Cultivating Optimism

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 Joshua Graham

My friend and colleague Walter McKenzie caught my eye tonight with his blog post ,  “Unstuck”.  Then, as I cruised through my communities and connections, I came across a page of remarkable inspirational quotes.

I confess that I can be an tough mark for inspirational quotes. That said, not many of them really grab me.  But let one of them strike a note about my children or hit a string about a hurdle I’ve overcome (or am currently working on overcoming) and I’m hooked.

As an educator, I often wonder about the role of resilience, grit, problem solving skills.  But lately I’ve begun to wonder about optimism.  In March, 2008, Richard Sagor  wrote an article in ASCD Educational Leadership magazine about optimism.  I came across it recently as I organized my copies of the magazine on my library shelves.  As I read, I remember thinking the premise was an interesting one:  is optimism more important than resilience, grit or problem solving skills?  Is the student who is optimistic destined to be more successful because he/she expects to be?

It’s funny to me how my mind works.  Truth be told, I don’t think it’s that much different than most brains.  Things … ideas…suggestions…tend to get stuck in it and hang around without my even knowing it.  Until that is…when it collides with one of my other ideas that has also been hanging around quite unnoticed.

So it is with this optimism thing.  I got to thinking that a situation can’t change unless I (or you) want it to change. Until we take a deliberate action.  As we know, change isn’t something that rains down on us out of no where (although there are many days when it sure feels like that!)

Change happens because someone makes it happen.  The law changes.  The superintendent determines the implications for the district.  He/she hands it off to the principals and supervisors who hand it off to the teachers.  And the change begins.

Again… change happens because someone makes it happen.

What if you’re looking for a change but don’t really believe you’ll be successful?  Can change happen then?  Or does change actually take the energy of a truly optimistic view that if the change is actively and positively pursued it will eventually happen?

I didn’t think I’d quite embraced the optimism idea until I read Walter’s post: “Unstuck“.  I realized that I had been feeling stuck for quite some time.  I’d been reluctant to actively pursue change because I just didn’t think It would work.  There were so many things that blocked my way.

But a funny thing happened on the way:  I began to proceed as if it was inevitable that I would be successful.  Failure never occurred to me.  I proceeded as though on a mission.

My mood lightened. Work was easier.  People were easier.  Tasks were easier.  Life… was easier.  And change has begun to happen!

Now my question: how do I cultivate optimism in my students?  How do I inspire hope when they get knocked down so often?  Being a student is hard work these days.  There are those inspirational teachers that lift them up… give them hope.  And there are teachers who I think spend their nights figuring out how to take the wind out of everyone’s sails…

As I reflect on this idea of cultivating optimism, I think I will listen more to my students’ small voices… those small voices that talk about what they’d like to do in the future… what they want their future to look like and then focus on how I can make our work connect to those goals on a more visible basis every day for their eyes to see and not just mine.

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