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Cynicism Is Contagious; So Is Hope

Dr. Richard Curwin

Director, Graduate program in behavior disorder, David Yellin College
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In my last post, I promised readers a special post on a topic of great importance to me. Fighting cynicism is that topic. It is one of the most important issues for me and needs to be one of the most important goals for all schools. Cynicism can rot out a school the way termites rot out a wooden home. A cynic is someone who has given up hope that things can better. They are not realists or skeptics, who often ask hard questions or demonstrate care before accepting the first new thing that comes along. Cynicism is a plague that kills dreams. It sucks the life out of teachers and robs students of hope. No student deserves to have a teacher who has given up hope.

I once gave a speech to a large number of educators in the Chicago area at an event that required attendance of the district's teachers. A minute into my presentation, a teacher from the back of the auditorium shouted out a question. "What is the meaning of professionalism?" he asked. Before I could gather my thoughts to answer, he yelled, "I mean, is it professional to make me waste my time and come to this stupid conference?" That opened to door for me to answer his first question. "No, it's not professional to make you waste your time doing anything," I said, "but real professionals will listen because, even if they learn only one insight that might help their students, it is worth it." After he walked out a minute later, I thanked God that my children never had a teacher like that.

Six Symptoms of Serious Cynicism

I've found six ways to tell if an educator is dangerously close to hopeless cynicism. If you are a teacher or administrator and see a colleague with these symptoms, try to help that teacher regain hope by using the strategies that follow this list. Don't worry If you find yourself behaving in these ways occasionally -- we all have rough days. However, if you find yourself doing the following on a regular basis, then try the suggestions yourself.

First, the symptoms:

  1. You check your watch before your first cup of coffee or before nine AM to see how much longer until you can go home.
  2. What you teach becomes more important than who you teach.
  3. You begin believing that nothing works with "these" kids, that they are beyond hope.
  4. Every day feels the same.
  5. You often wonder why no one is doing anything to make life better for you.
  6. You have lost your own love of learning. Tedium has replaced wonder.

Five Strategies to Help Teachers Stop Cynical Feelings

Here are five powerful strategies that can help when you feel cynical or that you can use to help another teacher if you are a colleague, administrator or school consultant.

  1. Remember why you became a teacher and why you stay a teacher. It obviously wasn't for money, glory, respect or power. Teachers don't get those things. It was and is to help children. Remind yourself or others of this frequently.
  2. Adopt a hopeless student. Find a student who has given up and appears lost. He doesn't have to be one of your own students; in fact, it might be better if he isn't. Start by saying hello everyday and begin to ask him how school is going. Gradually build up to a big brother or sister relationship. It is hard to be cynical when someone depends on you, especially a child. You can help another teacher by asking for the same kind of assistance with another student. While it is not necessary for you to be a big brother to set up a teacher you wish to help, it is better to be involved yourself.
  3. Adopt a cynical teacher. In the same way a child can benefit from a big brother or sister, so can a colleague who has forgotten why they became a teacher. Ask for help, offer suggestions, be cheery, truthfully compliment them on something related to teaching. Become an ally in the fight against hopelessness. You can also ask a cynical teacher to help another cynical teacher break the cycle of hopelessness. Both can be rehabilitated by this method.
  4. Communicate with those who affect you in school. Most cynical teachers complain to others about those who affect them without attempting direct communication. So many problems can be solved or improved by talking with another instead of about him or her.
  5. Feel good about what you can control. When I ask teachers what makes them feel good about teaching, most of the answers involve things they cannot control. So many things that we can't control affect us, such as salary, the school facility, who our colleagues are, our students' family lives, and what the school board mandates. More importantly, teachers want the respect of others, recognition and administrative encouragement. Because others control each of these things, we feel hurt and helpless when we don't get them, especially when we deserve them. This leads to cynicism. We need to recognize the things we can control and feel good about them, because when we give others the power to make us feel good, we put ourselves at emotional risk. Here are some examples of what we can control:
    • Being prepared
    • Designing great lessons (see my previous post)
    • Helping colleagues
    • Doing things to make the school a better place
    • Organizing events that bring joy to colleagues, like a bagel and coffee morning before classes start (donuts and bear claws are better left in the bakery)
    Reclaiming the power to make ourselves feel good minimizes the emotional risk that leads to disappointment and cynicism.

Cynicism can spread through the school and destroy the atmosphere, the learning and, in some cases, a teacher’s career. Fight back. The antidote is hope for all.

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Dr. Richard Curwin

Director, Graduate program in behavior disorder, David Yellin College

Comments (9) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Latoya James's picture
Latoya James
Research and Marketing Specialist at AlphaBEST Education, Inc.

This piece articulates one of the many culprits of a "failing" school. Teachers are the heart of a school and her students are the pulse. Each teacher must be alive with hope to keep the students beating strong and optimistic. Cynicism slows learning and dulls the luminosity of our children and must be plucked before it begins to take root.

Love's picture
1st grade teacher - Texas

Thank you for taking the time to read this. I would greatly appreciate your reply.
1) You suggested several ways to help with cynicism in education, such as communicating with those who affect you. However, what can you do when you are deadly afraid of that person? You must have read about Texas teachers walking out in droves due to the treatment they get from administrators, work overload, and difficult students (that the administrators don't want you to refer to the office, because it makes the school look bad).
2) What about the lack of autonomy that teachers have these days? The administrators expect you to teach using "research-proven strategies" and not your own creative devices. Year after year they command us "you must teach like this, for this long, at these intervals, etc." In Finland (where students thrive), it's the opposite. Teachers get to choose their textbooks and how to teach their subject matter. Plus, they get more time to plan their lessons.
How can one keep from being cynical, Dr. Curwin, when half of all the things I see are done for money and not for the benefit of the kids... new program this, new strategy this, new test this...$$$?
I would love to hear your thoughts on this, if you have a chance.

