Cultivating Hope in the Classroom & Beyond
Written by Tiffany Creager, LSW, MSW
This past year has certainly been traumatic for some and I think it’s safe to say that it has been stressful for most. It has me wondering how might this global experience and its many layers affect us as we reach this one-year anniversary? I posed this question to a group of teachers recently. Upon reflection, they discovered they were holding frustration, grief, resentment, and ongoing uncertainty in their minds as well as in their bodies.
It seemed to be the uncertainty that left some unable to move through some of their other emotions, unable to feel hopeful, despite signs that indicate coming change. This immediately reminded me of a quote from James S. Gordon, founder of Center for Mind Body Medicine. In his book Transformation he states, “[t]rauma’s most exquisite torture is the hopelessness it brings, the fear that its pain will never end, that we will always be assailed and limited by its terrors.”
Is this what we were describing? Has this ongoing stress left us hopeless? I found myself instantly drawn to the subject of hope and the desire to better understand how we access it. But as I dove into the work, my fingers wouldn’t type. My stomach ached, I became overwhelmingly tired, or I thought of a million other little projects I could be doing to avoid feeling or facing hope. What a strange sensation. Why was I resisting hope of all things?
Soon I saw that it wasn’t just me. I began hearing it in my daughters’ lack of anticipation or excitement for any potential upcoming events as they have come to assume anything hopeful will come with a loss of some type after nearly a year of disappointments. Seemingly little things to us, maybe, but huge in their world – birthday parties, playing at friends’ houses, outdoor recess, the big fourth-grade field trip, visits with grandparents, vacations, and the list goes on, have all been canceled or postponed indefinitely.
Have we gotten to a place where even our young children are wary of hope? Are we so tired of disappointment or filled with lasting grief that we can’t be bothered to believe good things are on the horizon?
Then I was reminded of a meeting I had with a middle school counselor prior to the events of 2020. She and I were drafting a plan for mental health systems and support for her school. When asked to identify the leadership team’s top three priorities for their students in the upcoming year, I was surprised to see “instill hope and purpose in our students.” While I was, of course, grateful for their insight and desire to make this shift happen, I was saddened that so many young people were without hope that an immediate and urgent intervention was desired. Perhaps we have been headed down this path of losing hope for some time.
Regardless of when and where it began, I’m eager to see us reignite passion, hope, and purpose in our students and in ourselves. I don’t want to live in a world without hope. So, here I am, facing my resistance head on, writing through the somatic symptoms, hoping that together we can uncover what is keeping many of us stuck and learn how we can break free. Together, we will explore the power of hope, the danger of getting stuck in our emotions, and outline strategies for inspiring hope in the classroom and beyond.
What is Hope?
Hope is a wanting, a desire for something to happen paired with the belief that it can and even will. Hope can motivate us by giving us something to hold on to or look forward to and can be a powerful medicine. In fact, it plays a large part in how the placebo effect works! The mind and body work so beautifully together, that even the belief and hope of treatment in the form of a placebo can decrease pain and symptoms of depression and anxiety.
Beyond just feeling better, evidence has shown that hopeful people live longer and that hopeful children and young people perform better academically and athletically. Children are also less likely to suffer from depression or anxiety when they have higher hope.
It just keeps getting better when we learn that like empathy, hope is a skill that is learned! While I acknowledge that encouraging hope does not diminish the pain, trauma, or despair that is very real to the individual, I am energized by the idea that hope is attainable for us all and have shared a few strategies below that can cultivate that hope in the classroom and beyond.
Having something to work towards that is feasible and offers the experience of success along the way is important in igniting hope. These experiences can be achieved through goal setting and demonstrated through inspired storytelling. It is also important to recognize that hope can arise from a deeper connection to our emotions.
This might begin with an understanding that emotions are innocent. They are not bad or good, right or wrong. They flow like a river, ever-changing. When we judge or avoid emotions and don’t allow ourselves to feel them fully, they can get stuck. This stuck-ness can turn our emotions into hostility, paranoia, panic, or even hopelessness.
Access to our stuck emotions can come through mind-body exercises that open us up to awareness and expression from a relaxed state. It is this access that allows us to embrace hope. If it seems awkward or outside of the scope of teaching to integrate these practices into your school day.
I’d encourage you to consider the benefit that comes to your students. With increased hope comes higher academic achievement and creativity. Relaxed brain states allow for engaged learning and higher-level thinking. Weaving one or more of these into the fabric of your daily routine can produce some meaningful collective and individual results while creating ideal conditions for learning.
