When one of Mary Hawkins-Jones’s students said she wanted a slot on the school news broadcast, there were doubts about whether the fourth-grader could do the work.
The student was autistic and had some tics that would have made it hard for her to run cameras or interview guests for the show. But Hawkins-Jones sat down with the student to come up with a plan that would allow her to work through those obstacles, meeting every Monday morning to practice and rehearse.
“She wound up being one of the best broadcasters we had,” Hawkins-Jones said. “All I had to do was build up her hope.”
That outlook reflects why polling giant Gallup named Hawkins-Jones the “Most Hopeful Teacher in America” last week, just in time for the start of Montgomery County’s school year Monday.
The fifth-grade teacher at Westover Elementary School in Silver Spring is the first in the country to receive the honor, which includes a $2,500 cash prize.
Hawkins-Jones was selected through a nationwide search that Gallup conducted, and her title comes as Montgomery, Gallup and education leaders are trying to measure and improve hope among students. They believe that increasing hopefulness will lead to better academic outcomes as schools focus on social and emotional aspects of students’ lives.
Hawkins-Jones said people shouldn’t dismiss “hope” in schools as a fuzzy, feel-good idea. Instead, it is about teaching students how to reach goals and how to adapt when potential barriers arise, she said.
“I give them strategies not just to solve their problem, but instill the confidence in them to move forward the next day,” Hawkins-Jones said.
In education circles, hope is about measuring a student’s ability to set goals and come up with ways to achieve them. Studies have shown that students who have high hope perform better on standardized exams and receive higher grades. Montgomery has heavily invested in the premise as part of its plan to improve schools.
The district has a $900,000 contract with Gallup to measure the hope, well-being and engagement of students and staff.
Based on new Gallup data measuring national attitudes on education, “Americans want schools to teach these soft skills,” said Shane Lopez, a senior scientist at Gallup.
Lopez, an authority on the psychology of hope, said increasing hope could boost students a full letter grade.
Lopez said a focus on social and emotional learning doesn’t mean ignoring traditional academic success. Hopeful teachers get students excited about their futures, driving them to succeed.
“We want to let people know that you can be an effective, hopeful, confident and great teacher all at the same time,” Lopez said.
Only about half of America’s students are “hopeful” based on the Gallup Student Poll, Lopez said.
Hawkins-Jones has been a teacher for more than 20 years, and there is proof that her outlook on teaching has made a lasting impact.
In 1990, Hawkins-Jones was Cristina Ulrich’s first-grade teacher. The daughter of El Salvadoran immigrants, Ulrich was shy and lacked confidence. Hawkins-Jones made it a point to nurture the student.
When Ulrich said she wanted to be a housekeeper when she grew up, Hawkins-Jones urged Ulrich to aim higher, suggesting she think about becoming a teacher.
Not only is Ulrich now a Montgomery County teacher, but she was also named the district’s 2013 teacher of the year. Ulrich credits Hawkins-Jones for much of her success.
“She taught me the value of hard work and dedication,” Ulrich said.
Hawkins-Jones says other teachers can do what she does.
“For me, it is about sitting down with my students and figuring out what is driving them,” Hawkins-Jones said. “We can take care of them emotionally and academically as well, because when a child is happy, they are more productive.”