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The Truth About the Effect of Teacher Optimism on Student Performance

The Truth About the Effect of Teacher Optimism on Student Performance

Things will look up for you and your students when you adopt a positive attitude in the classroom.

In a 2009 study, researcher Angela Duckworth used a questionnaire to rate teachers' optimism at the start of their first year of teaching. At the end of the year, she found that students whose teachers were optimists had made greater academic gains than their peers. According to the study, there appears to be a link between a teacher's attitude and student success.

Optimism in Action

I teach at a low-income, urban high school. Despite the fact that close to 80 percent of our students live at or below the poverty line, student performance is generally remarkable. They score well on advanced placement tests, get good grades, and earn admission to highly rated colleges. Our staff's optimism that students can learn, change, and improve is definitely a factor in student success at our school.

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As it turns out, research supports the idea that teacher optimism can have a positive impact on student performance. A 2006 Ohio State University study that looked at academic optimism as an explanation for student achievement when controlling for socioeconomic status, previous achievement, and "urbanicity," showed that academic optimism—defined as academic emphasis, collective efficacy, and faculty trust—played a significant role in student achievement.

Academic Emphasis

Academic emphasis is defined as "the extent to which a school is driven by a quest for academic excellence—a press for academic achievement." When teachers believe they can make a positive difference in student learning—when they trust and believe in the administration, the parents, and the students—student performance improves. Here are some hallmarks of classrooms that value academics:

  • Classrooms with an academic emphasis set high—but achievable—goals for students. Teachers let students know what the goals are, and they also emphasize that these goals are achievable.
  • Academically rigorous classrooms have an orderly and serious environment. This is not to say no laughter or fun can be allowed. But achievement is also recognized as serious and important business. In a classroom with academic emphasis, students are motivated to work hard. The teacher ensures that the students see relevancy in their learning, and that they make real-world connections.
  • In classrooms with an academic emphasis, students respect academic achievement. Early in my teaching career, I remember students teasing each other about success. When a student scored well on an assignment, a peer might mock them for being a nerd. Somewhere along the line that changed. I worked hard to make it cool to achieve. When formerly struggling students started to do well, I acknowledged their hard work and success. The students were proud, and they let the rest of the class know it. Working hard and being successful became desirable, while not trying was frowned upon.

Collective Efficacy of Faculty

Collective efficacy is the belief by all members of the school that students can improve and be successful. Teachers, administrators, and students all need to believe that student performance can improve and that students can be successful. The Ohio State study notes that the "perceived collective efficacy is the judgment of teachers that the faculty as a whole can organize and execute the actions required to have positive effects on students."

Further reading: 5 Ways to Deal with Negative Teachers

Trust in Parents and Students

According to the Ohio State study, trust can be built between teachers and parents through both formal and informal exchanges. Communication that lets both students and parents know that the teacher has the students' best interests at heart is powerful. Teachers need to convey that goals are achievable, and they should create plans for success that clearly delineate the responsibilities of the teacher, parent, and student in achieving that success.

A Caveat

The study noted one caveat: Some ways of creating academic emphasis—like competitive grading or punishment for failure—can actually backfire, destroying trust between teachers, parents, and students. In addition, praising students for merely adequate work and refraining from constructive criticism can undermine trust in the classroom.

Further reading: 5 Tips Guaranteed to Make You a Happy Teacher 

It's easy sometimes to caught up in pessimism as a teacher. But the Ohio State study points out, "Academic optimism views teachers as capable, students as willing, parents as supportive, and the task as achievable." Academic optimism is sure to positively impact your classroom. Why not give it a try?