Monday, January 12, 2009

The Pessimistic Student Meets the Optimistic Teacher

I really want for my students to be an optimist because I feel pessimism is so dangerous for them. Pessimism thrusts people into inaction and powerlessness. At least, that is the effect of pessimism I see in my students daily. Here are some pessimistic things I hear:

  • You just don't understand! (Of course, I've never been a teenager, right?)
  • I can't study! I have to be at [insert extracurricular activity here] practice!
  • I can't do better at math! I have too much science homework!
  • I can't sleep more! I've got too much to do!

My students feel enslaved by their lives. They feel no control over anything. They can't study because they HAVE TO do something else. They feel compelled by some outside force that keeps them from doing the things they want or need to do. Of course, they forget that they chose to do those things in the first place. They chose to play ball or cheer or take AP classes or work.

Now, don't get me wrong - sometimes students are at the mercy of their parents or circumstances that they feel compelled to meet. Their parents may expect them to go to a certain college, or they may have to work to help their families make ends meet. Certainly, one might argue, these students do have a right to say, "I can't do it! It's beyond my control!"

I don't believe they should not be allowed to continue on this pessimistic path. If they continue to believe that they have no control or choice, they will feel powerless to change their situations when they become untenable. They may view any failure or large stressor as debilitating rather than instructive. These students don't realize they have chosen the amount of activity or stress in their lives. They can choose to quit ball. They can choose to quit cheerleading or decide AP classes are not for them. They can even decide they won't work and focus on school. They just prefer the consequences of the actions they have chosen over the actions they have not. They don't quit ball or cheerleading because they don't want to let others down or because they love the game more. They continue to take AP classes because of the benefits to their GPAs or because the content is more challenging. They work because they love their families and want to help out.

Thinking about school or work or family commitments as choices one has made rather than as obligations one must meet leads to more proactive behavior when stress is looming. If a student takes an AP class because they HAVE TO, then homework assignments are a chore. If a student takes an AP class because they WANT TO, then homework assignments are a part of the deal. They may view them as learning opportunities or, at the very least, a chance to get a higher grade to boost the GPA. Would a student who is obligated to take more challenging classes do the best work possible? Not likely, especially if an assignment came after a failure on a test or quiz.

I always remind my high school juniors and seniors that, legally, they can drop out of school and get their GEDs and move on with their lives if school is not working for them. The first time I say this to my college-bound students, it usually shocks them.

"Are you kidding? My mom would kill me! She would kick me out of the house!"

I play along for a while, asking them why that would be so bad. "Hey, you'd be able to stay out as long as you want! What's so wrong with that?"

"But, Mrs. Fineburg, we'd be losers if we quit school!" (Way to go, society, message received!)

"Seriously, you would not be a loser. Sam Walton didn't go to college." (That one always gets 'em.)

We play this game for a while until one of them inevitably says, "But I don't WANT TO quit school! I WANT TO go to college!" It's this moment when I can talk to them about the difference between the optimistic view and the pessimistic one.

Optimists make choices. Pessimists have choices thrust upon them. If that's the only thing they learn from me, then I've given them something truly valuable.

Monday, January 5, 2009

The pessimists wilt. The optimists rise.

The dissertation is a curious thing, indeed. You spend numerous hours agonizing over the research questions, the proposal, the IRB submission, the proposal defense before you even get to do the actual research that will lead to the completed dissertation. In fact, the actual research takes far less time to execute than to plan. They say the only good dissertation is a finished dissertation. I say to the resilient go the spoils. Perhaps these two aphorisms say the same thing.

Here are my research questions (roughly):
  • How does explanatory style relate to issues of teacher attrition, job satisfaction, control, teacher efficacy, and student achievement?
  • Does explanatory style predict job satisfaction, professional identity as a teacher, and longevity in the field?
  • Does explanatory style subsume teacher efficacy as a predictor of longevity in the field?
I believe explanatory style provides a more nuanced approach to describing the underlying reasons why teachers get burned out, view teaching as a job rather than a calling, and leave the field early. What I like about explanatory style is that people can do something about a pessimistic style - they can learn to be more optimistic. The only way you can learn to be more efficacious is to be successful at something.

In teaching, failure happens often. Lessons fail. Teacher-parent conferences fail. Students fail. The best laid plans of mice and men - and teachers - often go awry. If you teach in a difficult school district where administrators are not supportive, students are not motivated, and your colleagues are not interested in rocking the boat, how are you going to learn to be efficacious in your job? In order to find the silver lining, you need to possess some semblence of optimistic explanatory style to view failure as a challenge rather than an obstacle. The pessimists wilt. The optimists rise.

This observation is backed up by research. In 1987, Peter Schulman and Martin Seligman studied life insurance salesmen to see if optimistic salesman were better at their jobs than pessimistic ones. Seligman had talked with the chairman of Met Life on a plane, and they talked about how insurance sales is a tough business. For every call that is successful, there are 10 that are not. Only those who don't take the "no's" personally and think that the next call might be a "yes" are likely to continue being in the business. Schulman and Seligman found this observation to be true in their research. Optimistic life insurance salesmen stayed in the business longer than their pessimistic counterparts.

