The Effects of a Positive Mindset on School Culture
Wiring the leadership brain for practical optimism
By Marcus Conyers and Donna Wilson
Educational leaders who have developed the strengths and skills to model optimism and a positive attitude are invaluable assets in schools today. We refer to practical optimism, which goes beyond simply “putting on a happy face” to entail taking positive action to increase the probability of successful outcomes. Current research suggests that happiness and optimism can be thought of as skills that can be wired into the brain and improved through thoughtful practice. A sunny, enthusiastic disposition is not mandatory for adopting this approach (although some practical optimists certainly exhibit these traits). Instead, practical optimism is characterized by a belief—in yourself and others—that success is possible, which in turn fuels determination to accomplish what you have set out to do.
Making a conscious effort to model practical optimism and support a positive school culture can be transformational for you, your colleagues, and students. Adopting practical optimism as your modus operandi and taking advantage of opportunities to build rapport with colleagues and encourage them to continually hone their professional practice in positive ways will further enhance your well-being, as well as the culture of your school. You will improve relationship-building and communication skills that support empathetic, productive interactions with all educational stakeholders involved.
One prime opportunity for educational leaders for improving schools is steering the shared emotions in a positive direction and clearing the fog created by poisonous emotions focused on negative circumstances that may be beyond the scope of what schools can do — i.e., such factors as low socio-economics or poor parental support. With regard to the importance of clearing out negative emotions, the phrase “leading from the teachers’ lounge” refers to the sometimes unintentional role educators collectively play in influencing school culture. The impact of educators’ attitudes about their profession, their school, their colleagues, and their students may be positive or negative. Maintaining and modeling an optimistic outlook in the midst of the many challenges facing educators today is not always easy, but the rewards can be far-reaching for administrators, teachers, support staff, and students alike.
Nurturing Your Inner Optimist
Developing practical optimism and modeling this approach in your school can have a positive impact on both school climate and student learning. However, we may need to examine our own assumptions about the nature of optimism versus pessimism. There is a common belief that people are either naturally optimistic or prone to pessimism, and this is just the way things are. It turns out that this belief is half-true: Research indicates that people’s inherited “set point” or baseline accounts for about 50 percent of their emotional outlook, and another 10 percent stems from life circumstances, including socioeconomic, health, and relationship status. The remaining 40 percent is within people’s ability to control, which Sonja Lyubomirsky refers to as room to change, for chances to increase or decrease our happiness levels through what we do in our daily lives and how we think.
It is possible to take conscious, proactive steps to foster more positive emotions, meaningful engagement in professional and personal pursuits, and positive relationships with family, friends, and colleagues. Research by Martin Seligman indicates that nurturing well-being involves committing your strengths and virtues, such as kindness, social intelligence, humor, courage, and integrity, to confront the greatest challenges that come your way. The gifts then gained are numerous in that individuals have more positive emotion, more accomplishment, and better relationships. We see good news for educators in these findings: What better cause is there to commit your strengths and talents to than embracing purposeful collaboration and leadership roles with the ultimate aim of improving student learning?
A variety of strategies may be useful in enhancing your practical optimism and sharing this approach with colleagues. Here are just a few:
Practical Strategies for Enhancing Practical Optimism
Feel good by doing good. Research supports the positive boomerang impact of helping others; committing small acts of kindness has been shown to enhance positive emotions and produce a long-term boost in well-being. Deliberate and conscious altruism involving colleagues, students, family, friends or strangers produces a variety of psychological benefits. Even small gestures, such as sharing specific praise for a colleague’s teaching practice at a staff gathering or bringing healthy snacks to share at a team meeting, can decrease stress and make you feel good about yourself and those around you. A school atmosphere characterized by kindness among administrators, teachers and other school staff as well as in the classroom, is high on positivity, empathy, and supportive interactions and low on stress and anxiety.
Sharpen your focus on a positive outlook. Wandering minds tend to gravitate toward negative thoughts and emotions. By committing conscious effort to focus on the positive and productive, educators can develop, maintain and model greater optimism, which will, in turn, enhance their professional practice and interactions with teaching colleagues and other administrators.
Hand-in-hand with a deliberate focus on a positive outlook is learning to let go of the negative. You may have seen this dynamic at work in some schools where you have worked: There is often no shortage of issues to worry and fret about in education, and when negative attitudes and discussions dominate collegial interactions, the result can be a downward spiral. We are not suggesting practical optimism is a cure-all for the many challenges in education, but there is no doubt that a positive attitude provides a stronger foundation to confront those challenges than a negative outlook. When something goes wrong, optimists aim to fix what is within an individual’s control and recognize what is not, to depersonalize setbacks, and to maintain a sense of perspective rather than exaggerating and dwelling on problems. From this more positive perspective, optimists are better able to step back from problems, consider possible solutions, and learn from their experiences.
Frequently say two simple words: “Thank you.” Educational research on gratitude indicates that when students are encouraged to recognize and write about people who have made a positive difference in their lives, they are more optimistic and exhibit more pro-social behavior among peers. Among adults, active appreciation for what they have and what matters to us most supports a more positive attitude in their personal and professional lives. Richard Davidson suggests keeping track of how often you feel gratitude and expressing it sincerely and personally by looking the person in the eye. You might even want to keep a daily journal that notes how many times during each day you felt gratitude and how you felt in expressing it—to colleagues, support personnel, administrators, students, and school volunteers as just a few examples.
Move your body to boost your mood. Regular physical activity can help to alleviate depression, reduce stress and diminish feelings of anxiety. This positive impact is nearly instantaneous: the mood-enhancing effects of exercise are typically felt during or within minutes after completing a workout. Including time in your daily routine for exercise will help maintain your optimistic outlook, relieve work-related stress and help you sleep better.
In short, honing the clear intent of modeling practical optimism and applying strategies like those suggested above can, over time, metaphorically wire the leader’s brain for a more positive and productive outlook. When the going gets tough, it is leaders with these strengths who can make inspire those around them to keep making a positive impact in districts, schools, and classrooms.
The ideas and strategies introduced in this article are from one of Marcus Conyers and Donna Wilson's latest books for educators, Smarter Teacher Leadership: Neuroscience and the Power of Purposeful Collaboration (Teachers College Press, 2016).
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