Hope in Teaching and Teaching in Hope

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Along with content knowledge and pedagogical skill, teachers’ personal qualities impact their classrooms and their work with depth and significance. The moral qualities that teachers bring with them into the classroom inform decisions, direct practice, and guide the culture of the learning community. Hope is an important virtue and motivation for teachers in every teaching situation and context, for hope pervades every aspect of the experience of teaching. The purpose of this article is, first of all, to examine analytically what hope is and what it is not, and second, to promote personal and professional meaning for teachers in the work God has for them to do. Or as Lewis put it, this article is a contemplation of hope with the goal of promoting the enjoyment of hope.

Teaching rests on a foundation of hope. If it were not for hope, why teach? We teach because we hope that the future will be somehow better through our efforts. Hope is essential to the work of teaching, but we tend not to comprehend explicitly the concept of hope but to rely on an implicit understanding of hope. Very little has been written that defines hope, especially in the context of teaching. We experience hope; we talk about it casually all the time; sometimes we talk about it seriously; we express it artistically; we seldom examine it analytically.

Hope is a vague concept. We can be optimistic and hopeful; we can be discouraged and hopeful. Some kinds of hope are flighty; some are stable and deeply held. Aquinas writes that hope is a virtue-which is an enduring quality of a person, and a passion-which is a motivation (trans. 1920). Furthermore, hope is difficult to isolate because it takes on the flavors of other virtues, depending on the situational context: courageous hope, faithful hope, caring hope, responsible hope, loving hope.

This first section of this article will name the qualities of hope, distinguish between natural hope and theological hope, and describe some ways that hope can be distorted or diminished. The second section of this article will show how hope can be supported. Drawing on educational theorists as well as significant insights from Lewis, this examination of hope will be situated in the context of teaching.

Hope Defined

Hope always has an object: something that is hoped for. When Lewis wrote about hope in Mere Christianity (1952), he was writing about theological hope-hope for Heaven along with hope in God to bring us to Heaven and to himself-and what happens when a person tries to fulfill this kind of hope with earthly things.[1] In Mere Christianity, Lewis lays out three options regarding hope, two for the unbeliever and a third option open to the Christian. A fourth option, one which is often enacted in the lives of dedicated teachers, will be described later in this article. In the context of teaching, hope is usually a natural hope-hope for something that can be met naturally. As a reflection of spiritual reality, hope in the natural world reflects or echoes theological hope.

Hope can be defined by identifying the criteria that must be met by the object of hope, whether theological or natural. First, the object of hope is possible. Normally, this means that the object of hope is in the future, or at least it is unknown. We do not need to believe that our hope will be fulfilled; in fact, we can cling to hope even if we believe that our hope almost certainly will not be fulfilled. If I am hoping for something that you think is not possible, you may tell me that I have a false hope. If I desire something that I believe it is not possible, I am hopeless. For instance, when I have made every attempt to teach a concept to my students and they seem unable to understand it, I may decide that this learning is not possible, and I am hopeless. If someone suggests a new teaching strategy, and my students begin to learn at last, my hopelessness disappears. Hopelessness is a deficiency of hope that can be ameliorated when a belief that the object of hope is impossible is replaced with a belief that the object of hope is possible after all.

Second, an object of hope must be difficult to attain. If I were to say that I hope for something essentially effortless, for instance, “I hope I can take another breath,” you would infer that something will make it difficult for me to breathe. Maybe I have an illness, or maybe I have just received shocking news. In this way, hope is not symmetrical; it makes sense to hope for something that is nearly certain to fail, but it does not make sense to hope for something that is nearly certain to succeed.

Because hope includes difficulty, action naturally follows from hope. Hope is not a passive waiting for something to happen; this is presumption. Presumption is a distortion of hope that happens when I overestimate my own talent and ability, underestimate the difficulty of my goal, or count on someone else to achieve something for me. The fable of the tortoise and the hare is a warning against presumption.

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