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How Hope Can Overcome Teacher Negativity

Steve Moore, The Optimistic Educator

Overcoming Teacher NegativityIf you're not careful, hope can become synonymous with foolishness. Ignoring the facts is never a recipe for success, even if reality seems too dire to face.

In teaching, we face such circumstances daily. I am constantly making challenging choices between how I want to teach and how I need to teach.

For example:

  • Do I address the obvious breech of conduct five feet to my left which has been going on for several minutes, or do I stay seated next to this struggling reader and push for understanding?
  • Do I try to appease my building principal's bean-counter-like tendencies for accountability-flavored data even if it goes against everything I believe in as an educator?
  • How do I make smart exchanges in the complaint and gossip economy of the teacher lunchroom without alienating or distancing myself too much?
  • How do I balance seemingly meaningless "grading" with actual beneficial student feedback?

The Power of Hopeful Decision-Making

Of course, choices are inevitable. We make thousands each minute in school and with each one comes a compounding interest of opportunity costs.

During my first year of teaching, understanding how to keep sane became a priority like never before. I learned that thinking positively led to acting out of my hope for a situation. If I projected an aura of trustful hope in a class and then backed it up with real instructional support, I saw real behavioral changes.

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Your optimism becomes an asset rather than a liability when it helps you and those around you harness the power in struggle.

Varied Advice from Veterans

I'm still a young guy and I look even younger than I am (something I'm supposed to appreciate in the future). Having the experience of working with a lot of veteran teachers is both exciting and frustrating at times.

The "Hang In There" Helper

Some want to handle you with kid gloves, telling you "everything is okay" and "you'll get it in time." While I appreciate the sentiment, the poor-little-puppy act offers no real concept of how to actively struggle as a teacher.

The Burn-Out Brotherhood

Other teachers seem to dig their own chips into your shoulder and call it "advice.". They want you to know how many hours until Friday, how many days until the next break, and how best to give in without being fired. It is as if the point of the job was to avoid discomfort while talking solely about how little comfort you're enjoying.

The broken-down-John-Wayne act is all about a competitive show of melodramatic martyrdom which furthers the worst stereotypes of tenured teachers.

The Valuable Veteran

Neither of these previous attitudes helps accomplish much of anything.  The best veteran teachers can share stories of how to benefit from the worst situations and overcome through ownership.

Their relationship with everyone is visibly different than all others. The way those teachers speak with students mirrors how they act everywhere else. Their aim is to promote learning, reflection, and the hope for growth. That's the kind of teacher you want to become, the kind that inspired you to enter the field in the first place. This is the kind of teacher and co-worker I want to be.

Bringing Positivity to the Teachers' Lounge

When you frame your interpretation of another's actions positively, you start down a path to help them progress rather than simply maintain their current mindset. After all, isn't that what you'd hope someone else would do for you?

When a colleague is bent on drawing out a dispute with a student, sometimes the best thing to do is mark time alongside them rather than try to turn them around. While you're listening with the optimist's mindset--one set on growth--put down signposts alongside the teacher's words. When their negatives are tempered with a few reflective phrases here and there, more often than not, they will see where they are headed and reverse their negative course.

You don't need to come off as a Pollyanna with disregard for reality if you speak softly and carry a big mirror for others to see themselves in.

In my experience, most teachers need to be reminded why they chose to teach. They may forget for periods of time, but that kernel is still there. Rather than becoming labeled as naive and simply not-yet-jaded, make a conscious choice to hold onto that hope you have for yourself and share it in the same way you share your love of learning with each of your students. The two environments will begin to look alike over time. Break room conduct will be reflected in your classroom demeanor and vice versa. Both should expand your personal mission as a teacher; there’s no “break” from that.

Bring Hope to Your School Culture

Ask a successful veteran principal, superintendent, or school leader at any level and they’ll tell you that school culture starts with classrooms and extends into every corner of the school. Everything a teacher does and says about their school, their students, and each other is a reflection of that culture.

Teacher leaders can help establish a powerful optimism by undermining chronic complaints with real questions which hope to be answered. When people know they can’t complain about something without being expected to participate in finding (the responsibility isn’t all theirs) a solution, they’ll start talking differently: to other teachers, parents, and especially to students.
Making choices with an optimistic hope in mind is the kind of habit that will help you deal with harsh realities rather than avoiding them as pessimists would warn. Use your positive momentum whenever you have it to propel someone else in a brighter direction and they'll pay it forward.
What do you hear in your conversations with other teachers? What do you spend time and energy talking about? Share in the comments section!