, born not just of optimism and idealism but of seeing what a difference this kind of approach actually makes. Sometimes in those dis-spiriting corners of the staffroom where teachers bond through their pessimism, they dismissively call those who refuse to join them the ‘idealists’ or the ‘romantics’. What I loved about your second last paragraph was its realism: that’s the way students REALLY are when they’re given the opportunity by teachers like you.

  8. Thanks Steve. This week I’ve been practicing a deliberate focus on what the kids are really doing – not my perceptions that are tainted by all of the outside stuff. They really are pretty awesome. If we, as teachers, will focus on the kids, it would all be alright.

  9. “They strive to achieve these goals because they are surrounded by the comfort that your belief in them creates.”

    That is perfect. I am so stealing this quote.

  10. Paul, I’ve now stolen it and posted it on Twitter!

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