Principals Should Be the School Optimist-in-Chief

By Jack Berckemeyer and Debbie Silver

Principal, assistant principal, or headmaster might be your official job description. But that’s just an umbrella label for a slew of jobs, isn’t it?

You’re expected to be a data analyst, cheerleader, PR expert, parking lot attendant, production manager, public speaker, educational leader, problem solver, conflict resolver, curriculum coordinator, chief hand-holder, and polished liaison to parents, community, and higher powers in the educational system—to name only a few. And, oh, you’re also the person who gets all the perks of suspending a student from school.

Yours is a formidable job. Most of the skills you need to do it well are not likely found in textbooks. More likely, you’ve learned them from trial and error and practice. (Speaking of “errors,” we’re sure you remember all of the errors you’ve made on the job: such bumbles as badly mispronouncing a student’s name over the PA system, falling down the stairs while chasing after a student, or finishing a speech to a parents’ group and, during the applause, discovering that your pants are unzipped or your button unbuttoned.)

There are endless “top 10” lists of what makes a good school leader. Most have this at the core: the skills of optimism. In the midst of the realities of paperwork, media cynicism, parent complaints, a host of educational demands, and meager budgets, effective school administrators lead with optimism. Principles and actions of optimism are embedded in their lives and schools.

What does this mean? Optimism is more than encountering each day or situation with a positive attitude. It goes beyond just hoping everything will turn out all right. It involves a bundle of skills; these include such capabilities as acceptance, curiosity, knowledge seeking, empathic listening, problem solving, caring, openness to new ideas, risk taking, honesty, persistence, coping, taking responsibility, acting with courage and hope.

All these skills flow from these understandings:

Optimism is realistic. To lead with optimism, the administrator has eyes wide open. She or he does not minimize, hide from, or sugar coat a situation—but acknowledges the actualities, no matter how messy or severe.

Optimism is intentional. An optimist is realistic about current circumstances, yet deliberately chooses hope. This is not a blind hope, however. It is a mindset that faces challenges squarely and responds to them as opportunities. It follows a planned process of examining facts, viewpoints, background, and possible effects of a situation—and then figuring out what can be done about it. And this mindset includes purposefully choosing to fight hard, find a solution, and envision positive outcomes.

Optimism is active. An optimistic leader isn’t paralyzed by despair. Nor does the leader sit still and think positive thoughts. This leader learns everything possible about a situation, identifies options for response, makes a plan, and takes action.

We cringe when educators are demeaned or excoriated in the media. What’s worse is the bashing that individuals or groups within the school community dish out to each other. We’ve all watched this—the eye rolling of staff members when someone else is speaking – or the sidebar conversations where colleagues look for ways to put each other down. This can be passive or aggressive, but it goes on all the time.

In our role as consultants to educators, we have visited hundreds of schools and assure you that we can sense a school’s climate within minutes of walking in the door. Perhaps you can too. We can see it on the faces of the staff members. We also can see what happens when a leader effectively builds optimism: The school culture changes. Optimism curbs the negativity. It replaces cynicism and distrust with hope and trust.

Jack Berckemeyer spreading optimism among faculty of Waiakea and Hilo Intermediate Schools during Learning Walks in Hawai’i this week.

Good News! Optimism can be learned.

As the leader of your school, you can develop and maintain it in yourself, spread the benefits of optimism around your school community, and help others build it. Here are a few suggestions of strategies to adopt in your role as the chief optimist. These will help to interrupt negative thought patterns, supplanting pessimism and fear with joy and confidence in working together for better possibilities.

We’re all in this together. Adamantly believe in the philosophy: OUR kids, OUR school, OUR team, OUR class—and show that you believe it. Commit to helping students, staff members, and parents think of themselves as co-owners. We know a fantastic principal in Ohio who walks into the school cafeteria every day and shouts, “Whose school is this?” and the students shout back, “Our school!” Follow this example and encourage teachers, coaches, team leaders, and everyone in the school community to keep asking and answering this question. Lead the parade in taking the “our school!” answer beyond lip service and into visible action.

Promote the “Five Principles of Optimism.” Regularly teach and strengthen the following principles. Print them on laminated cards or posters for each staff member. Share them with parents and students. With your staff, choose a schoolwide issue (start small) and use these principles to attack the issue. Work through each principle together. Practice this often.

  1. Before acting or reacting to a situation, gather as much information as possible about it from as many varied sources (and people) as possible. Get the real facts! Dissect the possible impacts of the situation (on students, staff, school, parents, and community) as it is now and as it will be if a change is involved.
  2. Determine what is beyond your control and strategize how to minimize its impact on the lives of the people involved. Wringing hands over things you cannot change is a waste of time. Instead of whining or being paralyzed, figure out how to go around the uncontrollable factors.
  3. Establish what you can control. Seek tools and strategies to maximize your power. Remember, even when you can’t change a circumstance, you can always change the way you deal with it.
  4. Actively do something positive toward your goals (from #2 and #3 above). Fight hard for the students, your school, your colleagues, and each other. Choose to assume that the bad won’t last long; interpret the possibilities optimistically. Put your power to work on a realistic, clear plan.
  5. Take ownership of your plan and acknowledge responsibility for your choices. Stop any blaming, bickering, or excusing. Combine forces; take responsibility for your decisions; live with the outcomes; learn from your mistakes.

Encourage staff members to practice these principles individually and on teams or committees. Work together in various configurations to imagine ways out of problems and make (and follow) plans to act with optimism. Teach this to your students. With enough practice, these will become habits!

Click to Download
“How to Promote Optimism in Your School”
for Jack and Debbie’s list of 15 ideas

Optimism is alive and well within thousands of schools. It is not dependent on your school’s demographics or staff longevity. It flows from the leader’s ability to demonstrate optimism in action, to inspire others to join in, and to teach them how to do it.

When members of the school community have hope and confidence in favorable outcomes—even from difficult situations—a school culture becomes one of vibrant, joyful optimism.


Jack Berckemeyer is a nationally recognized presenter, author, and humorist who began his career as a middle school teacher in Denver, Colorado. Jack has served as a judge for the Disney American Teacher Awards and a member of the selection committee for the USA TODAY All-Teacher Team. Jack was also the Assistant Executive Director for the National Middle School Association (now AMLE) for 13 years. He is the author (with Debbie Silver and Judith Baenen) of Deliberate Optimism: Reclaiming the Joy in Teaching. Follow Jack on Twitter @JBerckemeyer and visit his website.

Dr. Debbie Silver is a learning consultant and humorist with over 30 years of experience as a teacher, staff development facilitator, and university professor. As a middle grades classroom teacher, Debbie won numerous awards including 1990 Louisiana Teacher of the Year. She is the author and co-author of four bestselling books, including her most recent (with Dedra Stafford) Teaching Kids to Thrive: Essential Skills for Success. Visit her website and follow her on Twitter @DrDebbieSilver.


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2 Responses

  1. Rita Platt says:

    AMEN! This is spot-on! Lead with optimism, love, respect, and the sure belief that you can and DO make a difference every minute of every day. Thanks for the great post!

  2. Thanks, Rita! We love and respect your work, so this means a lot coming from you!

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