Teaching Hope and Optimism: A Student Review

I started this course to explore the research behind hope and optimism and positive psychology so that I can develop a programme from September for incoming first year students and incorporate new skills in my practice as a guidance counsellor. Due to the global pandemic students have lost hope and optimism and I feel this is needed more than ever before. I am a natural optimist and am delighted to see how much this information is grounded in rigorous research.

If education is about hope, courage, and the realisation of possibilities, preparing for the future, investing time now in the belief that what is learned now will reap benefits for students to flourish in the future, then we as teachers have a huge responsibility to teach ways to be hopeful. On top of ongoing pessimistic news that we all accepted as the norm; coronavirus has really had a negative impact on students. My current leaving certs students have seen their friends in college last year looking at blank boring screens for their first academic year and are wondering if they will have the same experience. I have also seen first year students who present joyless and anxious. Now more than ever we as educators need to be hopeful and model it.

I have spent some time thinking about “Thinking traps” and the effect of our inner experiences which can lead to an inner “Radio station” which is constantly tuned to negative thoughts.  I am aware of students coming to see me with this negative process. I am also thinking about “errors in thinking” as identified by Beck and how new research in neuroscience tells us that the adolescent brain is more emotional than rational and perhaps that is why CBT works well with teenagers.

As teachers, we also need to be self-aware and think “where is my emotional energy today?” And how can I provide an environment that is safe to explore opportunities where successes can be seen and felt?  If emotion is contagious by acting in a positive way and increasing my own positive emotions, I can influence the class.

How we model kindness, gratitude, positivity, and optimism and how I conduct myself within my school, classroom, staff room and in my wider life affects others I come in contact with.  I notice that I am making more of an effort to say hello to students on the corridor, Masks are making it so difficult to give nonverbal expressions such as smiling.

I am very taken with quote from Aristotle “We are what we repeatedly do, excellence, then is not an act, but a habit.” This is a very hopeful observation that allows me to consistently advocate for the need for positive, hopeful actions and therefore behaviours, thereby building resilience and mitigating against low level depression and anxiety.  The growth mindset as proved by Dweck, feeds from having hope and optimism to acknowledge problems and using strengths such as wisdom and knowledge, courage, justice, curiosity.

Strengthening relationships within the ARC model is allowing space for me to reflect on how I have been unconsciously using this in my LCA classes. This can be a challenging environment, where different group dynamics can play out in negative ways.  As a guidance counsellor, I bring an active listening and non-judgemental approach to class and use active and constructive responses when students tell me some new information. This comes into sharp focus as they apply for PLC courses, get called for interview and get accepted on a course. I will insert this model into our classroom contract for next year’s LCA group. I will explain it to them, model it and then set time aside in class to activate it, aiming for it to become automatic skill.

I am going to build in a “Visualising Success” exercise to focus on the event, i.e., exams, a course that a student wants etc, to activate the brain as if it was actually carrying out the actions and I am going to marry it with agency thinking, to challenge where negativity is coming from, to remember past successes and spend time problem solving. I really feel that this will have quite a positive impact on 6th years. I now can add on so many other tools to use to help build resilience, such as Photographing Hope, Putting things in Perspective, Reframing, Rewriting our Narratives, Looking at Signature Strengths and allow for growth. I am going to use the words “Hope” and “Optimism “as part of my professional language while engaging with students and staff.

We are grateful to Claire McGowan for this lovely review.  If you’re interested in this course, our summer term runs from 1st July to 26th August.  Find out more here.

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