What is the purpose of school? Many might say it’s to prepare students for their futures. But what happens if students feel hopeless about the future?
We know that many teens are currently feeling depressed, and what once was met with an eye roll is now met with collapse. In this crazy year, typical teenage stress is compounded with concern about Covid-19, election uncertainty, family strife, social isolation, and any number of legitimate challenges for our entire society. And since all generations are going through this simultaneously, teenagers have fewer adults around them to lean on because parents and teachers are sharing similar feelings of grief.
It really stinks right now to be a teen.
So I would argue that, at this time in history, the purpose of school is to help our students maintain hope. The purpose of our classrooms is to reach out our hands and pull our students up from the desolation that comes from feeling like there's nothing they can do to change things for the future.
Sue Arzola, the principal at South Pointe Middle School in Diamond Bar, California, wrote her dissertation on leading education with hope and discussed her research with me via email. Her work was based on Charles Snyder’s hope theory, which she says examines hope as a “positive motivational state based on a sense of successful agency and the various pathways you take to make it happen.”
In her dissertation, she stresses that, “especially during difficult times, as administrators and educators, we need to lead with optimism.” She goes on to say, “Hope engages both grit and perseverance as we strive to make our hopes or goals a reality. But hope also engages optimism and self-efficacy, as it includes the belief that the future will be better than the present, and within each of us is the power to make it so.”
So, in this time when so many of us out there—teachers, parents, and students— are feeling hopeless, how do we reverse it? Can it be done?
The answer, of course, is yes.
In fact, schools can play an active and intentional role in developing hope. Much like a smile, hope is contagious. So our classrooms, whether virtual or face-to-face, should be infused with it. Teachers can provide lessons and units to help students recognize their potential influence on the world around them.
Strategies to Inspire Hope
1. Use project-based learning: PBL is all about using what we are learning in school to make an impact on the world beyond school. It helps develop student agency by allowing teens to identify problems they most want to solve. It helps develop students who question by guiding teens to research multiple perspectives and come to their own conclusions. And PBL helps to develop communicators by honing skills like public speaking and persuasive writing.
2. Teach positive current events: True, hope is different than positivity, but committing to making students aware of positive current events can help create an environment more likely to make students feel hopeful. Help offset the smog of negative news by showing students that there’s good out there, too. CNN’s The Good Stuff newsletter is a great resource.
3. Study other kids who’ve made an impact: I’m not saying don’t teach about Albert Einstein, but maybe students need to hear about the achievements of someone their own age. School should be all about meaningful learning. Show students that there are teens out there moving the needle in their own communities.
4. Teach history through the lens of improvement: History occurs in peaks and valleys, but teens haven’t been on this planet long enough to experience or study these patterns with great depth. Focus on teaching moments in history when civilization was pulling itself out of darker eras. Help students see the bigger picture, and help them recognize that our darkest pits are mere moments in time.
5. Teach hopeful science: I am a California resident, and we’re living through a season of devastating fires. But my science teacher friend reminds me that after fires, the soil can be richer for life to grow. Find those examples in science that support the beauty after the storm.
6. Promote student activism: Help teens find organizations that might be accepting student volunteers. Whatever their interests or strengths, students can be active in their communities. Doing good for others can help defeat hopelessness. From a local Humane Society to the New Voters Project, students can leave an immediate footprint that does a service for those around them.
7. Embed mindfulness training: It’s difficult for students of any age to put hard times in perspective. They can’t regulate when to worry. Tweens and teens in particular feel more deeply and more sensitively than people do at other ages. Empower them. Help them to understand what they are feeling, and help them to build strategies to calm the storm in their hearts and heads.
Hope is about the belief that you can make an impact. Hope is about allowing students agency in their own learning. Hope is about ensuring that students are looking ahead, identifying for themselves what needs to be improved, and giving them the skills and confidence to go out and do it.
When I look at kids these days, I feel hopeful. When kids go to school, I want them to feel the same.