Filling Your Classroom with Deliberate Optimism
Reviewed by Kathleen Palmieri
In 2015 Debbie Silver, Jack Berckemeyer, and Judith Baenen published Deliberate Optimism: Reclaiming the Joy in Education. At the time, educators were feeling defeated and distressed as their roles were seemingly devalued by many members of the public.
Standardized testing, scripted curricula, the push to decrease teacher creativity for increased test scores, and the ever stressful teacher evaluation system added to the already stressed environment.
Who would have thought that it could get any worse? And then it did. In 2020 the pandemic turned our schools upside down and public criticism increased, causing many educators to lose faith and leave the profession.
Despite all that we in education have endured, Debbie Silver and Jack Berckemeyer still believe in the importance of what we do. “Teaching remains the most noble profession. What other group of people has more ability to shape the future by empowering the next generation to think, to create, and to act compassionately toward their fellow humans?” (xii)
To support their belief, Silver and Berckemeyer have updated Deliberate Optimism with a new tagline, Still Reclaiming the Joy in Education. The second edition offers revised principles of optimism, updated strategies and scenarios, interactive action step exercises, QR codes leading to self assessments, and videos, to name just a few of the highlights.
The Four Principles for Deliberate Optimism for Educators include:
- Gather information.
- Control what you can.
- Do something positive.
- Own your part.
This new edition includes a chapter for each principle, and each is authentically presented. The authors begin with “Gather Information” which sounds so simple yet is the catalyst for solving many false truths that can lead to stressful misunderstandings.
Because we lead such busy, over-scheduled lives, it’s easy to listen to others’ views on critical issues from discussions at workshops, board meetings or after-hours gatherings without thinking about the actual facts. This type of sharing, they contend, leads to negative thoughts and feelings and creates an “us versus them” environment.
An overview of the principles
Throughout this first principle, words such as us, they, and those people are bolded to emphasize the negative talk that can only lead to a more stressful, negative climate. Taking the time to fact check helps to alleviate such strain. Action Step 1.1 “Fact Check” and their “Guiding Questions on Realistic Awareness” help the reader to take a close, personal look at this principle.
Principle two – “Control what you can” – offers the idea that if we are constantly worrying over things we can’t change, we are not only wasting our time, we are causing ourselves undue stress. On page 35 the authors offer a table that provides examples of “What you can’t Control” and “What you can Control,” presenting realistic scenarios around topics like parent expectations – you can’t control what they say, but you can control the way you communicate.
Action Step 2.3/QR code “Positive Reframing” (page 39) is a helpful five-minute video that asks you to consider something that is currently troubling you and how you may be able to reframe the issue in a more “positive light.”
The third principle, “Do something positive,” asks us to make positive efforts to “just keep moving forward” (page 56). The authors offer suggestions such as keeping ourselves upbeat even when those around us are negative, not overloading our plates, and, most importantly, taking care of our physical and mental health. In “Taking positive steps with our health” the authors write,
In a career that often requires us to be selfless, many teachers see themselves as healers and fixers. We get so busy taking care of everyone else that we often neglect our own welfare. Too many times, we put our own needs last and tend to think of those who put effort into taking care of their physical, psychological, spiritual, mental, and social needs as being a bit self-absorbed and even selfish.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Burning the candle at both ends will eventually lead to complete and total burnout, and we have too many excellent teachers leaving the field already. Taking care of oneself is probably the least selfish thing a teacher can do. (page 60)
The fourth principle, “Own your part,” looks at our responsibility. There are many issues we have no control over. However, it is equally important to reexamine when programs and tasks within our control aren’t working. We need to take responsibility for what goes on in our classroom and do what is best for our students.
The authors offer “Tips for Choosing Responsibility,” outlining the need to prioritize ourselves, stop blaming, take time for self reflection, assume accountability, avoid excuses, stand up to detractors, and – the one that really stood out to me – “We stop being our own worst enemies.”
We refrain from having detrimental conversations about our classrooms, our schools, our districts, and other educators in public. We must maintain a realistic optimism about our profession…We need to stand together, support one another, and make every effort to speak positively about education. Our collective optimism can be contagious. (page 79)
An addition: Mental Health
One of the newly added chapters to this second edition is “Mental Health is Health.” Here, with a new Principle 5, Silver and Berckemeyer address one of the most important topics I think of in teacher care: our mental health. “We give mental health its own chapter in this book because that’s how important we think it is. Without good mental health, the other steps toward strengthening well being are meaningless. Mental health is health.” (page 92)
Silver and Berckemeyer thoughtfully discuss the stigma surrounding this topic. Teacher self care must include mental health and wellness. Action Step 5.2 offers a QR code to a four-minute video on how stress affects your body.
“Following the Four Principles of Deliberate Optimism, teachers must be aware of their personal needs, learn which factors affecting their health they can control, do the things that positively impact their welfare, and take responsibility for ensuring their own well-being.” (page 96)
The practice of mindfulness is discussed: “It is a way of learning to be fully present in the moment without being distracted by past anxiety or future uncertainties. Mindfulness is a way to calm the emotional center of the brain through nonjudgmental and nonreactive awareness.” (page 99)
Within this book there are so many important topics discussed on the need for optimism, well being, and teacher care. I have only scratched the surface. Throughout the chapters there are scenarios, QR codes to videos, and self-tests that help the reader take a closer look at their own feelings and experiences.
Appendices offer tools such as the “Life Orientation Test” and “Happiness and Optimism Tests,” a worksheet on the Four Principles of Deliberate Optimism, and “Realistic Awareness” with questions to answer before reacting to news about a challenge or problem.
Lessons well seasoned with humor
Finally, no Debbie Silver book would be complete without many doses of her humor, such as “Ten Ways You Know You Are An Educator Under Too Much Stress” found on page 97. As Debbie writes, “If you did not laugh or even smile at this satirical stress indicator, it might be a sign that you truly are under way too much stress.” (For a sample of Debbie Silver’s take on being optimistic while “keeping it real,” watch this Corwin video chat.”)
The second edition of Deliberate Optimism was a welcome book as I read it over the summer, at the end of a long school year. I have read and reviewed other Debbie Silver books and find her authentic wit, writing, and tell-it-like-it-is style to be exactly what I need. Put this book on the top of your reading list now or any time of year as you find time to give yourself some well-deserved self-care.
Kathleen Palmieri is a National Board Certified Teacher and NBCT Professional Learning facilitator. She is a fifth grade educator in upstate New York who reviews and writes regularly for MiddleWeb. With a passion for literacy and learning in the classroom, she participates in various writing workshops, curriculum writing endeavors, and math presentations. As a lifelong learner, she is an avid reader and researcher of educational practices and techniques. Collaborating with colleagues and globally on Twitter https://twitter.com/Kathie_Palmieri and expanding her education adventures at www.kathleenpalmieri.com is an ongoing practice.