Learned Optimism: A New Approach to Teacher Burnout & Retention

Thursday, December 7, 2023

In the ever-evolving landscape of education, where teacher burnout and attrition are pressing concerns, the value of maintaining a positive mindset cannot be overstated. Enter "Learned Optimism," a psychological framework pioneered by the esteemed Dr. Martin Seligman. While not originally designed exclusively for educators, its principles can be remarkably beneficial for teachers and school leaders, offering a valuable tool to combat the challenges in education today.

About Dr. Martin Seligman:

Dr. Martin Seligman is a renowned psychologist, educator, and author, widely recognized as a founding figure in the field of positive psychology. Throughout his illustrious career as a professor of psychology, Dr. Seligman has made significant contributions to the understanding of human well-being, resilience, and the psychology of optimism. His work, including the development of the learned optimism framework, has influenced a diverse range of fields, from psychology to education.

How We Talk To Ourselves - Understanding Explanatory Style:

Explanatory style is the lens through which we interpret and explain events in our lives. It's the internal narrative we construct about why things happen, attributing causes, consequences, and implications to events. In a nutshell, it is what you say to yourself in your head after things happen in your life, good or bad.

As educators in today’s post-pandemic world, we have become masters of self-criticism.  We never feel like we are good enough, doing enough, or deserving of any of the success we have managed to achieve.  

But the reality is…most of those thoughts are bullsh*t.  As professionals, we always strive to do and be better, but beating ourselves up mentally does not help us get there - it just makes you miserable.  That’s where “learned optimism” comes into play.

Dr. Seligman’s research discovered that a person’s explanatory style can actually be analyzed across three dimensions - permanence, pervasiveness, and personalization - and these determine whether we are in an optimistic mindset or a pessimistic one.  Once you understand this framework, you will already have taken an enormous step towards being less critical of yourself.  Let’s take a look at each of them:


  • Definition: Permanence refers to the belief in the duration of events – whether they are temporary or long-lasting.
  • Example: Consider a school leader encountering difficulties in implementing a new teaching methodology. An optimistic mindset might say, "These challenges always happen with new tools. But once we get used to it, we will see positive changes that will make us feel great about the decision.”   In contrast, a pessimistic mindset might express, "This will never work.  Everyone hates change so it is always easier to make due with what we’ve got."
  • Explanation: An optimistic mindset works to remind themselves that both good and bad things always come and go, so when something challenging occurs, it’s better to learn from it and just move on to the next one!  On the other hand, a pessimistic mindset will imagine that negative things will last forever.


  • Definition: Pervasiveness relates to the scope of the impact we attribute to an event – whether it's specific to a certain situation or has broader implications.
  • Example: Picture a teacher receiving critical feedback on a lesson. An optimistic mindset might think, "This is specific to this lesson. I can learn and improve without it affecting my overall teaching abilities." On the other hand, a pessimistic mindset might feel, "I knew it, I’m not a good teacher.  This bad lesson is just another example of how I am not cut out for this."
  • Explanation: An optimistic mindset remembers to treat each situation or part of life as distinct from the others - the outcome in one situation is just from that one situation.  A pessimistic mindset draws global conclusions from even the smallest negative events, regardless of whether there is any truth to it.


  • Definition: Personalization involves attributing the cause of events to internal or external factors – whether you blame yourself or external circumstances.
  • Example: Imagine a school leader facing challenges in team collaboration. An optimistic mindset might say, "It's not solely on me. This week has been challenging and my team is still learning how to communicate with one another - we will get through this." Conversely, a pessimistic mindset might internalize the blame, saying, "I’m the leader, which means that if the team fails or is having problems, I am the only one responsible."
  • Explanation: An optimistic mindset remembers that the world is incredibly complex with every individual going through their own set of circumstances and challenges, which means things are rarely any one specific person's fault.  A pessimistic mindset puts it all on themselves all of the time, imagining that they are an all-powerful figure that has a profound impact on everything it touches! (I know, when you put it like that, it does sound kind of silly doesn’t it?)

The Impact of Optimism on Performance & Retention

Dr. Martin Seligman's groundbreaking research into optimism and pessimism proved instrumental in reshaping our understanding of performance and retention, particularly in the context of sales

In the late 1980s, Seligman collaborated with renowned psychologist Peter Schulman to conduct a seminal study within the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company. The research revealed that salespeople exhibiting optimistic explanatory styles—attributing setbacks to external, temporary, and specific factors—outperformed their pessimistic counterparts. Notably, the optimistic salespeople demonstrated increased sales performance, greater resilience in the face of challenges, and higher job satisfaction. 

Furthermore, the study identified a compelling correlation between optimistic explanatory styles and increased employee retention. This groundbreaking work laid the foundation for recognizing the tangible impact of mindset on professional success and longevity, emphasizing the significance of cultivating optimism for individuals operating in high-stakes, performance-driven environments like sales.

Might we find a similar impact in teaching and schools, where educators face a similarly challenging day-to-day environment?

Integrating Learned Optimism into Education: A Practical Approach

Now that we understand the foundations of learned optimism and its relevance to educators, let's explore how this transformative framework can be seamlessly incorporated into daily practices, teacher training, coaching, and leadership development.

Daily Teacher Reflections

  • Encourage teachers to weave learned optimism into their daily reflections. During these moments of introspection, teachers can consciously evaluate their explanatory style regarding specific challenges or successes. By asking themselves questions like, "Is this setback temporary or permanent? Is it specific to this situation, or does it impact my overall teaching ability?" educators can gradually shape a more optimistic narrative.

Teacher Training and Coaching

  • Infuse learned optimism principles into teacher training programs and coaching sessions. Provide educators with practical tools to identify and reframe their explanatory style. Equip trainers and coaches with strategies to guide teachers in embracing a positive mindset. For instance, during feedback sessions, trainers can emphasize the temporary nature of challenges and highlight specific, situational issues rather than making global judgments.

Leadership Development

  • Extend the principles of learned optimism to leadership development programs for school leaders and administrators. Equip them with the skills to foster a positive school culture. Leaders can model optimism in their decision-making processes and communication. Leadership development can include workshops on recognizing and altering explanatory styles, promoting a growth mindset, and creating an environment that encourages resilience among both educators and students.

Incorporating Optimistic Practices

  • Actively integrate optimistic practices into professional development sessions. Workshops could focus on practical exercises, such as reframing challenges, setting realistic goals, and celebrating small victories. By creating a culture that acknowledges the temporary nature of setbacks and emphasizes the role of external factors, educators can collectively contribute to a more optimistic and supportive learning environment.

Peer Collaboration and Support

  • Foster peer collaboration and support networks that emphasize learned optimism. Encourage teachers to share their experiences, challenges, and reframing strategies with colleagues. Peer observation protocols can include discussions on the temporary nature of setbacks, specific challenges, and external factors influencing teaching practices. This creates a community of educators who uplift each other and collectively contribute to a positive school culture.

By infusing the principles of learned optimism into daily reflections, teacher training, coaching, and leadership development, educators can actively reshape their explanatory styles. This not only enhances individual well-being but also contributes to a more positive and resilient educational ecosystem. 

With a positive explanatory style – one that sees setbacks as temporary, specific, and influenced by external factors – teachers and school leaders can foster resilience, enhance well-being, and create a positive learning environment for both educators and students. So, let's embark on this journey together, breaking free from self-limiting beliefs and cultivating a culture of optimism in education.

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