Hope in Teaching and Teaching in Hope

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In the current educational climate, technical approaches to teaching dominate policies and practices, and this kind of technical approach promotes presumption over hope. In this context, technical refers to consideration of the most efficient means to achieve given goals without consideration of the worthwhileness of the goals (van Manen, 1977). From a technical perspective, teachers are technicians who take on prescribed goals and follow directions. A technical approach promotes presumption by denying the arduousness of teaching. When a teacher delivers a “scientifically based” standardized curriculum just as the teacher’s guide tells him to, he can only presume that his students will learn worthwhile content in appropriate ways. A teacher who diligently prepares her students for a high-stakes test is encouraged to presume that the resulting test scores indicate an accurate description of worthwhile learning. Technical approaches to teaching eliminate the need for professional judgment about best goals and means for specific students and rely instead on the promises of distantly produced standards, curriculum, and technology. Attention to the technical aspects of teaching does not absolutely prevent hope, but when teachers hand over (or are required to hand over) the responsibility of decision making to policymakers and curriculum developers, hope is tainted by presumption, and the role of hope is diminished in daily teaching practice. In a time when political and business interests are eager to direct what happens in the classroom, an overwhelmed teacher can all too easily hand over his or her responsibility to others who would take it and presume that these powers will best promote the flourishing of students. From a technical perspective, the presumptive compliance of accountability is more valued than the responsibility of hope.

Third, the object of hope is desirable. Under normal circumstances no one would hope to fail a test or have a paper rejected by a journal. In its most significant form, the object of hope is not only desirable but morally desirable. We understand what it means to hope for something immoral, for instance, when a student hopes to succeed at plagiarizing a research paper, but this kind of hope has been removed from the moral context we are considering here. When hope is situated in a moral context, the object of hope must be a moral good itself or at least consistent with other moral goods.

When the desirability and moral goodness of an object of hope are displaced, hope is disrupted into despair. In a nonmoral sense, despair is simply a paradoxical turning away from something desirable, for instance, giving up on an amusement park ride because the line is too long. In a moral sense, despair is movement away from a desired moral good. For Aquinas (trans. 1920), the moral value of the goal is more significant than its desirability; so he would say that any action that could be judged as immoral would be an action of despair, as it is a turning away from moral goodness. A teacher covering up a student’s failure would be an action of despair if it is a result of giving up on the student’s development, because the immorality of turning away from helping the student is more salient than the teacher’s desire for the student’s failure to go unnoticed.

The motivation of hope may reverse into despair when overwhelmed by relentless challenge. Although we often experience a tension between hope and despair, a full turning of hope into despair is normally a gradual process over time (Pieper, 1997). It illustrates a path on which the energized idealism of a hope-filled teacher distorts into the jaded cynicism of a teacher defeated. When an idealistic teacher pursuing moral excellence in her work encounters an overwhelmingly challenging situation, she toys with the idea that perhaps she’s not cut out to be a super-teacher, and she considers that some of her colleagues, whom she previously rejected as moral role models, may not be so bad after all. After some time, she rejects the possibility of moral greatness in teaching, citing difficulties such as administrative constraints and lack of parental support. She becomes less concerned with the well-being of her students and focuses instead on self-interested goals, such as self-promotion, personal convenience, or survival. Eventually, she scoffs at the idealism of novice teachers and even discourages them from hopeful attitudes and actions. Finally she becomes a living caricature who hates teaching, hates children, and seems to hate goodness itself.

Hope Supported

Since hope is essential to teaching, and since hope can be disrupted, it is important to examine ways that hope can be supported. A host of external situations and internal states can support hope, a few of which will be briefly described in this section.

In American education, we currently want all our teachers to hold a “belief that all children can learn” (NCATE, 2008). While some educators caution that this slogan can be appropriated for a precarious one-size-fits-all approach to schooling that promotes presumption instead of hope, a more benign interpretation of “belief that all students can learn” places the learning of all students as an object of hope by recognizing that the learning of all students is indeed a morally desirable, possible, yet challenging goal. A teacher who has hope in children rejects the presumptuous ease of prescribed curriculum and is motivated to take on the arduous work of professional judgment and the effort that follows. Freedom to practice professional judgment promotes hope by acknowledging the inherent challenges of teaching and doesn’t sweep them under the carpet by prescribing a standardized cure for all students’ learning needs.

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