The first time it happened was in September 2020. To get to my classroom, I walked through smoke-filled air from the nearby wildfires and past isolation tents for symptomatic students. Once inside, five students sat scattered about the room while the rest logged on and pointed their cameras at ceiling fans. We were discussing an article making predictions about the future, and I made a flippant comment that matched the cynicism that resonated with the topic.
“Hopefully, by that time, we’ll still have a planet left.” At once, all five students’ heads snapped up, eyes wide. The ceiling fans kept turning. “C’mon,” a student coaxed. “We’ll barely be middle-aged by then.”
The wildfire smoke has since cleared, but my students continue to remind me, directly and indirectly, that teachers today are not just teaching Generation Z. We’re also teaching the Doomer Generation. They see the same events unfolding as the rest of us: the grim climate figures, lack of social mobility and the chipping away of democratic cornerstones. At the same time, my generation mistakenly applauds their efforts in activism to address these woes, claiming that they’ll “save the world,” without realizing what an incredible burden it is to be perceived this way.
I wish I could tell you I’d received the message, and that after that incident, I hadn’t continued to feed into their concerns about their future. But current events continued to weigh on me. We watched the January 6th insurrection unfold together, as I stared at an ultrasound for my first child due that April.
“I’m tired of living through history,” a student complained. I responded: “Yeah, and based on how things are going…” A student chimed in on the Zoom chat: “Ms. D killin’ the vibe again.”
I thought I was commiserating with them. I thought we were collectively staring down the barrel of a bleak future, wondering how to navigate this uncertain world. It took me two full years to realize that as the teacher, it was my job to illuminate possibilities beyond the future being presented to them. In reality, I was turning up the volume on the negative chatter that persisted in the background of their daily lives.
Hope on Lockdown
Early this fall, our school went into two active shooter lockdowns that were later discredited, thankfully. However, as we sat in the dark listening for signs that we might need to run, hide or fight off potential shooters, we didn’t know these threats weren’t real. From dark corners of silent classrooms, some students posted pictures of police officers pointing guns into their classrooms as they peered through the windows, while others stifled back tears. Once the lockdown was lifted, parents lined up to take their children home.
By the end of the day, just a few students were left in my 11th grade English class. We’d recently read an editorial by Matt de la Peña titled “Why We Shouldn’t Shield Children from Darkness.” In it, he discussed why he advocated for sad scenes to be included in his picture book “Love“, which I’d brought with me to school that day. So we gathered together to read the book the same way they did in elementary school, sitting next to each other on the floor, craning their necks to see the pictures.
For most of us, it was the first time we’d thought about anything other than our worst fears during the lockdowns. I remembered then, as the book’s arc descended us into our own hopeful conclusion, that I have the power to set the tenor in the classroom. As a veteran teacher, I know this on a logistical and theoretical level. How had I not considered that matching their cynicism could have a detrimental effect on their perceptions of the future?
Since that day, I’ve slowly been peeling off layers of my own calloused cynicism, in hopes of finding some places to shine a light on students’ paths forward. As I do this, I’m reminded how much teachers are primed to lead the Doomer Generation to a more hopeful future.
From someone who has chosen a profession that requires a stubborn belief that we are shaping a better future, despite a system that has consistently undermined our professional expertise and routinely asks us to do more with less, who better to cultivate and model hope than someone with a compass pointed toward a brighter future?
Critical Hope is the Solution
This is not to say that we should be ignoring the righteous calls from teachers that our profession is leading us to burnout faster than ever, or that we should sacrifice our own well-being to elevate our students’ hopes for their future. It’s also not about presenting a falsified narrative that regardless of what the data is telling us, our students’ futures will be bright. Scholar Jefferey Duncan-Andrade warns against the detrimental effects this mythical hope can have on students’ perceptions of themselves and their place in the world.
In de la Peña’s book Love, the vignettes culminate at a busy train station on a rainy day. The narrator reminds readers that they will one day “set off on [their] own” and as that journey begins, they will be surrounded by loved ones wishing them luck. It’s a beautiful reminder that we are strengthened by our communities.
Students in Denver Public Schools know this, as they attribute easing their climate anxieties to organizing with other students who are passionate about their cause. The WNBA knows this, as Brittney Griner’s homecoming highlights the athletes’ efforts to advocate for causes related to racial justice and gender equality. And teachers know this, as their collective efforts to prevent bans on their curriculums and books continue to unfold.
As teachers, we are uniquely positioned to foster these communities, whether they grow in our classrooms or extracurricular groups. We can elevate stories in our units about groups who organized to address our most urgent causes. We can provide our students with what Duncan-Andrade refers to as material hope, providing what has always been our best resource: grounding our content in the real world and connecting with our students’ concerns as we grow their critical thinking skills.
In this way, as our students continue to “live through history,” they will have one another and their growing arsenal of skills to propel them as they navigate this future with one another.