Growing Hope on the School Farm
And torturing a metaphor along the way.
“To successfully do the work of unlearning domination, a democratic educator has to cultivate a spirit of hopefulness about the capacity of individuals to change.” –bell hooks, Teaching Community: A Pedagogy of Hope, p. 73
Tilling for Optimism
During an October advisory circle (we start each day with one, and usually end with one, too), I asked students to share something they appreciated about the person to their right. This is a trick from my bag that has to be used at just the right time, and I was a little worried about misjudging our readiness, but it went remarkably well on this particular day. So well, in fact, that after we’d been around the circle once, students demanded to share their appreciations about everyone. (And what teacher is going to put a stop to teenagers saying nice things to each other?) The circle was a font of good vibes, but I will never forget N — telling me that what they appreciate about me is that “No matter how rough a day is, you always come back optimistic the next day.” Optimistic? Me? To continue my apparent theme of paraphrasing Obi-Wan “Ben” Kenobi in each of my blog posts this year, “That’s an adjective I’ve not heard in a long time.” The comment triggered some self-reflection, and the realization that naturally optimistic self has indeed been resurfacing this fall after a long dormancy. I’m grateful to the student for pointing it out.
Before the 2022–23 school year started, I wrote about my intention to embrace the possibilities offered by a new school setting, and my belief that what I, and my students, need most right now is a renewed sense of hope. How’s it going so far? The results are… mixed. Which shouldn’t really be a surprise, I suppose. Nevertheless, I’ve been brought up short in these first few months by how much I needed to sloooooooooow dooooooooown in my work on culture and community to meet the needs of my students, who have been harmed by traumatic experiences at previous schools, with the ongoing pandemic adding a cruel multiplier effect. With all of that said, I’d like to report on the bright spots in my classroom, and how they are giving me the hope to keep pushing forward.
Watering with Hope
Optimism and hope are closely related concepts, though the fact that optimism is frequently paired with adjectives like “blind” or “foolish” tells me that there’s a bit less meat on its bones. Hope, especially the critical hope that “combin[es] material resources, like great teaching, with fierce love for students demonstrated with actions, not words” (Katrina Schwartz, summarizing Dr. Jeff Duncan-Andrade at KQED), has a comforting weight to it, and I want my students to feel it like an anxiety-dampening blanket or a lap cat. I firmly believe that hope nurtured in the classroom can create a virtuous cycle where my hope builds my students’ hope, which builds my hope, which builds theirs in turn.
Sometimes, as teachers, we are told things by students that are simultaneously validating and awful to hear. Such is the case with D–, a student who is, like me, new to our school. Early on, apropos of nothing, they told me: “Mr. Primm, you’re the first teacher that’s ever actually liked me.”
Think about that. Regardless of the absolute truth of the statement — my optimistic heart refuses to believe that I’m the only one — consider what this student must have experienced in their educational career to end up feeling this way in high school. It’s appalling. Later, in a one-on-one conference, that same student said: “Mr. Primm, you know you’re the only teacher that’s actually cared about my feelings.” Again, it’s gut-wrenching to consider how dehumanizing this student’s prior school experience must have been. (And again, I’m sure I’m not the only one, but their belief is their reality.)
This student has faced some inevitable challenges at my school, but they have shown resilience and are having an overall successful first semester. I’ve been able to water them with optimism and humanity, and they are more hopeful as a result. My experience with D– tells me that I’m on the right track.
Sunlight in Socializing
And then there’s that worldwide destroyer of hope, the COVID-19 pandemic, which we’re basically treating as an endemic problem at this point (no masks, no closures, but please go home and test if you’re sick). Every educator I’ve talked to recently has noticed that students are struggling with social-emotional skills in the classroom. And why wouldn’t they be? Some of them spent two full school years completely online, or in the maybe-less-bad scenario bounced between the online and offline spaces, with significant restrictions on their face-to-face peer interactions (masking, social distancing, lunch in pods). I’m certainly seeing this in my 9th and 10th graders, who have an irrepressible urge to socialize out loud pretty much all the time.
At first, I found this behavior endlessly frustrating, and it drove me to distraction. But upon further reflection, I realized that my best option was simply to embrace it and acknowledge that my first, and most critical, job as their teacher right now is to provide a safe space for their social-emotional growth. I’m pleased to report that students and adults alike have referred to my classroom as having “good ambience” this fall, which seems like a prerequisite for humanizing students’ experience. Beyond that, I’m learning to ride the waves of their energy, adapting the daily schedule on the fly and fitting in animal breaks as needed. (This is definitely the best part of teaching at a school in the middle of a farm.)
One student in particular had a particularly alienating experience during their critical middle school years, and is struggling more than others with basic social skills. They present a new challenge for me nearly every day, but they are getting better over time, and I’m learning how best to work with them over time, as well. This student’s parent has thanked me repeatedly for my patience with them. So, I’m thinking that patience is another aspect of hope that needs to be nurtured and kept alive. Without it, our hope will be snuffed out the first time a problem bogs us down. So how do I teach patience to teenagers? I’ve got some resources on executive functioning that will probably help.
Resting Up for the Harvest
I’m writing this on the cusp of Thanksgiving Break (several weeks past the deadline), and I am tired. My students are, too. Teaching is hard work, but so is learning. And learning to be hopeful might be the hardest work of all. The truth is, right now I don’t know what’s next for me or for my students. It feels like I’m still getting my feet under me at school, despite being a third of the way through the school year.
I know that it’s past time for me to tell my students that I love them and I’m proud of them (something I would regularly say at my old school, but haven’t felt comfortable opening up about at my new one, even though it’s true). I know that I need to catch up on my professional reading, particularly about ways that hope might take root in cynical times. I know I need to think more about how optimism, hope, and patience are connected in my classroom. And, I know that I need to rest when I’m able, so that I can continue to be the hopeful educator my students need.