Optimism, part 1: An overview of Optimism

“We see the world, not as it is, but as we are──or, as we are conditioned to see it.”

- Steven Covey, author of 7 Habits of Highly Effective People

A hundred different teachers think about teaching in a hundred different ways. There are so many variables at play in teaching and learning and we think about them in a variety of ways. However, we all also know there are unhelpful ways we can think about teaching and learning as well; understanding our students (or ourselves) only by deficits, shaming and negative self-talk about our practice, and countless other ways our thinking keeps ourselves (and students) from flourishing. 

Why might it be important to examine our thoughts within teaching and learning? Our thoughts and emotions become our actions. In this 3-part series, I’m going to share some information about how the way we explain the world (our explanatory style) impacts our lives and how we can disrupt unhelpful explanatory styles to boost our resiliency.

Optimism Powers Resiliency

Dr. Martin Seligman studied how people think about the world and defined two kinds of explanatory styles, optimistic and pessimistic. Research into optimism suggests  it may be linked with health, happiness and even success (Seligman, 1991). Additionally, resiliency theory suggests optimism is critical in our ability to bounce back from challenges and setbacks in life. Karen Reivich (2003), a resiliency researcher, has even called realistic optimism the engine of resiliency.

Beyond the Sunny Side of the Street

Optimism is even sometimes misunderstood as a fixed character trait, an outlook you are born with or not. Optimism does not mean simply looking on the bright side or possessing a cheerful disposition. Optimism researchers define it by how people think (not by feelings). There are several key differences in how optimists and pessimists think about positive and negative events, so let’s start with just two: permanence and pervasiveness.

Permanence and pervasiveness: Are challenges permanent or temporary?  Are  setbacks characteristic of your whole life or are they isolated to specific circumstances? Optimists see setbacks as temporary and isolated occurrences whereas pessimists see them as permanent and global. When a lesson flops for an optimistic teacher, they may say, “I had a rough day, tomorrow will be better” (isolated and temporary), “My students were distracted by the upcoming rally” (isolated and temporary), “My students haven’t mastered this skill yet” (isolated and temporary). True, the optimistic teacher may still reflect and learn from what didn’t work well, but they don’t perceive this setback as indicative of a permanent deficit in their teaching practice, their students, or their school. 

However, a pessimistic teacher may attribute a lesson that bombed to something permanent or fixed, “I’m a bad teacher and I can’t plan,” (permanent and persistent) or “Teenagers will always be lazy and try to get out of learning” (permanent and persistent).

Our thinking around our challenges can influence our emotional experience as teachers and our actions. Perceiving setbacks and challenges as temporary and isolated allows room for hope and action. It opens a space for holding a growth mindset, the belief that characteristics and skills can be developed, for ourselves and our students.  If my students are just temporarily distracted, there’s opportunities for me to think about how to re-engage them. If I had a rough teaching day today, I can reflect on how to improve tomorrow. 

For those of us who aren’t natural optimists (and even those of who are but need a few reminders), the good news is that it may be possible to learn from way optimists think and use this to your advantage in and out of the classroom. Next week we will look at a few methods to experiment with optimistic thinking. 

Realistic Optimism in Education

One final note, is optimism always the best approach? In his book Learned Optimism, Seligman (1991) suggests the answer is yes and no. Optimism is not approach in situations that are risky, dangerous or uncertain. For example, if I have been drinking, I am always pessimistic about my ability to drive. When we suspect a student is in danger, then we always take measures to respond ethically and responsibly. Optimism is not the best strategy if we are offering sympathy to those going through difficult times or providing guidance in dim situations. Seligman recommends weighing the cost of failure when considering if optimism is a good strategy. If failure could lead to injury, death, divorce, loss of a job, etc., optimism is the wrong approach. Reivich (2008) notes it's critical for us to cultivate realistic optimism:

Resilience is not served by denying problems when they exist, believing that you never make mistakes, and blaming others whenever things go wrong. Resilience is about seeing yourself and situations as optimistically as you can – but within the bounds of reality. Realistic optimism keeps you shooting for the stars without losing sight of the ground below (Reivich, 2008).

For the ongoing general challenges of daily teaching that require resiliency, like lessons that do not go the way we hoped and challenging student behaviors, optimism might be one approach to experiment with and see if it helps your practice bounce back and move forward. Next week, we will look at how to disrupt unhelpful ways of thinking. 



Reivich, Karen. “The Resilience Ingredient List.” CNBC, CNBC, 30 June 2008, www.cnbc.com/id/25464528/.

Reivich, K., & Shatté, A. (2003). The resilience factor: 7 keys to finding your inner strength and overcoming lifes hurdles. New York: Broadway Books.

Seligman, M. E. (1991). Learned optimism. New York: A.A. Knopf.

Rachel Hallquist