4 Ways to Create an Optimistic School Culture

Taking precautions now can help prevent catastrophe later.

Choose to be optimistic.. It feels better. Handwriting on a napkin with a cup of espresso coffee

Imagine if each school day every teacher arrived with a contagious, optimistic attitude. Research suggests that positive emotions can help solve problems, reinforce resilience, strengthen relationships, and even improve educational outcomes. An important aspect of effective leadership is creating and supporting environments that cultivate optimism. Here are four practical strategies for creating a positive and optimistic school culture.

1. Practice self-care.

Educators do the essential and difficult work of schooling young people, so it is important for them to remember to practice self-care. After one of our leadership workshops, a principal asked, “What can I do to reduce my stress?” He said he felt pressure to perform at peak levels—all day, every day—when meeting with teachers and interacting with students. We shared that leaders can benefit from practicing the be-great-for-eight-and-take-a-break strategy. When possible, focus on leadership work for eight minutes then take a short pause to reflect. The principal stated that he loved this idea, and a big smile appeared on his face. He said, “This is a much better idea than what I usually attempt to do, which is to be full on full time, which makes me frustrated and exhausted.”

It also important to focus on the positive. It seems that sometimes educators dwell on what didn’t work well during the school day. Encourage teachers to take time at the end of each day to reflect on what did work well. It might be that a new lesson went particularly well or a student had a breakthrough. Sometimes it is a student’s thank-you that strikes a chord; such gestures let a teacher know that their hard work is being noticed and appreciated. Teachers have shared that the practice of focusing on the positive has been heartening, even in the midst of high-stress days.

2. Find positive moments in every day.

In educators’ busy work lives, it is easy to forget to stop and take time to savor joy. Encourage your colleagues to notice happy moments, even if this practice is only for a few minutes at a time. For example, we can turn off the background noise of worries and deadlines and focus on a pleasant conversation or on observing a simple kindness. Importantly, we have found that when leaders practice finding the positive and share what they have observed, those they lead will be apt to feel more confident to share encouraging, upbeat, and helpful comments among themselves.

Encourage those you work with to find activities that help them feel happy, refreshed, and rejuvenated. Remember, too, that just as you want those with whom you work to take time to recharge, leaders who feel revitalized have more to give others.

3. Use positive self-talk to maintain an upbeat attitude.


Incorporating positive self-talk into your daily life will improve your overall mood and ability to respond to challenging situations. When you are feeling down about yourself or your abilities, give yourself a compliment. It needn’t be flowery and overblown. In fact, it should be authentic: I am a good leader because I listen well. Or, I am persistent in sticking with a task until I get it done.

You may find opportunities to use this strategy in your interactions with colleagues and friends. For example, if you hear a colleague feeling down about their abilities or themselves, remind them of their positive qualities. You might remind them of a signature strength: “You are really good at organizing things.” Or, “I know you are a good teacher because I have never seen you give up on a child’s capacity to learn.”

4. Actively appreciate things and people.

When we actively appreciate what we have and are authentically grateful for what matters to us—our colleagues, friends, and family; our health; or our work—we can increase our level of happiness in a fundamental way. This appreciation can and should be shared. Thanking people who have made a beneficial difference in our lives produces uplifting emotional responses that in turn foster positive relationships among people and can greatly increase joy among those who work together. Appreciating the people in our lives helps us stay focused on their best attributes and thus strengthens our relationships. When we actively appreciate all that we have right now, all that we have appreciates.

Appreciation can also be part of our internal dialogue to help maintain a positive outlook. Think of this strategy as programming your own “appreciation station.” Just as you keep the car radio tuned to your favorite station or have your personal top 40 songs playlist, you can use your happiness journal to list all that you are grateful for and appreciate in your life. Then make a conscious effort to tune into your appreciation station at least once a day to reflect on the good things in your life. You might make this part of your morning or evening routine; otherwise incorporate it into a transition time during your day.

Leaders are in a prime position to set aside time for promoting active appreciation among faculty and staff. If you incorporate some of these ideas into your day, you may notice your faculty and staff doing the same.

Join the great conversations going on about school leadership in our Facebook groups at Principal Life and High School Principal Life.

Plus, check out this article about 4 Ways to Support Your Teachers’ Mental Health.