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  • Writer's pictureKathryn Laster

Fostering Deliberate Optimism

Updated: Apr 25

Fostering Deliberate Optimism with Dr. Debbie Silver

I recently had the privilege of chatting with Dr. Debbie Silver, who is an educator and educational speaker. In our conversation, we discuss the importance of teacher PD, the power of humor, and the significance of deliberate optimism in education. She shares personal stories, practical advice for managing stress, and her philosophy on engaging teachers and students with joy and humor. 

Here are highlights from our discussion, offering a glimpse into Dr. Silver’s keynote address, Deliberate Optimism: Building a Positive Professional Culture, and her subsequent session, Practicing “Safe Stress”- Finding Passion and Beating Burnout

Kathryn: What excites you about summer learning for educators?

Debbie: I particularly enjoy any staff development that’s around making it fun and making it applicable. In the summer, I especially want a lot of hands-on for teachers, a lot of interaction, and a lot of socialization. Let's get people to know each other, and let's get them to relax. One of the joys of working with adult learners is that we can be adults, which is fun! And in the summer, we can recharge, get new ideas, and network. I think we all need some downtime with no school at all and just be with the family (and our dogs), but summer is also a good time to get outside your own little group and explore new possibilities and perspectives.

K: Your keynote is all about deliberate optimism. Can you tell me a little bit about this concept?

D:  I base a lot of deliberate optimism on positive psychology. It's a choice. It's looking at a situation and determining how you react to it. You want to ask: what is this, and what can we fix? That’s where we need to put our energy and our attention. And when we figure out what's not fixable, then we have to figure out a way to minimize its impact on us as teachers

When I say deliberate optimism, we're not talking about toxic positivity, “Everybody should be happy!” “Teachers do hard things!” and then adding 20 more things to a teacher's plate. We need to focus and be realistic about what is going on, what we can fix, and how we can cope with it. Then, let's focus all of our energy on those things that we can control and let go of the other stuff.

When I coach teachers, I tell them that I will listen to them complain about whatever they want to complain about once. From that point forward, we need to talk about solutions. That's what empowers you. That gives you that self-efficacy to carry on. That gives you the grace to say, I can't change everything. But it gives you the faith to say I can do some things.

Deliberate Optimism. What can we fix? Whatever we can fix is where we need to put our energy and attention.

K: In today's challenging educational landscape, what are some ideas that can help address stress, burnout, and wellness?

D: One thing we have to realize across the educational community is that mental health is health. When I was doing the research for the rewrite of the Deliberate Optimism book, some of the schools I encountered were amazing. They brought in people after school or during the planning periods to act as counselors. When that kind of support was offered through the school, it was a very easy way for people to ask for help. I understand the importance of having someone else listen to you, not necessarily solve your problems, but walk the journey with you and help direct your thinking.

My idea is that educators could easily do that for each other. We could have retired teachers who volunteer to come in to just listen and walk the journey with our new teachers. They're not taking sides, they're not trying to solve anything; they're just there to give a balanced point of view and possibly say, “I know it looks this way. But maybe you might think of it that way.”

In addition, I believe with all my heart that when you're at school, be at school. And when you're with kids, be with kids. Be where your feet are mentally, emotionally, and in every sense of the word. But when you go home, you need to be with whomever is at home waiting for you. That's something I don't think I got right, but I'm working on helping other teachers get that right. I had the work ethic that you stay until the job gets done. Now, I would just say, do the best you can with what you have, and then let it go. 

K: What significant lessons have you learned about education, leadership, or designing and facilitating professional learning, particularly since 2020?

D: For one thing, we’re working with Gen Z now, so we cannot do sage-on-the-stage anymore. I’m thinking about working in 7-10 minute segments now because we can’t keep people’s attention for much longer than that

Another thing, I really think we're not calling on the people in the classroom enough to take leading roles in PD. We've got to give people who are actually in classrooms more time to share and demonstrate their work.

Also, let's give teachers a choice. We need to ask, “Do you want to go to this roundtable discussion about x? Or do you want to just get some background knowledge from an expert? Or do you want to go and explore this with some other teachers who have the same interests that you have?” We need to provide whatever works for different teachers. Since we're telling teachers not to teach like that [without some differentiation], we shouldn't be able to do PD like that either!

The best PD is when there's going to be some kind of follow-up, and it's going to be quick. With the program I helped write for Louisiana Tech, my job was to go back into the classrooms, be a helper, be hands-on, and give teachers feedback. We also did not let schools sign up unless their leaders agreed to support the things that we were asking our teachers to do with the hands-on work. The leaders also had to agree to help them buy the materials they needed [because it was science.]

K: You've used the word fun and joy today, and I know that humor is a huge part of your work. Why do you believe these elements - humor, fun, joy, engagement - are essential in education?

D: These elements are great levelers, no matter how much you know or don’t know about a subject. When somebody comes in with this joyful, fun attitude, it creates a bonding experience, especially when using self-deprecating humor. Teachers love to hear that you made mistakes too and what you learned and how you recovered. I think that, so many times, a shared laugh is almost like a gift to somebody. It's like, OK, I know it's bad, but we're going to get through this, and we're in this together. And I always try to use the assumption that people are doing the best they can with what they have.

Managing Stress. Before you react. 1. Take a breath. 2. Lower your pitch, lower your volume. 3. Slow your pace. 4. Remind yourself of your long-term goal.

K: What’s inspiring you to learn right now? Share either a book on your nightstand, a podcast episode, a terrific journal article, etc. 

D:  I’ve been a fan of all of Tony Hillerman's books, and now his daughter Anne is continuing his series, so I’ll keep reading all of those. For educators, I contribute and love the authors who write for MiddleWeb. They’ve just created a MiddleWeb Substack which includes articles and research, so that’s my favorite go-to.

This conversation with Dr. Silver was filled with wisdom and joy! For more insights and inspiration, connect with her at Learn and laugh with her during her keynote and the following session at this year’s Learning Forward Texas conference.

Learning Forward Texas Annual Conference, June 10-12, Hurst Convention Center, Tuesday, June 11, Register today:,, #LFTX24, Keynote speaker, speaker, author, humorist, Dr. Debbie Silver

Dr. Debbie Silver has 30 years as a teacher, staff development instructor, and university professor. She doesn’t just know her way around the classroom – she is deeply familiar with the challenges educators face at every level, from kindergarten through college. 

While inspiring educators to enjoy the job they once loved, she reminds them of how important they are in the lives of children, their families, and the world. Through her writing and her speaking, she highlights relevant and tested learning theory and tools for communication. She makes essential points while sharing poignant stories and lots of laughs. Debbie firmly believes that teachers need to be having fun and staying in touch with their passion to make their biggest impact in the classroom.


Kathryn Laster brings over 30 years of education expertise as a math teacher, instructional coach, and digital learning consultant. Now, as an independent consultant, Kathryn creates and facilitates transformative learning experiences through intentional, human-centered, tech-infused design. Connect with Kathryn at Refined Learning Design or on Twitter @kklaster.

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