Optimism and an “I Believe in You” Attitude Are Powerful Teaching Tools

We’ve all heard the saying, “If Mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.”

Now, substitute the word teacher for mama.

And then, substitute the words optimistic and supportive for the first happy in the quote.

You now have a new, albeit, less memorable saying: If the teacher isn’t optimistic and supportive of student success, then the students aren’t succeeding.

Angela Duckworth in her book Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, related a study that shows how a teacher’s high expectations, combined with positive support, impacts student effort.  In that study, psychologists David Yeager and Geoff Cohen asked 7th grade teachers to “provide written feedback on student essays, including suggestions for improvement and any words of encouragement that they would normally give.”  The researchers then gathered the papers and randomly sorted them evenly into two piles.  On the papers in one pile, they attached a neutral sticky-note that said, “I’m giving you these comments so that you’ll have feedback on your paper.”  The sticky-note on the papers in the other pile had a supportive comment that read, “I’m giving you these comments because I have very high expectations and I know that you can reach them.”

Neither students nor teachers knew which sticky note students received.  And students didn’t know that the sticky note was not from their teacher.

 Students were given the option to revise their essays.

 In the neutral group, 40% of the students choose to revise.

In the supportive group, 80% of the students choose to revise.

The takeaway?

The only difference between the two groups was the optimistic message from the teacher that basically said, “I am expecting a lot of you, and I believe you can do it.”

Another, somewhat related study points to the importance of optimism in a coach’s ability to lead his NBA team to success. In his book, Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-Being, Martin E. P. Seligman describes a study he and a colleague, Karen Reivich, embarked on many years ago to measure the link between an NBA team’s overall optimism or pessimism and their ability to bounce back from defeat. Seligman and Reivich first spent countless hours gathering each team member’s comments about their team over an entire season and then rated those comments as either optimistic or pessimistic. Looking at the totality of players’ comments from each team, they then labeled that team as either optimistic or pessimistic. The next season, they looked to see if the team attitude predicted their performance on the game following a loss.  And indeed, they found that the teams labeled as optimistic were able to “consistently beat the point spread in the game after a defeat while the pessimistic team consistently lost to the point spread after defeat.” 

In a different version of their initial study, Seligman and Reivich did the same with each coach’s comments, ultimately labeling the coach’s overall attitude as optimistic or pessimistic.  Not surprisingly, they found that the coach’s attitude was just as good a predictor of their team’s ability to bounce back after a loss as the player’s attitude.

Although, Seligman didn’t say it, one can imagine the optimistic coach’s locker room talk after a defeat. Of course, there was probably analysis of what went wrong and discussion of how to improve, but one can also imagine that there was a lot of “You can do this” and “I know you are up to the challenge” kind of positive talk.  In fact, it isn’t a stretch to believe that player comments measured by Seligman and Reivich in the initial study were influenced by the coach’s belief, or lack of belief, in his team’s performance.

Both of these studies are a good reminder that our attitude as the teacher can make a difference in student performance and success.  This is about much more than being in a good mood on a certain day, but instead, it is operating under the basic belief that given the appropriate guidance and support all of our students can achieve great things. Like an NBA coach who expects his team to bounce back after defeat or a teacher who gives students feedback on their writing, but also tells them that they are up to the challenge, when we have high expectations about our students’ ability to succeed, we convey that belief to the students.

And when you tell your students that you believe in them, it is a little bit easier for them to believe in themselves.


Duckworth, Angela. Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance. (New York: Scribner, 2016) 218-219.

Seligman, Martin E. P. A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being. (New York: Atria Paperback, 2011) 148-149.

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