Urgency, Patience, and the Cultivation of Hope
By Trevor Gardner
The tension between urgency and patience is a constant for educators. On one end we hold high expectations, pushing students to do more than they think they are capable of; we demand their best. On the other end we nurture; we meet them where they are; we remain steadfastly compassionate and understanding.
Paulo Freire first helped me understand this tension when I read what I believe is his most essential texts for school educators: Teachers as Cultural Workers: Letters to those Who Dare to Teach. In his “Fourth Letter: On the indispensable qualities of progressive educators for their better performance,” he frames the tension in this way:
[The progressive educator] must exercise wisdom in experiencing the tension between patience and impatience. Neither patience nor impatience alone is what is called for. Patience alone may bring the educator to a position of resignation, or permissiveness; that denies the educator’s democratic dream. Unaccompanied patience may lead to immobility, to inactivity… Untempered impatience threatens the success of one’s practice, which becomes lost in the arrogance of judging oneself the owner of history. Patience alone consumes itself in mere prattle; impatience alone consumes itself in irresponsible activism. Virtue, then, does not lie in experience either without the other but, rather, in living the permanent tension between the two. The educator must live and work impatiently patiently, never surrendering entirely to either (pg. 211).
If you have spent any amount of time with young people in schools – but especially as a classroom teacher – you have felt the weight of this tension and you have struggled with the layers of complexity that pull you in either direction. And if you currently work with young people in schools, as we emerge slowly from the global pandemic that forced students to endure nearly a year and a half of online “school”, isolated in their homes, their bedrooms, and their computer screens; I imagine you are experiencing the antagonism of this polarity in a way that is heavier, more messy, and more emotionally fraught than ever before.
Moving into my 23rd year as an educator, both as a classroom teacher and a school leader, I find myself struggling more than ever, as I look out at the 28 students in my 11th grade US History class, or when I sit in coaching meetings with my incredible teachers, with the wisdom to locate the equilibrium in this tension.
Belief in the possibilities of education feels like it is at an all time low. Engagement in the classroom feels more challenging to sustain. Desire to struggle through difficult work seems more short-lived.
When attempting to capture the feeling of this dynamic, I have been using the analogy of an athlete whose muscles have atrophied due to being sidelined for a long time due to injury. From March 2020 until August 2021, students (at least those in Bay Area public schools) did not step foot into a school building. They did not engage in small group discussion with their classmates. They did not get up in front of the class to model how to work out a math problem. They did not rotate around the room on a gallery walk, writing their thoughts on small posters and reading the ideas of their peers. They did not rush out the door to find their best friends for lunch.
Of course, after such a hiatus, they are less good at doing school. In this sense, yes, they have atrophied, at least as students in the classroom. But they have also built different muscles. They have learned to navigate the world in a pandemic, a world more complex than we have known before. They have learned to be closer to their families, to care for younger siblings doing online schooling and for elders facing health conditions. They have built muscles of resilience, awareness, and empathy.
What I am realizing more and more is that, if we are exercising the wisdom of our experience, as Freire asks us to do, then we must find ways to turn this incredibly challenging moment into an opportunity. Our urgency must be marshaled not only in support of our students, but also in questioning, transforming, and reimagining how schools (or at least our own classrooms) function.
Do we want our students to build back muscles that help them comply and fit into a box, an institution, a system that can feel disconnected, uninspiring, and even harmful? Do we want them to be better at enduring boredom and passivity? What are the muscles we want to rebuild as we take this long journey together back to an education that truly serves our students and our communities?
What if we add a third point to Freire’s tension between patience and impatience and we call it HOPE – and we allow ourselves to pull equally in the direction of what else is possible? What if we add an element in our lesson plans labeled hope? What if we ask ourselves every day how we are cultivating hope – in our classrooms, in our discipline policies, in our communication with families and caregivers, and in our interactions with our colleagues? Hope that a different way is possible. Hope that what I learn today matters. Hope that we will learn through this difficult moment together.
I know it is not simple. My students will certainly tell you that there have been more than a few US History lessons that have bored them to sleepiness or that did not inspire them to suck out all the marrow of life and use their knowledge of history to transform the world. I have work to do. At times I have let my urgency run over students and lose sight of the myriad struggles they continue to cope with. At other times my patience has left me mired in acceptance of the status quo. I too have atrophied and have questioned my purpose as a teacher and school leader.
But what if I, what if WE, collectively, placed the cultivation of hope as our primary objective? What if we met the challenges with what the incredible Shawn Ginwright calls “radical imagination… the collective dreaming about how things should be.” Imagine what schools could become.
Trevor Gardner has been an educator in the Bay Area for 20 years. He has taught high school English and history and has worked at multiple levels of school leadership and is currently the Director of Teaching and Learning at ARISE High School in East Oakland. Trevor is the author of Discipline Over Punishment: Successes and Struggles with Restorative Justice in Schools and also an alumni of ELP’s Deeper Learning Leadership Forum. Connect with Trevor on Twitter and LinkedIn.