Why All Teachers Should Be Optimists

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In a December 19, 1929 letter written from his prison cell, co-founder of the Communist Party of Italy and political prisoner Antonio Gramsci claims, “I’m a pessimist because of intelligence, but an optimist because of will.” Seeing as how Gramsci would spend 11 years in Mussolini’s prisons before dying at age 46, he had plenty of reason to be pessimistic.

Since then, Gramsci’s association of pessimism with the rational intellect and optimism with stubborn will seems to have become almost a truism. In fact, it seems to be a popular sentiment today that optimism is somehow illogical, that we must delude ourselves into thinking positively: “mind over matter,” as the mantra goes.

It seems to me, however, that teachers have plenty of logical reasons for being unapologetic optimists. I recently returned from chaperoning five students on a trip to the Key Club district convention in Sacramento. I have to admit, at first I was less than excited at the prospect of a 14-hour round-trip bus ride with 45 teenagers and other unglamorous chaperone duties like midnight curfew checks. By the end of the convention, however, I was not only grateful for the experience, but I was also more optimistic about the future than I had been in a long time. From receiving the care package my students had prepared for me before the trip as a thank-you for chaperoning to listening to impressive young club leaders wax motivational about service and outreach, each moment of my weekend inspired me with confidence in the next generation.

“It seems to me, however, that teachers have plenty of logical reasons for being unapologetic optimists.”

The reasons for optimism in education are not merely extracurricular, either. When that student who hasn’t done any work all semester is suddenly (and unexpectedly!) hooked by a lesson on writing “colorful sentences” and is eager to share his participial phrases, I’m filled with ineffable hope for the rest of that boy’s school year because I’ve seen his spark. When a mother emails to share that her son seems excited about reading for the first time since he was in kindergarten, I’m buoyant with the confidence that my work has profound meaning.

Optimistic Chaperone

A joyful chaperone.

And the rational causes for optimism don’t end with our students, either. Consider your colleagues. Regardless of whatever cathartic complaining you and they may occasionally indulge in, reflect on the likelihood–if not certainty–that every single one of them entered this special profession with the intent of changing the world, one student at a time. That kind of ambition, if nurtured and sustained, is potentially incredibly powerful and cause for rational optimism.

Every day, if we will look for it, there is practical, logical cause for optimism in the teacher’s life. And this is where I agree with part of Gramsci’s sentiment. Optimism is, to a degree, a product of the will. We must be intentional about being optimists. We have to will ourselves to focus on the rational reasons to be positive, however insignificant they may appear some days. We need to decide to be optimists. How can we teachers do our jobs, otherwise? Ours is a labor that depends upon an optimistic outlook; our kids depend on us to teach them optimistically.

The speaker in Wordsworth’s poem “My Heart Leaps Up” describes the joy he felt upon seeing a rainbow, that archetypal symbol of hope. I read his poem as a commentary on the importance of an enduring optimism and as a tacit rejection of the most unfortunate marker of adulthood, cynicism (“The Child is father of the Man,” he submits). Just as Wordsworth finds reason for joy in a simple but very real experience, so we as teachers can find our own rainbows in those little moments of hope we encounter all the time in our profession: the ah-ha moment, the thank-you card, the perceptive comment. We need to hold firmly to those beautiful moments that punctuate our weekly hours of instruction, meetings, conferences, and even grading, and know that our optimism is a product of the intellect as well as of the will.

Do you agree that optimism is important for teachers to foster? What rational causes for optimism can you identify in your classroom? In your life? Share your thoughts or one of your personal “rainbows” in the comments below!

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