Summer Homework: Reconnecting with Optimism

Practicing self-care first so I can practice optimism this coming school year

Starting by practicing self-care first so I can practice optimism this coming school year

I’ve finally started my (self-assigned) summer homework. It took almost a month of reading books just for the sheer pleasure of reading, knitting, running, bike riding, pie baking, and relaxing on the beach for me to feel ready. By the end of this school year I was definitely feeling depleted and burned out. I actually missed most of the last week of school because I was so sick. My body basically yelled at me and told me to lay down and not move for a while.

During the last two months or so of school I could feel my fuse getting shorter, my focus getting weaker, and my ability to “leave it at the door” becoming almost nonexistent. I was frustrated by a lot of things both in and out of school. The specifics aren’t really what’s important. However, I spent most of the year focusing on the fact that things I had no control over were disrupting my work with students. When we get to that point, it’s easy for teachers to into a spiral of “everything is terrible” and to not embrace the kind of optimism that will help us to change the things we can control. This can wear us down and lead to burnout.

Choosing Optimism

Deliberate Optimism in the wild

Deliberate Optimism in the wild

I decided my first book that I would read for the summer would be Deliberate Optimism: Reclaiming the Joy in Education by Debbie Silver, Jack C. Berckemeyer, and Judith Baenen (Corwin, 2015). I picked up the book at AMLE this past October after hearing Dr. Silver speak. She was funny and engaging, so I picked up the book I knew it was something I needed to read. Even in October of last school year I could feel myself heading for burnout (this was probably a really bad sign). I picked it up again because I knew the book would help me figure out how to get out of the funk I had been in. It might also help me figure out where I could take action and what I could do better next year.

What I Learned About Optimism

Daria & Aunt Amy: My anti-optimism heroes

When I was in high school and through college my favorite television show was Daria. It might still be one of my favorite shows (I’ve rewatched it–it holds up). I identified with her cynicism. I still identify with her a bit (now I probably identify more with Aunt Amy, I’m in my mid-30s, after all). Optimism is hard for me. I didn’t just cultivate cynicism in adolescence because I thought Daria was an excellent role model. Cynicism is somewhat in my nature. However, I can get on board with the way the authors define optimism in this book.

I like that the authors define optimism as a choice (or a series of choices). Even more importantly, they differentiate between optimism and deliberate optimism. Deliberate optimism is different from the “peppy cheerleader” image of optimism I have in my head. The authors define deliberate optimism as having five principles:

  1. Gather as much information as possible before acting or reacting. Get that information from a variety of sources.
  2. Figure out what is beyond your control. Strategize how to minimize the impact of things that are beyond your control on your life.
  3. Figure out what you can control and look for ways to maximize your power in these areas.
  4. Actively do something positive to achieve this goal.
  5. Take ownership of your plan and take responsibility for your choices. (Silver, Berckemeyer & Baenen, 2015)

As someone who really likes clearly laid out procedures, I love this list. These are things that I can do. And the authors explain is great detail how to achieve each one. Yes, this is definitely a self-help book for teachers (and my inner Daria is inclined to mock such things). And, yes, these are things that I already know I should do. But I definitely needed the reminder this year, and know I might need it again. The idea that all of us have things that are within our control and can make actionable goals to change things within that sphere is powerful.

Throughout the remainder of the book, the authors apply these principles to various areas of teaching: interacting with colleagues, building relationships in school with both students and colleagues, creating a positive school culture, and self-care. These explicit connections to struggles that we all have at school make the principles in the book feel easier to take on. And I think I’m ready.

How I’ll Implement Deliberate Optimism

I have a few close friends at work that I’m going to reach out to. I’m going to ask them to read the book as well so we can support each other in implementing the five principles, and call each other out when we’re not disrupting our old patterns.

My biggest goal for this year is going to be to differentiate between what I can and can’t control, and then focus on the things that are within my control. I got too hung up on what was beyond my control this year, and it made me, if I’m totally honest, not a great teacher or a great colleague sometimes. I didn’t like it and tried to change things, but didn’t know how. Now that I have a plan, I’m confident I can keep things on track.

Deliberate Optimism: Should You Read It?

Definitely. If you’re a teacher who’s feeling a bit overwhelmed or burned out this summer or gets stuck focusing on things that are beyond your control, this book is definitely for you. A caveat though: Two of the three authors describe themselves as humorists, and my inner Daria was doing a lot of eye rolling at some of the jokes. They kept the somewhat heavy subject matter a bit lighter, but they weren’t really my thing. That said, the book offered easy to follow, concrete advice about how to bring joy back into your teaching practice. We could all likely use a bit of that.

How will you bring deliberate optimism into your practice next school year?

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