Hope in Teaching and Teaching in Hope

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Practical wisdom is an intellectual virtue which enables a person to make good judgments in particular lived situations (Zagzebski, 1996, Birmingham, 2004). Hope informed by practical wisdom attends to the particularities and complexities of children, the details of their daily lives, and their intrinsic value as persons (Elbaz, 1992).

Inquiry, defined as a disposition to seek and examine new possibilities, accompanied by professional knowledge and skills, promotes hope by expanding the possibilities for teachers, making less likely that a teacher will mistakenly conclude that hope for students’ learning is not possible. Teach for America, a federal program in the United States which fills undeserved schools with bright college graduates after five weeks of preparation, has been criticized for placing new teachers in very difficult teaching situations much too vulnerable to despair and hopelessness because of their lack of knowledge and skills (Richert, 2007, Johnston, 2002).

It has been said that courage is the form that all virtue takes in the face of adversity. As such, hope persevering through adversity requires courage and appears as courage. Persistence, patience, longsuffering, and daring are forms of courage that enable hope.

Because teaching is so challenging, teachers must hold hope not only in their students but in themselves as well. When teachers give up hope and turn to despair, often they have given up hope not in children but in themselves, having been overcome by attacks on their power to promote the flourishing of children (Elbaz, 1992). Accompanying a belief that all students can learn is a belief that “I can play an important part in the learning of all students,” in other words, hope in oneself as a teacher.

Aristotle acknowledges the importance of a community of practice in the development of virtues or dispositions. According to Aristotle (trans. 1999), the way to become virtuous is to observe a person who is virtuous, emulate this person’s actions, and simply practice living virtuously. Schools and teacher preparation programs are charged with the responsibility to develop and maintain moral communities of practice that model hope and provide novice teachers scaffolded opportunities to practice moral dispositions in professional contexts. Other moral communities of practice, such as churches, faith based organizations, circles of friends, and families are essential supports to novice and veteran teachers.

Recall that Lewis outlines three options for fulfilling our hope for God: two options for a non-believer and one for a believer. Summarizing, when people fail to recognize that a hopeful longing is actually a longing for God, they respond in one of three ways. The first Lewis calls The Fool’s Way. The fool puts the blame on the things themselves. If only he had chosen a different wife, a different vacation, or a different career, he would catch the mysterious something we are all after. He spends his life trotting from one thing to another, always disappointed. The second is called The Way of the Disillusioned Sensible Man. When hopes are not met, he lowers his expectations, represses his hope, and rubs along fairly comfortably.

I will add here one more way that a non-believer responds to the experience of hope, a way that I have observed in the work of many notable non-believers (and believers) in teaching and other endeavors. I will call it The Humanitarian Way. Seeing a human need-students in need of a good education, families in need of basic supplies, young people in need of redirection, an entire educational system in need of reform, the humanitarian interprets his experience of hope for God as a hope for an improved society. Instead of fluttering from one self-centered experience to another as the fool does, the humanitarian doggedly presses on in an attempt to promote justice and improve lives. Instead of settling for lower expectations as the disillusioned sensible man does, the humanitarian accepts failure as part of the process and takes encouragement from successes. I believe that Lewis’s oversight of The Humanitarian Way is simply due to his lack of direct personal experience as a non-Christian humanitarian. One can infer from his autobiographical works and correspondence that Lewis had plenty of experience as a non-Christian fool and disillusioned man, but the humanitarian impulse did not seem to catch him until after he became a Christian.

Lewis’s third option is The Christian Way. He writes, “I must take care, on the one hand, never to despise, or to be unthankful for, these earthly blessings, and on the other, never to mistake them for the something else of which they are only a kind of copy, or echo, or mirage. I must keep alive in myself the desire for my true country, which I shall not find till after death; I must never let it get snowed under or turned aside; I must make it the main object of life to press on to that other country and to help others to do the same” (Lewis, 1952, p. 137). Once again focusing on personal blessings of this earth and of his true country, he overlooks the possibilities of Christian humanitarianism in this description, except for the last phrase, “and to help others do the same.” At the beginning of this little essay on hope, however, Lewis points out, “the Christians who did the most for the present world were just those who thought most of the next” (p. 134). He invokes as examples the Apostles, the great men who built up the Middle Ages, and the English Evangelicals who abolished the Slave Trade.

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