Optimism in the Classroom

575x270-panoramic_optimism_future_16181One of the topics we discuss in my Counseling Skills class is the importance of optimism and how it’s used in developing a therapeutic relationship. In counseling we recognize the importance of how a person thinks is directly related to how they act.  Now we know that before any real change takes place in counseling, the person needs to be willing to change. In applying this concept to teaching, it brings to mind some possibilities of how to teach with optimism.  The word itself, optimism, comes from the Latin word “optimum” which translates to “best.” The Greek origin of the word optimism comes from the word “optim”, which translates to “power.”  Bringing the “best power” in the classroom.

Some of the things we know about the effects of optimism are the following:

Optimistic people are more physically healthy. They get sick less, have stronger immune systems and are more likely to achieve because they don’t give up too easily. Also, they tend to have a higher state of emotional health and have better coping skills in dealing with life’s setbacks.  So how do we apply the notion of optimism in the classroom?

We are all aware of the importance of getting students involved in the classroom. Sitting in classroom and being a passive observer, a non-participant, not only takes the power away from the student, but as an instructor, it takes my energy away as well.  Lecturing to a room full of students who show about as much enthusiasm as an eraser is not very empowering to me, so I decided a long time ago that part of teaching is promoting energy in the learning process. The way of doing this is not only involving students in their own learning, but getting them to feel more optimistic about their ability to learn.  ‘If I feel I am capable of learning, I will learn.”  As in counseling, empowering our students should be the foundation by which everything else is built on.  Learning should be a process that not only makes us feel more confident in ourselves, but promotes a better understanding and mutual respect for other learners.

rose glasses

Some of you may be asking, “Can optimism really be taught in the classroom?”  I believe it can. Keep in mind one of the real differences in an optimistic person and a pessimistic person is how they view failure. Pessimists see failure as being personal and permanent, where as an optimist sees failure as temporary, non-personal and specific.  All students experience early in their learning a sense of failure. It may be answering a question wrong, writing a paper that didn’t quite meet the expectations of the instructor, or perhaps due to a learning disability, every lesson becomes a bit of a struggle to completed. A student should never see a single failure as a permanent indication of their ability to learn.  As in counseling, reframing a student’s perception of a failed learning event can be a reinforcing moment, providing some kind of understanding that the answers will come.

Another interesting fact is that using humor in the classroom actually can promote higher levels of activity in the brain.  Brain scans have measured considerable high level activity when humor is used in listening and learning. Also, memory seems to get a boost when learning and humor are combined.  Perhaps a simple technique can be to just bringing a smile to the class.  Making students feel more comfortable can make a considerable impact on a student’s willingness to learn. We all had teachers we can remember that we didn’t particularly like because they were so dry and boring. Most likely they had a dry affect and delivered their lecture without any emotion or enthusiasm, and probably never smiled. It wasn’t the material being taught that was problematic, but having to spend an hour or more in a classroom where the flat affect of the instructor’s delivery made learning uneventful and sometimes painful. Someone once said, “Good teaching is one-fourth preparation and three-fourths theater.”

optimism (1)

Bringing optimism in the classroom benefits not only students, but the instructors as well.  In creating a supportive learning environment, we support students in developing not only stronger cognitive skills, but we also meet the emotional needs as well.  We should be including in our lectures, stories of optimism that have made a difference in the human condition. This in itself can change a student’s perception of themselves and their own ability in promoting change in their world.

Optimism is the faith that leads to achievement.  Nothing can be done without hope and confidence.
Helen Keller

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3 thoughts on “Optimism in the Classroom

  1. How lovely to see so much care for your students and their learning environment. It is inspiring to hear.

    I would only add that humour may be less helpful as a construct than your idea of a smile each day. I recently wrote a post for a digital storytelling course I am doing summarising some ideas on the value of laughter for work that may be of interest:

    http://theds106shrink.tumblr.com/post/66270324443/ds106-4work-learning-to-plerk

    My interest in laughter many years ago started from the observation that my students learnt more and changed behaviour more significantly when there was laughter in the teaching environment. Piers Ibbostson, a theatre director I work with, used to say he knew a play would be successful if on day 1 of rehearsals he walked in and there was a lot laughter in the rehearsal room.

    Your students are lucky to have you.

  2. Thank you Mariana for your reply…after reading your post, I love the “plerking” play on words. I remember having to take a statistics class in college and I was terrified since I barely got through previous math classes. The instructor had a wonderful sense of humor and made jokes throughout the class. I found myself not only looking forward to class, but actually did well in the class. The power of bringing humor in the classroom. Amazing…

  3. Sal – Thanks, nice post. Sometimes, I get the feeling that I’m just weird by being optimistic. I was blessed with optimistic parents first of all, but I think you decide who you are at some point. After our house fire in 2001, some people had a hard time understanding how I could be so positive. Really – it’s just ‘stuff’. The important part was that we could rebuild the ‘stuff’, but it’s hard to rebuild loss of life, which did not happen thankfully.

    Students are pretty dang perceptive about your optimism too, and they feed off of it. They DO want to get more involved with instructors who seem to always find the ‘half full’ part of life.

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