Fighting Fires With Hope: The First Virtue for 2021-2022

by Ross Peters, Vice President of School Strategy, EXPLO Elevate

I felt as if I was on the receiving end of 911 calls. Given the tone of the callers, one might have thought the intruders were in the house, or the flames had crawled across the lawn and were now licking the windows.

This morning I thought about those May-June calls again, while listening to the interview of a firefighter who has been working the Dixie Fire in California for the last month. The interviewer asked him whether he could still take it. He simply said something to the effect of, “I am still here, aren’t I?”

So who were these callers, the ones staving off exhaustion, attempting, sometimes in vain, to maintain attention on the final tasks of the school year? Heads of School.

Fighting fires when they begin is an emergency task requiring nimbleness, heroics, maybe martyrdom, some cortisol, definitely adrenalin–though as fires grow into things that seem to have a monster’s intelligence and cruelty, fighting them becomes a strategic/crisis campaign requiring making plans, considering alternatives, mobilizing resources. And finally, ending the fires and moving forward prioritizes regaining equilibrium and looking ahead. The problem in August 2021 is that we are ready to move forward, we are ready to look ahead, yet the crisis (actually a number of them running concurrently) isn’t abating. The fire is instead changing its shape, slipping above and below and around our firelines.

The problem in August 2021 is that we are ready to move forward, we are ready to look ahead, yet the crisis (actually a number of them running concurrently) isn’t abating.

Even with all that faces them in the days and months ahead, I sense a renewed strength, perhaps even a deeper sense of resolve in the leaders I am working with now that we have started to taxi onto the runway of the 2021-22 school year. Yesterday, I was in a conversation with a head of school, and I found it invigorating. “Invigorating” is not a word I have used often in connection to the current condition of schools, yet there was something strong, familiar, and comforting about her tone. She is excited about the year to come. She is well-rested, and she is making plans. She is not to be trifled with. I’d follow her even onto the unknown of Fall 2021 with confidence. The almost existential uncertainty and tentativeness of August 2020 has been replaced in her by the virtue of Hope a year later. With no foreseeable end of fires, she is moving forward anyway–regaining equilibrium (even within changed circumstances) and looking ahead. July clearly gave her the time to find her feet, heal, rest, and recover.

As my colleague and friend Dr. Karl Haden emphasizes often in his description of the virtues, “Virtues are actions.” More than simply traits, they are choices we make to live well and meaningfully in the world. Karl put it this way in a 2018 post: “Without hope, we lose meaning in life and we live in despair. Without hope, we miss valuable life experiences.” In the moment of emergency, there is neither time for hope or despair, there is simply action–the next step we take, directive we give, and impact we breathlessly await. In moments of a more lasting crisis, however, as well as in the good times, hope is not only a choice we make, it is a survival technique against despair. Schools when they are operating at their best (no matter the immediate context in which they find themselves) can pump hope like blood to every extremity of their reach.

I just listened to the new NAIS podcast, New View EDU, hosted by Tim Fish and Lisa Kay Solomon. Their first guests were Donna Orem and Michael Horn–certainly an appropriate way to start! I was pleased to hear Donna emphasize the power of hope for leaders at this particular moment. The sort of hope I think of is not naive and certainly not ignorant; in fact, it faces up to the most brutal detailing of the truth and gets to work addressing the way forward. As opposed to fragile optimism, rather than being disappointed in each setback, hope allows one to imagine a better world and strive to help to create the circumstances in which it can come into being.

For Abraham Lincoln who was clearly tempted toward despair in the dark days of the war, hope to regain the Union was a daring, courageous, and often unpopular choice. Nothing about choosing hope was easy and without it nothing would have been possible. The same can be said for all of us as we queue for this particular new school year.

Nothing about choosing hope was easy and without it nothing would have been possible.

As we steered into the storm upon storm that have defined the last year and a half, I posted a piece (on my personal blog on March 20, 2020 seeking to capture my expectations for myself moving forward. I originally called it “Calling Out and Calling On Myself in the Face of Coronavirus.” Rereading it now, it is clear I didn’t know exactly what was coming next in the pandemic, but I did know it was going to hurt–and it has. A lot. In those early days of this historical crucible, George Floyd was still alive. We had not yet lost 10,000 lives to Covid19, much less well-over 600,000. It wasn’t that long ago, but I imagine it feels as separate from where we are now as 1860 did from 1861, or 1941 did from 1942. Hope has to grab hold before any lasting recovery can begin. My piece, an attempt to look to personal accountability was also a kind of hope seeking.

As I reflect this evening on the virtue of Hope, I have come to think of it not as the action of wishing for some specific outcome, but rather as the set of actions that lead to creating a better, and perhaps more sustainable, human presence on earth. Schools, now more than ever, need to be Hope gardens, Hope manufacturers, Hope nurturers, Hope keepers, and they must be full of Hope gardeners, makers, painters, builders. This is not going to be easy. It never has been. Heads of schools need to Hope leaders. My bet is on them, and on all the teachers and staff that have chosen what I believe to be the sacred work of playing a part in the education of others.

Happy New School Year! -Ross


  1. I wrote a slightly updated version of that March 2020 called “Calling Out and Calling On Myself in the Face of a Bad Year” for EXPLO Elevate in early June 2020.
  2. Below is an excerpt of that post, focusing on some assumptions I was making and some personal expectations I wanted to maintain:


“So…rather than pull out a crystal ball of specific predictions and hyper-generalize a to-do list for everyone, it makes more sense to me to simply create a list for myself regarding who I want to be during the pandemic.

First, some general assumptions:

  • What we have considered inconveniences in the recent past will be dwarfed by current realities.
  • Few, if any of us, will escape finding ourselves close to tragic loss.
  • Our neighbors (think of the world and the people in it) will both inspire us and disappoint us.
  • Misinformation will slow our exit from struggles related to the pandemic and from the divisions whose scars seem to become deeper each day.
  • Some things we assumed were stable will not be.
  • Acting out of the strength of our convictions will be impossible without discomfort and vulnerability.

While facing these factors, I will strive to:

  • Be a good husband, father, son, and brother.
  • Never let my disappointment in some people and institutions blind me to the inspiration I should find in others.
  • Choose the hard right over the easy wrong.
  • Hold myself accountable when I fall short, while at the same time forgiving myself.
  • Do all I can to make other people safe.
  • Recognize that I am fortunate beyond measure, and I should not complain about being without things others have been without all along.
  • Take a deep breath (or two) before sharing my opinion.
  • Be a discerning consumer of information.
  • Stay busy and prioritize diet and exercise.
  • Seek out the good in both people and in the world around us.
  • Seek reasons to laugh with others.
  • Look forward to better days ahead at least as often as I look back to better days in the past.”