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Teaching Hope

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

I find teachers inspiring. And I’m not just saying that because I am one. As anyone who has spent any time in the classroom knows, the description “challenging yet rewarding” does not quite do it justice.

Teaching is life altering, worldview changing, and all consuming. It can be hilarious, heartbreaking, invigorating, emotionally draining, physically taxing, and enriching beyond belief – all in the same day. In short, it is a roller coaster that lasts nine months. There are really high highs and some pretty low lows. And in order to make it until the ride comes safely to a halt in June, one definitely needs a safety belt.

The secret weapon of all teachers everywhere – from the first year twenty-something shakily standing beside their classroom expectations poster, to the experienced veteran making final changes to a finely tuned syllabus – is hope.

Hope is pretty easy to come by at the beginning of the school year. In your imagination, your classroom is a haven and every class period is filled with students having “a-ha” moments.

Then September hits.

Lessons flop. Struggles ensue. There is a natural cycle attributed to the first year of teaching (anticipation, survival, disillusionment, rejuvenation, and reflection), but I would argue that all teachers experience a similar pattern over the course of the year. In the survival stage, hope may be the only thing that gets you through.

Hope means maintaining the belief that things will turn around, despite a steady stream of bad lessons and bad days. It means keeping faith that some day, at some point, something you’ve said will be meaningful for students. It means having the resolve to find a connection with each and every student before the end of the year, even if there are some that have you at your wit’s end. Hope is what gets you through, even when you feel like giving up.

So it was with great interest that I attended a book reading for Teaching Hope: Stories from the Freedom Writers Teachers, where I was inspired by a group of local teachers who not only have the courage to teach from the heart, but write about their experiences from the heart as well.

The book, which features Philadelphia area teachers Zac Chase (Science Leadership Academy), Michael Farrell (Independence Charter School), Michael Galbraith (Grover Washington, Jr. Middle School) and Jennifer Clyde-Lewis (Riverside High School, NJ), follows the cycle of the school year and gives voice to teachers from all across the country who may have struggled, but who keep hope alive for themselves and for their students.

The stories are brief, honest and authentic. They tell tales of teachers encouraging civic engagement in the classroom, stories that illustrate the unique relationship that exists between students and teacher, and explanations of how teaching can easily take over all areas of your life, even your personal life. They are stories that show how it is critical for students, not just teachers, to remain hopeful. They are stories that prove that teaching itself is a hopeful act.

The contributors of Teaching Hope are all members of the Freedom Writers Foundation, whose president is Erin Gruwell, the real life inspiration for the film Freedom Writers. The Freedom Writers teachers participate with Gruwell in a summer institute in Long Beach, CA and then return to their classrooms, where they bring the pedagogy and mission of the organization to their students.

Teaching Hope is not a how-to book for first year teachers, nor is it a theoretical framework. It is, however, an extremely valuable read for all teachers because all teachers could use a reminder now and again of how inspiring their work is and how important it is to maintain a sense of hope all year round. Especially in October.

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