People who have higher levels of hope are able to set goals, develop multiple strategies to achieve said goals, and persevere even when it seems tough. This can be supported in the classroom by allowing students to reflect and identify what is important to them and then name their own goals. It is imperative that the goal setting is routed in their desires.
After brainstorming and identifying big picture goals, guide them in breaking down their large aspirations into a series of small steps. This will allow them many wins along the way keeping them motivated. To further increase motivation, it may be helpful to have students tie their goals to their core values.
In addition to being an evidenced-based approach to motivation, tying their goals to their values can give them the flexibility to bend and adjust as they notice their path is winding rather than going exactly as predicted. Teaching them and supporting them in adjusting to change and setbacks will also show them that many paths will get them to the same place. There is room for mistakes, there is the opportunity for growth with every twist and turn that comes their way. Finally, help them to make goal setting and tracking fun!
Hope is stronger when we have memories of success to turn to during difficult times. Our students may not have had many experiences yet that they deem successful whether related to mere age or circumstance. They can, however, gain hope from others’ stories. This is why it is powerful for teachers to share stories of people, especially kids, overcoming adversity. These connections, these stories can make the impossible seem possible.
Shaking/Dancing: Keeping in mind the physical sensations that accompany the feeling of emotional stuck-ness, this expressive meditation will help our body release the tension, relax the muscles, and give us the powerful stress release that can come with physical movement. With that physical release will come the emotional release. There are times where this activity can open that river of emotion back up by releasing things you were unaware you were holding. Daily practice can be invigorating and just plain fun!
Soft Belly Breathing: in his book, Transformation, Gordon explains that “the glimpse of Hope that Soft Belly gives us is a revelation and a promise. It can be the beginning of the end of our worst suffering. Now our mind understands that if one change is possible, so, too, are others. Now we’re ready to make Hope our sustaining reality.”
This concentrative meditation engages the parasympathetic nervous system encouraging a relaxed state of awareness. It is from this space that we find clarity and hope. The power of soft belly breathing grows with each practice. Consider starting your school day or school week with this activity as a classroom or even school-wide.
Journaling/Drawing: in times of trauma, grief, or desperation, we may find ourselves unable to even identify what we are feeling. We can access our unconscious to give us a deeper awareness of feelings and even uncover answers for navigating stress from our intuitive wisdom through journaling and drawing.
Simple, playful activities can be integrated into morning meetings or community time that encourage these practices to be fun and free of the fear and doubt of our “rational” brain allowing us to create images of hope. Begin with some deep breathing and allow students some time to simply reflect. Relaxing music may be helpful for creating an ideal environment.
Journaling with a prompt or simply stream of consciousness can allow students a safe place for honest emotions to be shared/heard and validated. Drawing can do the same. Ask students to simply draw without judgment or a need to understand what they are putting on the paper. The answers and the hope they seek may come as they reflect on the finished product. Here is an example of a drawing activity designed specifically to embrace hope and healing.
Cultivating hope is not just for the kids!
What a year it has been. The weight of the collective grief we have endured is not limited to our students. Beyond a global pandemic, we have been asked to reinvent the way we teach and work, support our children’s learning in our homes, support our friends and neighbors all while constantly assessing risk to our physical and mental health with seemingly every decision we make.
I invite you to give yourself permission to acknowledge what you’ve been through, to feel it and to identify its impact on your physical and mental health. Sit with those feelings for a moment as they wash over you and break free the space for hope and healing to shine through. I will try right alongside you. With the strategies above and the support of those around us, the future is bright for our children and for us.
Everywhere I look there are signs of hope that I wasn’t able to see even a few short months ago. I feel it in the spring air, I see it on the school playgrounds, and in my doctor’s office. I believe we are moving from collective grief to collective healing and I have no doubt that hope plays a big role in us getting there.
However, it is important to acknowledge that it has not been just the events of the past year that have left some of us feeling hopeless. Regardless of its origin, we all benefit from moving forward intentionally cultivating hope in our own lives and the lives of our students. Hope is a skill that will be carried on long beyond their time with you. What a gift that is.
Read more from Tiffany Creager:
- Building Empathy in the Classroom
- Value Based Living, Working, and Leading
- It’s Fine, I’m Fine – Prioritizing Physical and Mental Health Despite Ongoing Stress
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