Optimism, part 2: Optimism’s Impact in Schools

         Four years ago, I was a stressed out first-year coach for new teachers. I felt like I knew how to coach instruction. However, there are all these other aspects of teaching, like optimism and resilience that I felt like could benefit our students. But how do we help our peers build these things? And do these things have any impact on students?

         I’ve always felt like my optimism benefited my students. A commitment to awesome outcomes for all our students requires its own kind of optimism. There are still persistent inequities our students and communities face and that we, as educators, must attempt to disrupt daily. We need optimism to imagine new pathways and to feel like we (and our students/families/communities/colleagues) have the agency to get there.

         Our thoughts and feelings become our actions in education. Yes, we all know our limiting beliefs and our biases have a profound negative impact, but what impact does our hope and optimism have in schools? There is A LOT of information out there. Here is a brief summary of two things I have found to be tremendously helpful:

1. Our negative and positive thoughts about students impact outcomes

         So much from the teaching profession is from the field of psychology, so it’s important we stay current on what psychologists are thinking about teaching and learning. Sifting through all this new scholarship is fascinating, but daunting so the American Psychology Association made a mixtape of their top 20 principles from psychology for teaching and learning. Download it immediately here and send it to your teacher friends.

         Principle 11 highlights that teachers verbally and non-verbally communicate expectations (good or bad) to our students and these expectations impact outcomes for our students. When teachers expect a lot from their students, teachers give them a lot more: more emotional support, clear feedback, more attention, more instruction, more opportunities (American Psychology Association, 2015). In other words, we give them more of all the things we know lead to better learning outcomes: supportive relationships and lots of opportunities to learn. Whether we hold high or low expectations for students, this report suggests we get what we expect.

         Robert Rosenthal’s study in San Francisco also suggests positive beliefs about students impact student achievement. He gave students an intelligence test, then randomly chose several students and told their teachers that, according to this special test, certain students were on the verge of an “intense intellectual bloom” (Spiegel, 2012). He followed these students’ growth for the next two years and you can probably guess what he found. If teachers believed these students would experience intellectual gains that is what happened. Remember though, these students were selected at random, they were no different then their peers. The only difference was the teacher’s expectation. In other words, these students achieved more because, perhaps, they got more.

2. Academic optimism

         Another resource I love for why optimism works well in schools comes from a few researchers also curious about how teacher beliefs shape teacher thoughts and actions. They developed an idea called academic optimism, which has 3 ingredients: efficacy, trust, and a focus on academics (Hoy, Tarter, & Hoy, 2006). Here’s what that means:

  •  Efficacy: Teachers with high self-efficacy believe their work can have a positive impact on students, even when these teacher’s experience challenges. These are composed of beliefs and thoughts.
  • Trust: Teachers with high trust feel students and their families are honest, reliable, good and will willingly participate in education. Trust is an affect, it is a feeling.
  • A focus on academics: The final component in academic optimism is…academics. Teachers need to focus on learning and academics in schools. This is a behavior.

         I love this recipe for optimism in schools because it shows how our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors work together to impact learning. Academic optimism happens when we believe we can have the skills (or can build the skills or overcome challenges) needed to help students learn, we feel that we can trust our students and their families to participate in the process, and we deliver academic learning opportunities based on these beliefs and feelings.

         So what does this mean for students? Academic optimism directly related to student achievement, even when controlling for socioeconomic status (Hoy, Tarter, & Hoy, 2006). This is very promising news for education. This research on academic optimism suggests that things within our control (our thoughts, our emotions, and our actions) can make a positive difference.

         Next week, we’ll look at a few resources for examining our thoughts and beliefs and challenging our unhelpful beliefs. However, there’s a debate about which to change first, thoughts, beliefs or behaviors. We’ll look into that next week.



American Psychological Association, Coalition for Psychology in Schools and Education. (2015). "Top 20 principles from psychology for preK-12 teaching and learning." Retrieved from http:// www.apa.org/ed/schools/cpse/top-twenty-principles.pdf (PDF, 662KB).

Hoy, W. K., Tarter, C. J., & Hoy, A. W. (2006). Academic Optimism of Schools: A Force for Student Achievement. American Educational Research Journal, 43(3), 425-446. doi:10.3102/00028312043003425

Spiegel, A. (2012, September 17). Teachers' Expectations Can Influence How Students Perform. Retrieved from https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2012/09/18/161159263/teachers-expectations-can-influence-how-students-perform

Rachel Hallquist