Wednesday, 20 January 2016

Unfailing Optimism: Does It Work?

Like damp rising within I've felt a fear: the fear that everything I write will be sneered at as idealistic, unrealistic, patronising and platitudinous. The very people I wish I could influence (not for my gain but theirs) are predisposed to believe that change for the better is not achievable. Indeed I've had such comments; other people simply refuse to engage.

Some have interpreted my content as advice that we teachers should just shut up and get on with the job resigning ourselves to the fact that we have to work 90 hour weeks (probably). They think positivity and optimism in the face of turbulent times in the profession are worthless and pointless qualities to be advocating. Despite the fact that I constantly try to back up the calls for positivity and optimism with practical advice, I'm sure there remain naysayers and detractors. 

"He was unfailingly optimistic, and disapproved strongly if anyone showed a long face," wrote a Frank Hurley of Frank Wild, Ernest Shackleton's second-in-command on the harrowing Endurance expedition to the South Pole. After months of being stuck in pack ice, losing their ship, sailing through icy seas with set back after set back along the way, Frank Wild, when left in charge of the majority of the crew on Elephant Island whilst Shackleton pushed on to find help, still expected his men to be positive and optimistic. And it saved their lives. Of course he ensured, as Shackleton did also, that many practical steps were taken to make sure that pessimism, hatred and depression didn't set in after braving the polar seas in life-threatening conditions.

Perhaps, if being 'unfailingly optimistic' can save lives, then maybe it can change lives too. Positive thinking might seem wishy-washy and unscientific but in survival scenarios it has been seen time and time again that positivity wins the day. For Shackleton and his crew, where expeditions such as Scott's ended in fatality, optimism was key: no matter how bad things were (and things were bad) Shackleton never gave the slightest sign to his crew that he thought they were going to die. He optimistically believed that they would make it out alive, and against all the odds, they did.

It is interesting that the Endurance crew members' diaries reveal that throughout the ordeal they felt well-led, looked-after and happy, and in turn most of the crew members, most of the time, were optimistic too, never doubting their leader and his optimism.

Sometimes we have to force ourselves to be positive in our thinking in order to effect change. Waiting for a situation to alter before you can think positively and feel well and happy is the wrong way round. If Shackleton had waited until he'd reached the whaling station where help lay he would no doubt have reached it with many of his crew members dead, that's if he wasn't dead himself. We must rise above the difficulties of a situation, think optimistically and let that steer our thoughts, ideas and decisions if we are to survive the wilds of teaching right now.

To finish, a quote from Shackleton himself, when asked to give some advice to some school children: " trouble, danger, and disappointment never give up hope. The worst can always be got over."

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