Education writer and former Bury St Edmunds headmaster Andrew Hammond says children learn best from a smiling teacher
Optimism seems in short supply just now. I need not list the daily national and international news items that give us cause to believe everything around us is on the decline. There’s no doubt there are some very worrying issues at present.
But optimism is still a place you can choose to live in, even if it seems hard to navigate your way to it, with so many obstacles and roadblocks right now.
Winston Churchill said: “I am an optimist. It does not seem too much use being anything else.” This is good advice.
While pessimistic headlines of gloom and doom may grab our attention, it is the positive messages that we wrap ourselves around. Dystopian visions of a declining future for all of us are endemic right now, whether it’s the natural environment or the human societies and democracies on which we have relied for so long. But optimism will always win – it is ‘the faith that leads to achievement’, as Helen Keller said.
Such optimism need not be rooted in naivety or a refusal to accept reality. You can retain a positive outlook and a can-do attitude even when all around you seems grey. Perhaps that is the time when you need it most.
From an educator’s perspective, optimism is an essential state of mind, without which it is hard to inspire and engage young learners. Cynicism is corrosive; it tarnishes childhood like rust, taking the shine off the world’s wonders. Young minds need to know that the world can, and will, be a better place. With a can-do attitude, there is no limit to the contributions children will make when they are older, provided they stave off the cynical resignation that can sometimes bubble up in adulthood.
I have always thought it cruelly ironic that a childhood dominated by the need to prepare for the stresses and strains of adulthood will ultimately end in an unfulfilling and empty grown up life. And yet, a childhood that is filled with joy, awe and wonder builds secure roots for what lies ahead. Looking back to my own school days, the teachers who smiled most frequently were the ones I listened to and engaged with. There is nothing better for a child than to know that their teacher is pleased to see them and has unshakeable belief in what they will achieve.
As people, our characters are forged during our primary years, I am certain. My hopes, fears, likes and dislikes, what I thought I was good at, and what I thought I wasn’t good at and never would be, have not really changed all these years. I am the same person with broadly the same view of the world and its possibilities. I was programmed in my early school days, not by the formal teaching I received, but by the culture and climate of the school and, above all, by the optimistic beliefs of the grown ups around me. What the teachers taught me formally was less impactful than how they made me feel. It wasn’t carefully planned differentiated tasks or tailored teaching strategies that made me believe there was a Hammond-shaped space just for me in my school, it was a constant smile.
There is a lovely quote I came across recently, apparently spoken by a six year old in school: “My teacher thought I was smarter than I thought I was, so I was.”
Fortunately for me, Optimism is now saved as a favourite place on my mind’s sat-nav, which is a blessing as there have been times when I could not have found the route alone.