The Discipline of Hope

Lessons from a Lifetime of Teaching and Learning

By Herbert Kohl

The source of hope lies in the art of teaching.

After almost four decades of involvement in classroom teaching and school reform, I have learned there is no simple formula for school change. Education “on the ground,” as opposed to education as depicted by politicians and academicians, is a daily, intimate, and complex interaction between teacher and students.

Being a good teacher is about providing all young people with the richest, most challenging, and best-crafted education imaginable. But, in these days in particular, it is also about what I have come to call the discipline of hope: the refusal to accept limits on what your students can learn or on what you, as a teacher, can do to help them.

Providing hope to young people is the major challenge of teaching. By engaging the minds and imaginations of children, teachers can help children develop the strength, pride, and sensitivity they need to engage the world, and not to despair when things seem stacked against them. Even though hope is not sufficient to provide a good life or even guarantee survival, it is a necessity. However, to teach hope you yourself must be hopeful. You must believe that all children have a right to learn and can indeed learn.

When I began teaching in the 1960s, I felt that education had an important role to play in solving some of the major social problems in the United States. Many of us believed that the civil rights movement would lead to the elimination of racism, and the Poor People’s Campaign would make a significant contribution to the elimination of poverty. We were wrong about racism and poverty but certainly not about the central role of education in providing hope and opportunity for many people.

Just recently, I have had a number of conversations with old teaching friends, people whose careers are as long as mine and who continue to teach with energy and love for their students. A few of them have expressed a loss of hope — a sense that our society is undoing much of the work they do, that the defunding of public education is symptomatic of the abandonment of the children of the poor. They worry that an effective and creative education is no longer a route to a decent job and life. They express dismay at the cynicism of many of their students.

They are not wrong. It is not easy to teach at a time when society as a whole does not honor its young and when the young, understanding this, show no respect for the adult world. However, there is no more important time to teach well, and to tap into the sources of hope in one’s own life in order to project that hope to one’s students.

For me, the source of hope lies in teaching itself — the hard work requiring ingenuity, patience, and a focus on what is effective with children. At its core, it is not mechanical or technological. I have always thought of myself as a teacher the way other people think of themselves as gardeners, painters, composers, mathematicians, and poets. I am a craftsperson of learning, working to refine what I do with young people to the point where it is both free and structured, spontaneous and disciplined, innovative and classical, fun and very difficult.

I’ve seen many changes in schooling and society since I became actively engaged in education in 1954 while a student at the Bronx High School of Science. Yet on reflection, I see that I also have witnessed so many persistent — even intensified — problems and bogus solutions. It’s not clear how much we have progressed since that time. In 1954, the New York Daily News published a series of articles on the high schools in New York City. They began with these headlines: “Teen-Age Terror Stalks City Streets, Cows Teachers, Trains Kids for Crime” (Feb. 28); “Fear Balks Exposure of School Terrors” (March 1); “Dope Pushers Prowl School for Teen Prey” (March 5); and “A Teacher Has to Be Tough or Be Trampled On” (March 3). The series was accompanied by a series of photos — later revealed to have been posed with professional models — of menacing students hanging out in the hall, soliciting sex, holding switchblade knives, smoking, and drinking beer during lunch hour.

I was a student representative at a public forum called in response to the series. The debates we engaged in and the contradictory recommendationsthat emerged are still the stuff of educational struggle. One recommendation was: “Get rid of ‘permissive’ discipline in ‘progressive’ education, where the student does as he pleases — until the teacher can no longer cope with him.” Another was: “Instill teachers with the need for maintaining a friendly, mutually respectful relationship with pupils — and not let them get the notion that children are a necessary evil.”

These contrary views still represent the poles of debates about schooling. At the heart of current debates about school restructuring, testing, curriculum change, and multiculturalism is this same conflict: between advocates of unquestioned adult authority and harsh discipline, and those who advocate respect for students and parents (in particular those who are poor and culturally non-European).

What is different now is that we are at a critical juncture in the history of public education. The very survival of free public education as a right and entitlement is in question. In those days, people were trying to patch up a system that everyone believed could be made to work. Now our shared faith in democracy is weaker, and to have hope for all children is often put down as naive and romantic.

When I began teaching fifth and sixth grade in Harlem in 1962, I learned that the schools didn’t work for my students, most of whom were poor and either African-American or Puerto Rican. Most of what I had learned at teachers’ college was irrelevant. I knew that I had either to build a curriculum that related to them, or fail them because of someone else’s idea of how and what they needed to learn.

What emerged from this experience was a conviction that if school change was to be truly effective it had to begin in classrooms and schools, with caring and creative teachers and administrators who would develop and test the materials out of concern for their students’ learning. Useful change would not come from a government grant, a university-based project, or a national or state-mandated program.