Most sincerely,

1st Grade Teacher

Dr. Richard Curwin's picture
Dr. Richard Curwin
Director, Graduate program in behavior disorder, David Yellin College

Dear first grade teacher from Texas,

I could say change states. Texas gives less freedom to teachers than any state in America. Or I could sympathize with you and try to tell you it's not all that bad. Or maybe say suck it up and just do your job. But I won't say any of these things. I hear in your letter a genuine desire to be a great teacher and are frustrated by so many things that you really don't know how to deal with. So let me start by saying you raise many very difficult questions and some that I need more information to give you the best answer. Also I want to answer in a way that other readers might also benefit. I'm a terrible salesperson, but I wrote two books that might be very helpful. The first is REDISCOVERING HOPE: OUR GREATEST TEACHING STRATEGY and the second and more recent is MEETING STUDENTS WHERE THEY LIVE: MOTIVATION IN URBAN SCHOOLS. They can be found at

Now, I'll try to answer your questions as best I can.
1. If you are too afraid of an administrator to talk honestly then change that relationship. Say good morning in a pleasant way each morning. Do something that makes her job easier. All administrators appreciate that. Ask for help in solving a problem, then use her advice. This will develop within her an investment in you. She will really like knowing she helped you find an answer that works. Your relationship should become less fearful in time so you can talk to her in an honest way. And remember your administrators are under the same. if not more. pressure than you are.
2. If you can't send students to the office, develop a team of other teachers and you can send really rough students to each other when necessary. I believe you must solve your own problems with students without the interference of the administrator, but I know you sometimes teachers need a break from a kid for a time. By the way, kids almost never act out in other teachers' classes. Help each other out without formal referrals.
3. Most schools tell teachers what to teach but not how. Use what ever space you can find to be creative and innovative. If none exists, and this is rare, then change the timing of what you cover to give you more time to be the kind of teacher you want to be. Instead of spending 20 minutes on encoding letters, spend 15 and over the course of the day, you'll find time to do things you want. If you can't even do this, then my only answer is to do whatever you are asked, the best you can and feel proud of that.
4. New programs come and go. Some are disastrous, like Direct Instruction. There is a lot of money involved, as you have noticed. But continue to focus on helping children grow and prosper. You can't change the programs that are bought and the money spent, but you can focus on all the wonderful things you can do to improve the lives of children. Nothing is as important as that.
I hope I have been helpful. Your questions really require that I write a new book., but I have already done that.

Never let your hope die. If it does you will die, too, along with your students.


Love's picture
1st grade teacher - Texas

Sometimes an outsider's perspective is just what you need. Hope is hard to find in my own circle. (They feel the same way I do.)
Will definitely work on your suggestions.
I'll also keep in mind what you said about Texas. A move might also be worth considering.

Warm Regards,

1st grade teacher - Texas

Whitney Hoffman's picture
Whitney Hoffman
Producer LD Podcast, Digital Media Consultant, Author

I think mindset is so important. You have to go into the situation expecting great things, rather than always assuming the worst. I worked in a law office just out of college, and I was always amazed at how pessimistic my boss was- years of experience led him to believe (correctly) that more people would not follow through with their promises than would.
Experience teaches us many things, but we have to be careful it doesn't cause us to assume that if one kid lies, for example, all kids lie. Being experienced and being jaded don't have to be the same thing, and this post is a great way to stave off the dark underbelly of disappointment and frustration.

Laura Thomas's picture
Laura Thomas
Director, Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal, Author of Facilitating Authentic Learning, Director of the Antioch Critical Skills Program; Elementary Library Media Specialist

I think that cynicism is the product of fear with a pinch of fatigue throw in. In our mindfulness program at Antioch we help teachers to stay in the present moment, really seeing the people around us as they actually are in that moment, not as we believe them to have been in the past or fear they might be in the future. Throw in a dash of gratitude and you can break the fear/ cynicism loop in your head.

I also find that being fully present for the people around me lets me really connect with their experiences and needs. Sometimes that just looks like putting distractions aside, making eye contact, really listening to what's being said and felt by the person across from us and NOT trying to judge, fix, or correct. Just being *with* someone, bearing witness to their experience, can help to reconnect us to one another. Connection- relationship- is a powerful driver for hope and (my other favorite) disruptive joy!

Patty McLain's picture
Patty McLain
Instructional Coach for Pleasant Valley School District

Thank you for sharing this article! Last year the students in my school actually started their own grass roots movement for positivity and kindness and they call it HOPE. They accomplished some remarkable things and inspired a lot of people, both young and old, in grades K-12, so I agree that HOPE is inside all of us. You can read more about their epic adventures on my blog if you're interested -

Emma Bennett's picture

I very much enjoyed reading this post. Unfortunately, as a second grade public school teacher, I feel the consequences of cynicism far too often. Whether from myself, a colleague, an administrator, a parent, or a student, cynicism certainly does not allow for much growth. When I read your idea of "adopting a hopeless student," I immediately saw it as a relevant solution to some of the problems I face at my school. Specifically, I enjoyed your suggestion of focusing on a student who may not be my own, as a way to show him or her that there is diversified investment in his or her future and well-being. I now plan to engage with a particular "hopeless" student, who isn't in my class. My hope is that through my cheerful, helpful, yet honest "sibling" check-ins and encouragement, this student will realize that I am depending on her, and hopefully she will feel more committed to accomplishing some of the tasks in front of her. Thank you again for your post!

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