Searching for the Most Hopeful Teacher in America

Hopeful students are more likely to go to school, engage in learning, and make good grades. And we now know where some of these high-hope students hang out. Gallup has identified 192 U.S. schools with a high-hope student body, based on Gallup Student Poll results from more than 1,700 schools.

All of these schools participated in the 2012 Gallup Student Poll measuring student hope, engagement, and wellbeing. Schools where students' average hope score was 4.53 or higher out of a possible 5 are being honored as a Gallup High-Hope School.

Gallup and Atria Books, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc., reached out to the principals of the 192 high-hope schools to find the most hopeful teacher in America. Principals at each of the Gallup High-Hope Schools were asked to nominate the one full-time, effective classroom teacher who was best at creating a contagion of hope in the school. Many principals told us that their nominee was easy to identify, as they were experts at getting students excited about the future and teaching them the ways to make their big goals a reality. One principal said it took a "split second" to pick the most hopeful teacher in the school.

Each nominee then submitted a personal story about how they spread hope to students. Based on their personal statement and on their principal's nominating letter attesting to teacher quality and the educator's knack for motivating students, we identified four finalists for the Most Hopeful Teacher Award:

•Danny Chang, Robert Frost Middle School, Montgomery County Public Schools
•Melissa Frans, Peter Kiewit Middle School, Millard Public Schools
•Sapna Iyer, SIATech High School at San Diego Job Corps Center
•Mary Hawkins-Jones, Westover Elementary School, Montgomery County Public Schools

Each of the four finalists were interviewed to discover how they made students more hopeful. Each of the finalists talked about sharing their own hope with students. Three strategies emerged that these hopeful teachers shared in common:

1.Caring about students and investing in their big future goals.
2.Aiming teaching at their students' goals for the future to increase relevance of instruction.
3.Helping students overcome obstacles and teaching them how to solve problems on their own.

Chang's principal, Joey Jones, said, "He teaches with his heart as well as his head." Jones added, "[Chang] communicates high expectations, he provides frequent and explicit feedback, and plans for a variety of activities that generate multiple paths to learning." Chang's approach to inspiring students is shared by many other high-hope teachers. Chang elaborated, "Hope is contagious and it begins in oneself. I have hope in my students and when they see that in me, I believe they begin to have hope in themselves."

At Kiewit Middle School, Frans tries to connect with every single student every day. To motivate students toward a future that matters to them, she tries to "find something each of them do well." By getting students to do more of what they do best, they have more hope for their futures.

Iyer sees herself as a teacher, coach, and parent of her students at a school that specializes in educating those who did not find success at other institutions. She works hard to increase the relevance of what she teaches in her English classes. "I target more things to students' educational and career goals," she said. "English is a tool that can help us teach anything." With that strategy, she helps students develop expository writing and oral communication skills that can be used in the classroom, on job interviews, and in the workplace.

At Westover Elementary, Hawkins-Jones helps all of her 5th-grade students set goals with her and Patricia Kelly, the school's principal. She encourages them to chase a goal they are excited about, list strategies, and consider obstacles in their way. Hawkins-Jones marvels at students who are so committed to their goals that they are willing to give up recess to work on them.

These four teachers are masters of content and pedagogy, but they also possess the talent to make learning relevant to students and their futures. Each finalist is effective by any and all measures. But, only one earned the title of Most Hopeful Teacher in America. That is Mary Hawkins-Jones, a Montgomery County, Maryland 5th grade teacher.

Hawkins-Jones combines teacher talent, caring, and homespun wisdom to connect students to a promising future. She shares the story of a student she described as a turtle in her shell because "she was always hiding." The student told Hawkins-Jones that her career goal was to become a housekeeper. Hawkins-Jones told the student that she could be of service to people in other ways, telling her, "Oh no, you can dream higher than this." Inspired, the student went on to be a teacher.

Earlier this year, the former student contacted Hawkins-Jones to say thank you for encouraging her to consider other goals. "She told me she was nominated for teacher of the year in her district. And she won." Hawkins-Jones said, "You can have a big impact on students by giving them a little hope."

Shane J. Lopez, Ph.D., a Gallup Senior Scientist, is the world's leading authority on the psychology of hope and author of Making Hope Happen, published by Atria Books in March.