Early in my career, I saw that teaching that did not respond to students’ needs simply did not work. I also saw that rigid programs that depended on heavy doses of phonics and rote learning led not merely to many students’ failure, but to their confusion and discouragement as well. I began experimenting with more democratic and participatory ways of learning, and especially with imaginative writing. I wasn’t the only teacher doing this, during the ‘60s and ‘70s many teachers were discovering the power of their students’ voices and the importance of beginning with students’ interests and experiences in order to prepare the ground for other, more sophisticated learning. Unfortunately, this strategy was often taken to mean simply centering learning on student interests — to me, a condescending view that limited the scope of learning. This was not at all what we had in mind. Education has to be as demanding as it is giving. There are many things of value in the adult world, and it is our obligation to balance children’s needs and interests with our responsibility to expose children to the social, cultural, and technological achievements that are our gifts to them.

Listening to students’ voices and responding to their interests meant giving up the authoritarian role of the teacher. I found myself much more at ease in dialogue with my students than in telling them what to do all the time. Through this work, and through the work of many other teachers during the ‘60s, there came to be a new conversation in education: it was not so much a movement as a different way of talking about children, education, and schools.

To call what we were doing anti-authoritarian, though that was how the media characterized it, was too negative. It gave no sense that central to our teaching was a positive pedagogy — a faith in our students’ ability to learn if the conditions were right. We believed that an emphasis on the students’ own voices would lead to serious imaginative and intellectual work, especially for those students whose voices and communities were marginalized. As African-American communities throughout the country voiced their needs and demanded respect for their intelligence, we found, on the more intimate scale of the classroom, our students were doing the same thing.

The term we chose to describe this work was “open education.” The word “open” stood for both a commitment to dialogue and an understanding that there were many roads to excellence, that no one method or type of education could suit all the diverse and complex communities or children in public schools. Unfortunately, though not surprisingly, ‘open education’ came to mean many things that we had not intended. For example open space schools that had no walls and no classrooms were called ‘open classroom schools’ though there was no essential change in the structure or content of education that occurred within them. Similarly, many schools that served primarily white middle class children and were obsessively individualistic and often overly permissive were called open when we had intended open classrooms to be models of democracy with all the social responsibility, open conversation, and self-discipline that implies.

Open education thrived in the ambiance and politics of the civil rights movement. The movement’s sense of free expression and participatory democracy — especially the faith that everyone could participate in the economic growth of society — fueled a general belief that we needed all of our children and could, through education, bring them into a future in which their success would benefit everybody. In those days, everything I dreamed of for my students was consonant with what many people dreamed of for themselves and their own children. It was easy to imagine oneself as part of a majority of people who cared about each other and the health of the society as a whole. I, like many others, did not anticipate the retreat from compassion that developed in the 1980s, or the economic stress produced by the global economy.

Although the terms of many of the conversations about education have changed, much of what critics of the public schools were saying in the 1960s and 1970s is now debated with even more passion. And there are few voices defending the public schools as presently constituted. During my career I have learned to listen carefully to the parents whose children I have served, and to make efforts to understand their values, aspirations, and cultures. This has led me to place diversity, multiculturalism, and cross-cultural communication at the center of my teaching, as well as to understand that no matter how precious my ideas seem to me, I have to measure them against the dreams, needs, and aspirations of the people I serve. This means, for example, that no matter how repugnant I find standardized testing, I must honor my students’ need to do well on the tests, and their parents’ demand that their children be prepared for tests, even if the tests are biased. This is mediated education in the real world: trying to change the way education is done without sacrificing the future of one’s students in the process. It is very difficult, because it involves negotiating the very fuzzy border between helping children adapt to a dysfunctional system and helping them maintain their integrity at the risk of being damaged or marginalized for trying to change the system. As a teacher I am always negotiating, moving between possibility and vision.

Over the years there have been times of despairas well as times of hope. I look back on teaching through times of ghetto riots, of running a high school in Berkeley during the late 1960s and early 1970s, of being in the classroom during the Vietnam era and the Reagan years of “benign” neglect of the poor and the consequent disintegration of urban communities. Through all this I’ve tried to make my teaching both rooted in its time and bigger than its time. I want to help young people know who and where they are, but I also want them to share what other people know, what work they do, what wonders people have already created in science, culture, and the arts. I want students to explore learning through doing but also through reflection and hard study. I want them to learn hard skills in soft ways.

Most of all, I hope my students will feel part of a compassionate learning community where they are honored as individuals, where they respect each other, and where they respect and love learning itself.

In other words, our students — in fact every child — deserves as an entitlement the finest education we can imagine.

In the 1970s, a friend of mine gave me a photo of a mural in Santiago, Chile. It was taken during the time that Salvador Allende was president. The mural portrays children dancing, skipping rope, playing — enjoying their childhood. It is a portrait of hope. On top of the mural is a phrase I have never forgotten: “y los unicos privilegiados, los niños.” Loosely translated, it says that the only truly privileged ones are the children. That idea centers my life and drives my work.