Teaching for Courage

The following post is adapted from a talk I gave at the 9th annual HSE-MK12 Teaching and Learning conference in Vitória (ES, Brazil)

Kathryn lecture
Kathryn Fishman-Weaver gives a talk on “Teaching for Courage”

Courage comes in many forms: a comment, a piece of art, a personal story, joining a new club, a choice to participate, a choice to not participate, a call for help. My research looks at social-emotional needs in general, and courage in particular. This post outlines some of the lessons I’ve learned from students about courage and makes the case for why we ought to encourage courage in schools.

Why do we need courage?

The short answer is that challenge is unavoidable. The longer answer is courage is the force that drives our world forward. Said differently, the major problems of the world can’t be solved without it. Our students (and teachers) face a wide array of challenges. We face personal challenges such as an ill parent or tough soccer game. We face school challenges such as peer pressure and high stakes assessments. We face community challenges such as violence and littering. We face global challenges such as war and hunger. Sometimes challenges are outside our control, however how we respond to them is always within our control as is how we teach young people to face the challenges before them. I argue that challenges are most effectively addressed with a particular affective skillset including: self-care, strength, vulnerability, compassion, connection, courage, and a healthy dose of creative problem solving. Yet, I find that schools seldom stress the development of these affective skills.

In my last study, we found three related concepts were necessary for healthy affective development. They are courage, connection, and self-care. I’ve used these three concepts in my work with students ever since. Courage, connection, and self-care guide how I counsel, lead, and teach, particularly through challenges.

As usual, I’m getting ahead of self. Let me back up and define some terms. What does is mean to face something with courage? Often I think we mistake courage for physical strength, valor, power, and guardedness. It turns out these things have little to do with courage. Courage comes from the Latin word cor, meaning heart, we see the same root in both our English and Portuguese words for courage/coragem. Brené Brown, a socialwork scholar and vulnerability researcher, reminds us in her work, that courage is “a heart word”, it literally means of the heart. In my conversations with students, we often talk making the difficult but “right” choice, taking that action which our conscious tells us to do, but our heart says is going to be hard: telling a classmate that his joke isn’t funny, it’s offensive; leading a class discussion after a tragedy; comforting someone who has lost a family member; sitting down to take that calculus test.

We’ve all experienced these moments. Life is a series of these moments. Negotiating them with grace builds up our emotional strength, something my students called strong vulnerability. It is inherently difficult to speak truth to power, truth to bullies, truth to self. This difficulty, this vulnerability, is often indicative of change potential. When we take the risk and make the hard but right choice, we often see great rewards such as stronger connections, safer schools and communities, and more courageous peer groups. It turns out when courage becomes part of the classroom culture, courageous acts are contagious.

The reason courage is an emotional experience is because it is closely related to fear, so let’s look at that word too. In Hebrew there are distinct words for two different kinds of fear. These words are pachad and yirah. I am drawing on Tara Mohr’s work here. Pachad is the fear we imagine. It is often irrational, limiting, and dark. It includes fear of ridicule. Yirah, on the other hand,  translates roughly to awe, it is the fear that overcomes us when we are in the midst of something grand; when we are working with flow; when we realize we have gone from dreaming big to living (or learning) big–even if only for a moment. It comes from the word for God.

In schools, we want to limit fear of ridicule, bullying, and exclusion. But awe is something else entirely. We want students to lose themselves in a work of art, to stand amazed at the glocal connections surrounding contemporary issues like water quality or access to education, we want their pulse quicken before they say something brave.

Further, we want to normalize the emotional experience of being courageous so that our students can become more adept at drawing on their own inner heart-strength. As we do with quadratics or conjugating verbs, students need opportunities to become proficiently courageous.

This brings me to another concept my students taught me, it’s a phenomenon we called the precipice experience. My student research groups often talked about the precipice as a metaphor to illustrate that emotional state we experience when are about to do something really big: like taking our first English immersion class, recording a debate on a topic we care deeply about, or applying to college. When I started my research, I was so naive; I hoped to lessen the amount of struggle my students experienced. I wanted to make life less scary. I now understand that a healthier approach is to help students develop the heart-strength they need to respond to scary things with courage.

Of course, there are struggles I still absolutely want to lessen. I want to work with students to promote positive social change and sure I remain a little naive about how quickly we can make a profound difference. However, in this case, I usually call my naivety optimism. The more personal challenges though, the hard stuff that students (and all human beings) have to go through is often what gives us a reason to grow. Think about the difficult essay you have to write, the difficult friendship you have to navigate, the difficult experience of learning and connecting in another language, the list goes on. When we face these challenges with heart-strength our hearts grow stronger. I believe the world needs more heart-strength.

We do not always get to choose the mountains we climb, or the precipices we come to on that journey. However, we can choose our outlooks and our action plans. I want our students to feel in control of both of these. Sometimes the challenges our students face are well outside of their sphere of influence. Sometimes life is unfair. In these moments, more than ever, we need courage, connection, and self-care.

I want to be careful that this post not be interpreted as trivializing challenge, or leveling challenges or courageous acts to a false equal. I mean nothing of the sort. Giving a speech in front of your class (or 200 of your favorite colleagues) is very different from starting an anti-racism campaign, or saying goodbye to a grandparent. However, all of these situations require courage and heart-strength to find our way through them.

How much time do we spend in schools talking about heart-strength? How many class discussions do we have about agency, empathy, and compassion (including self-compassion)? My guess is, not enough.

Teaching is often heart heavy work, because sometimes our students bring in heavy things. When they do, we need to help them respond from their heart, meaning with courage; we need to give young people permission to lean into their emotions, to listen to their heart, to feel deeply, and to find inner-strength. Teachers, being effective in these tough situations requires exactly the same skillset for you. YOU need to respond from your heart, give yourself permission to listen, acknowledge, hold space, and find the inner-strength to guide young people forward.

Imagine schools where students are taught to respond to adversity with strength and love. In such schools, I believe we would experience healthier and stronger relationships and bolder and more effective solutions to problems. Through courage, we can nurture our students (and teachers) to find greater purpose and deeper belonging in this complex and beautiful world.


This article also appeared on my educational leadership blog.