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.

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.

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.

As long as there are teachers and students, there will be natural hope: teachers’ hope in students and teachers’ hope in themselves to meet the challenges of their work. Teachers experience hope as the pleasure of optimism, the determined defiance of adversity, comfort in loss, and persistence in hardship. Hope can grow and diminish, and many seasoned teachers have felt from time to time that sustaining hope is simply too difficult and have chosen a lesser yet easier path, at least for a while. I have met teachers who walk The Fool’s Way, The Way of the Disillusioned Sensible Man, The Humanitarian Way, and The Christian Way. Lewis’s message of hope can have a profound impact on the self and the meaning that Christian teachers bring to their work: “Aim at Heaven and you will get earth thrown in: aim at earth and you will get neither” (p. 134).


Aquinas, T. (trans. 1920). Summa Theologica. Translated by the Fathers of the English Dominican Province, online version copyright Kevin Knight. <http://www.newadvent.org/summa> (July, 2007).

Aristotle (trans. 1999). Nichomachean Ethics, Second Edition, translated by Terence Irwin. Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc.

Birmingham, C. (2004). Phronesis: A model for pedagogical reflection. Journal of Teacher Education, 55 (4), 313-324.

Elbaz, F. (1992). Hope, attentiveness, and caring for difference: The moral voice in teaching. Teaching and Teacher Education, 8 (5/6), 421-432.

Johnston, M. (2002). In the deep heart’s core. New York: Random House.

Lewis, C. S. (1952). Mere Christianity. San Francisco: Harper San Francisco.

Lewis, C. S. (1955). Surprised by Joy. San Diego: Harcourt, Inc.

National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE). (2008) Professional standards for the accreditation of schools, colleges, and departments of education. Washington, DC. <http://www.ncate.org/documents/standards/NCATE%20Standards%202008.pdf> (June, 2008).

Richert, A. E. (2007). Book review: Deliberating over dispositions. Journal of Teacher Education, 58 (5), 412-421.

Zagzabski, L. (1996). Virtues of the Mind: An Inquiry into the Nature of Virtue and the Ethical Foundations of Knowledge. New York: Cambridge University Press

[1] Perhaps this little essay on hope is autobiographically connected to Lewis’s search for Joy as described in Surprised by Joy.

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