Do optimistic teachers stay in the field longer than their pessimistic counterparts? We'll see this fall when I finish my dissertation. I feel optimistic (pun intended) about what I will find.

Friday, January 2, 2009

A Blog Begins! The Inspiration for Optimistic Teaching

Blogs today are a dime a dozen, so hopefully this one will be at least worth a quarter.

This blog will focus on my thoughts and research about optimistic teaching. I am in the process of completing my PhD in Educational Psychology from the University of Alabama, and my research explores explanatory style and its role in teaching and learning. I'm just embarking on this research, so this first phase is establishing a baseline of teacher explanatory style and whether explanatory style can predict how long a teacher will stay in the field. It's exciting to be on the cusp of a line of research!

When I first encountered positive psychology in Martin Seligman's book Learned Optimism, I immediately saw a connection between my classroom experience and explanatory style. I was pretty confident that explanatory style could help explain some of the motivational problems teachers have in the classroom. My students would not always take advantage of opportunities available to them. As a teacher, I would give my students every opportunity to do well in my class, only to watch them squander those opportunities. One such opportunity is my make-up test policy, which is quite generous. Students can take a make-up test for any test they take in my class. These make-up tests are typically 20-item short-answer tests. The original tests are multiple-choice. Students can take these tests as many times as they want to until they get the grade they want (or until the grading period is over, whichever comes first!). So, once students take the make-up test once, they know the questions on the test! I grade their answer sheet, give it back to them (if their score is under an A), and then students can reschedule a time to return to take the test again.

Yes, you read all of that right. Students in my class should earn all A's all of the time, right? Well, you guessed it, they don't. In fact, the A students are the most diligent in returning to retake tests, and my D and F students rarely take advantage. Why? This question plagues me! I would hear students say things like, "The make-up tests are too hard!" and "I can't do short-answer tests." I would get very impatient with these excuses. "Do you understand," I would say, "that you can come in, write down the questions, and then get them back and study the test? Do you get that opportunity in any other class?" I would be incredulous. Why weren't these students, those who needed my generosity most, not taking advantage of this opportunity? I couldn't buy into the idea that they were lazy or unmotivated. Many would come to me crying about their grades, desperate to improve them. But I would never see them to take make-up tests, because they didn't think they could do it.

When I read Learned Optimism, I heard my students voices. The pessimistic explanatory style embodied what I was hearing from my students - I can't do it, I'm not smart enough, This will never get better. If I could change the way they viewed school, perhaps I really would make a difference.

School works backward, in my mind. We teach, test, then move on. There is no room for redemption. There is no learning from failure. Failure is proof that you are not cut out for what we're doing. If you get it the first time, with little explanation, then you are smart. If you don't understand, there is something wrong with you - you are stupid, unmotivated, lazy. I believe this system is screwed up. I believe learning truly can happen when you fail. You don't know what you don't know until you don't know. If you already knew everything there was to know, why go to school? Those students who get it the first time don't really need me. They would be fine with a textbook and a laptop. My make-up test policy is designed to rework school into a system that works for those students who actually need me. It gives them an opportunity for redemption. It teaches them resilience. They can do something about their bad grades. The test is not the end of learning, but the beginning.

Resilience and optimism go hand in hand. If you believe you can affect change in your life, you are more willing to try different strategies when you fail. If my students could believe they had the power to change their grades, they make take more advantage of make-up test opportunities rather than squander them. And perhaps that learning would transfer to other areas where they struggle - math, English, science. Isn't that what teaching and learning is all about?

As I researched explanatory style more, I found there was little, if any, research about what a teacher's style predicted about their own behavior and whether a teacher's style has any effect on student achievement. Surely the explanatory style of teachers matters. Students spend significant amounts of time with their students each day (especially in the case of elementary teachers), so if a teacher were pessimistic, what effect would that have? What about an optimistic teacher? Just how optimistic are teachers, anyway? These questions started keeping me up a night, which meant I needed to do something about them. Otherwise, I'd have bags under my eyes. Can't have that!

I teach high school psychology. I am not a career researcher. I teach 5 classes a day, 5 days a week, 180 days a year. I am also a wife and mother. Not much time left over for research. But I have the best access to teachers because I am also in the trenches. I know whom to talk to in my district to get research approved. I know what will work for my district and what won't. So, I went to graduate school. Heck, if I was going to do this huge project, I should get something out of it! I am now in the data collection phase of my research. I have created an Educator Attributional Style Questionnaire (based on the original ASQ by Peterson, et al). I am establishing a baseline of explanatory style among teachers in 3 school districts (two suburban and one rural) and determining if explanatory style predicts job satisfaction, professionalism, and retention in the field. This research could set the stage for teacher preparation and mentoring programs designed to keep teachers resilient and active for longer, which could then lead to higher student achievement. I don't believe explanatory style is the end-all, be-all of education reform, but it's an unexplored link that could provide answers to those students who say, "I can't."