“Even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream”.
Martin Luther King, 1963
Hope is a four letter word that educators use on a daily basis as we work with students, but what does hope really mean in the context of education? How can we find hope in the shadows of teacher-bashing and the micromanaging of our profession?
A friend recently sent me an article, and as I read Meaningful Hope for Teachers in Times of High Anxiety and Low Morale (Nolan & Stitzlein, 2011), I couldn’t help but to think of all of my friends and colleagues who are struggling to find hope at a time when so many feel disrespected and lacking the autonomy they need to do their jobs.
How did it come to this? Though the 1983 report A Nation at Risk proclaimed that education in America was mediocre, it was the approach taken by the 2001 No Child Left Behind law that put teachers squarely in the crosshairs of wrong-headed reform efforts. Never mind poverty and the underfunding of schools in low-income areas, educators were singled out as the reason why U.S. students were not achieving at the same level as their peers in other countries. Pacing guides, scripted lessons, and standardized tests were hailed as the cure for bad teaching. If schools didn’t measure up, they lost funding rather than gaining the support that they needed.
I have been fortunate to see Dr. Pasi Sahlberg, a Finnish educator and scholar, speak on two different occasions. Both times, he made the comment that if we wanted to have a top-performing education system like Finland’s, we didn’t have to look very far. Why? Finland’s innovative education system is built on American research. In July 2014, Sahlberg wrote a blog post sharing the five U.S. innovations that Finland has used successfully – innovations that America’s own reformers are ignoring.
The Finnish education system is focused on meeting students’ developmental needs, even as America’s is preoccupied with assigning blame when those needs are not met. As a result, Finnish educators stay in the profession over the long term and are seen as professionals equal in status to doctors and engineers. Finnish schools benefit from that experience – in sharp contrast to the U.S., where thanks to high attrition rates the majority of teachers have five years or less of experience (Ingersoll, Merrill, and Stuckey, 2014).
Despite all of these challenges, I have hope that things will get better for educators, our profession, and most importantly for our students. I learned a long time ago that hope comes from the readiness to take action to promote positive change. “Understanding hope as a type of habit offers an important distinction from hope more commonly understood as an outlook or belief: a habit of hope entails action.”(Nolan & Stitzlein) In other words, it’s not enough to simply look at the world through rose-colored glasses, we must engage in activities that improve conditions and constantly make things better. Every day, I continue to be inspired by educators who are engaged in collective action because they too have hope that we can turn things around.
Storytelling is a powerful tool that can help others understand what students really need, what best practices really work, and what education professionals can really bring to the table. Educators need to not only be sitting at the table, but leading the discussions at the table, in coffee shops, and on the floor of legislative sessions. Across the nation, educators ARE leading — respectfully, professionally, and passionately! We are having tough conversations with administrators, school boards, and the community. Teacher-led schools are becoming more possible through collaboration, innovation, and dedication to the dream.
Hope is alive in classrooms all over the nation. Real hope requires us to be bold and courageous while considering the past, present, and future. Without hope, we will continue to let outside voices dominate education and destroy our students’ hopes and dreams. I am not willing to stand by and let that happen, so I must ask what are you willing to act on today to change the direction of education? Even though we have faced great difficulties and will continue to face challenges in the future, we need to believe that we can still fulfill the dream of having a great public school for every child. Will you stay the course in the act of hope for a brighter future for America’s children?