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.


Joan Young (aka Mancini) said...

I couldn't agree with you more on your goal for students to become optimists! I actually work with kids from Kindergarten ( those I teach all day) to high school ( those I coach and tutor). I am amazed at the changes that occur when I can help a kid make the link between his/her actions, i.e. working hard studying for a test and a positive result. The key, of course, is that they make the attribution that it was their action that made the result happen.
Even young children need to feel they have control over something. I work with the 5 and 6 year olds in my class to understand that they are responsible for their choices, whether it's showing respect and compassion for peers or getting to work right away. I foster their independence and encourage their parents to do the same.
I am very interested in your research about teachers. I will be following your discoveries and living vicariously as my goal, someday, after my own kids finish college, to pursue a PhD.

Amy Fineburg said...

Thanks so much for your insights! It's good to know that I'm not the only one who is noticing these things.

victoriah said...

Hello, my name is Victoria Hoffman, I'm a student from Eastview High School in Apple Valley, MN. I came across your blog while doing research for a paper we have to write for AP Lang/Comp about a value we think every teenager should have. I chose optimism. I just wanted to let you know that you will be quoted a few times in my paper, and if you would like me to send you a copy of it once we're done, I'd be glad to!

Thanks for being such a great resource!