The teachers at Westover Elementary School in Silver Spring wear staff shirts with the definition of hope on the back. As a noun, it reads, hope is a feeling of confidence, expectation. As a verb, to hope is to look forward to something, believing it will happen.
As a person, the embodiment of hope is fifth-grade teacher Mary Hawkins-Jones, who received the Most Hopeful Teacher in America award Aug. 21 from Gallup at its headquarters in Washington, D.C.
“It’s not me — I’m just a symbol of Westover,” Hawkins-Jones said. “It’s Westover, it’s all of us. We have the scores to show hope happens.”
Westover was identified by Gallup as a “high-hope” school after students took a Gallup survey of school climate in October. Of the 1,700 schools surveyed nationwide, 192 were identified as high-hope schools. The vast majority of students at those schools believe that the future will be better than the present and that they have the power to make it so, Shane Lopez, a senior scientist at Gallup who researches hope, wrote in an email.
“It’s a matter of resilience,” Principal Patricia Kelly said. “When students come up [against] an obstacle, what do you do to help them? It’s a matter of making sure [help is] realistic.”
Kelly pointed to one way by which Westover works to instill hope. Each year the school identifies students who “aren’t making it” and assigns to each a good friend who is a member of the staff or faculty. That friend never identifies himself as having been assigned to the student, but just says hello every day and lets the child know he is important to the school community.
When asked by Gallup to name one teacher at Westover who was most hopeful, Kelly named Hawkins-Jones, although, she said, there are several staff members at Westover who “fit the bill.”
“I have witnessed Mary, however, sustaining that hopeful compassion of hers over the course of 20 years,” Kelly wrote in an email. “So, no matter whatever ‘ups and downs’ were going on around her, she still focused on the students’ needs. She is truly one of a kind!
“She also has willingly shared her expertise and ‘can-do’ attitude with others in several leadership roles, [for example] grade level chair, team leader, committee chair, leadership team member, etc. This is the ‘ripple of hope’ effect that Shane Lopez ... talks about in his book, ‘Making Hope Happen.’ So, Mary does all this while simultaneously holding high expectations for her students and then teaching them well,” Kelly wrote.
Hawkins-Jones said that to her, hope is like a light that starts a glow and as you get closer to the light it gets brighter.
“If you don’t have hope it’s like sitting in a dark room,” she said. “What are you going to do in a dark room?”
She keeps her students in that light by getting to know them, she said.
“I conference with every student, try to get them to think beyond fifth grade, let them know there are a lot of options,” Hawkins-Jones said. “Hope helps you move forward.”
Those are also the findings of Lopez, who helped select the Most Hopeful Teacher, a first-time award from Gallup.
“Mary Hawkins-Jones knows that everyone wants ‘something more’ out of life,” Lopez wrote. “She helps children discover who they can be and teaches them how to make that vision a reality. She turns wishes into hopes.”
Matthew Hladiuk, who also teaches fifth-grade at Westover, works closely with Hawkins-Jones and said he has learned a lot about hope from her.
“With her guidance I’ve been able to set goals for students,” Hladiuk said. “You never know what’s inside a child.”
Hawkins-Jones said that after she was nominated for the national award she was asked to submit test scores.
“Gallup is all about data,” she said.
She was then asked to take part in an interview.
“My philosophy on education is that mistakes are opportunities to learn,” she said. “We need to allow students to make mistakes and give them an opportunity to learn. [Instead] we try to save them.”
One final message on hope can be found on the bulletin board in her classroom.
It reads, “Hope is an amazing gift.”