Give Hope a Chance by Rob Gulya

In my last post, I discussed the social-emotional difficulties of one of my students. His difficulty believing in his own abilities– combined with his distrust of adults (and people in general)– led him to shut down, refuse support, and push the people who most wanted to help away.

The sad truth is, I could have written any number of blog posts about students who have similar social-emotional struggles, or a number of students with their own, unique struggles. Some of these struggles come from family dynamics or from trauma. Some of them come from years of neglect, at home and in school. Some of them are ingrained through the media. Regardless of the root cause, a variety of social-emotional struggles find their away into the classroom. We, as teachers, need to address them in a variety of ways.

This week, I’ve been thinking a lot about hope. What is it? Why do some people appear endlessly hopeful while others feel so threatened by difficult situations that they shut down? How can we instill hope in our students? What is the role of hope in our school communities?

Luckily, there is some research in this area.

Cognitive scientists Roth and Hemmelstein define hope as “expectancy that a positively related event is likely to incur in the future.” It follows, logically, that prior experience with positive events would increase one’s belief that subsequent positive events will occur.

Cognitive research sheds light on this important fact: hope is not an emotion. It is a learned process acquired through socialization. According to C. R. Snyder, hope has three different components: 1) ability to set realistic goals; 2) ability to tolerate failure; and 3) belief in yourself and your abilities. If hope is a learned process, then certainly it can be taught.

The question, then, is: how can we teach and/or instill hope in our students? According to Snyder, it is through modeling and allowing students to struggle that we can teach hope. By overcoming failures, students begin to believe in their ability to succeed in the face of a challenge. The result:  A change in their schema. They can begin to see failure not as an end in itself, but as a step toward success. This is a paradigm shift for many teachers and students. Students need to see failure not as something to be ashamed of but as a  learning experience to be embraced. And teachers need to be careful not to see students as a sum of their failures and their successes, their As and they Cs.

For this to become a reality, it’s important that we as adults and teachers send the right message:  It is of less importance that we experience failure than that we don’t give up when we do. If we adhere to Snyder’s deductions about the components of hope, then we need to take action and support students in setting realistic goals and encourage them as they pursue these goals.

We must reinforce the importance of effort and perseverance over immediate results.

We must make goal setting a consistent and important part of our classroom practice.

We must change our own attitude that sees grades as the end point of student learning.

We must model the daily struggle to grow through our own failures for students.

They need to see us struggle with things, too, and we need to model and consistently reinforce the most power tenent we can give them: Do not give up.

 

In the classroom, practices that teach and reinforce hope can take on a variety of routines and messages, some of which will happen naturally and some of which will happen purposefully. The most natural occurrence is when I have a bad day. Students are amazingly aware not only of everything we do and say, but how we do and say it. When we’re having a bad day, our students know it. No matter how much we try to hold in our frustrations, our feelings are expressed through our body language– the way we stand, whether or shoulders are loose or scrunched, whether our teeth are clenched or open, whether our smile is forced or genuine. So one way we indirectly teach hope is through our emotional and professional consistency. No matter how badly a class can knock us on our ass one day (and kids definitely know when this happens), we show up the next day ready for a new start. When we have a bad day, when we fail, we show up the next day and try again. When students make mistakes, or try our patience, we don’t move on or give up, we try again.

One way I try to reinforce this in my classroom is by allowing students to rewrite essays they performed badly on. Teachers, and students, should see grades as a data point, not an end point, in student learning. When we take the time to teach and purposefully set goals with our students, revisit those goals, and re-evaulate those goals, rewriting and rethinking become a very powerful tool. The more opportunities we give students to make mistakes without penalty, the more times they will be willing to make mistakes. The more time we allow students to productively struggle, the more they’ll believe they can achieve success through that struggle. In order to change their schema about failure and, thus, instill hope, we need to let them fail. Then we need to let them try again.

Another way we can instill hope is by explicitly teaching and reinforcing it. Studies have shown how important explicit teaching is in creating a growth mindset in students, and hope is no different. In addition to teaching about hope, teachers need to use everyday language that praises effort over results, hard work over intelligence. We need to  reinforce our belief in their abilities, never allowing failure to be the end point of a learning experience, by using phrases such as “take another look at your notes, then try the problem again;” “if we take our time with this passage, as a group I know we can break it down.”

As teachers, we have an amazing amount of power over how our students see themselves and the world around them. Many students growing up in inner-city, poor neighborhoods, have social-emotional deficits that hamper their learning and their development as people. As we spend our days teaching reading, writing, and math, we shouldn’t lose sight over the powerful difference we can make in our students’ emotional learning and development.

We need to model what we want to see in our students. Let them know we struggled and that we expect them to struggle. Don’t give up on them. Hold them to realistic expectations. Keep believing in them.

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