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Encouraging Courage: Why & How To Build Academic Courage With Your Students

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January 02, 2024


Recently, the concept of academic courage has been coming to the forefront of the discussion on how to help kids be successful in school. Ron Berger, the Chief Academic Officer of EL education, wrote an intriguing article for Edutopia on the topic. This concept holds the key to helping our kids develop into the kinds of students we want them to be.

What is academic courage?

Who needs it and why do they need it? It isn’t the courage a teacher must summon to face an angry parent or a problematic student. Instead, it is when our students dare to meet the challenges of the school day. School is routine. It’s what kids do each day. Adults might argue that going to school is a student’s job and it isn’t that hard.  Why exactly do students need courage?

Courage is a vital part of the character we hope to develop in our students. We want them to work hard, stick with it when things get tough, build grit and do so bravely. What precisely do kids need courage for in the classroom?

Why Keeps Need Academic Courage

It Takes Courage to Try: Trying involves taking risks. Trying means being vulnerable. Brene Brown, researcher, and expert on vulnerability says: “Vulnerability is about showing up and being seen. It’s tough to do that when we’re terrified about what people might see or think.”

It Takes Courage to Fail: Students WILL fail. At a recent teacher’s conference, Sophia Xu, Marketing Director at VIPKID told of an experience she had as a student in a classroom. She mentioned that the teacher wrote on the board ‘I love mistakes!’ The students were initially perplexed at their teacher’s attitude toward failure. Soon, the students began to see failure differently. They saw that it wasn’t the end, but a beginning, which fostered courage to fail in the students.

It Takes Courage to Try Again: It takes courage to pick yourself up after a failure and try again, especially knowing that failure is out there and is very, very real.

It Takes Courage to Stand Up in Front of Your Peers: Often a teen’s worst fear is embarrassment in front of their friends. Putting themselves out there in front of their class to potentially fail, or (sometimes worse in their eyes, be seen as the ‘geek’) takes courage.

There are many different kinds of courage. Berger explores the idea of different types of courage. He states:

“Some people have mountain-climbing courage but no public-speaking courage. Soccer courage is different from musical courage; big-city-at-night courage is different from forest-at-night courage. We all have courage in certain realms and less in others. And we can all work on our courage where we need it.”

Academic Courage: What does it look like?

It looks like asking for help instead of pretending you understand. Raising your hand to answer a question. It looks like standing up in front of the class to try a problem. And it looks like trying again and again and again and never giving up.

For many kids, putting their head down, pretending they don’t care or that they are ‘too cool for school’ and giving up seems a much more comfortable route to take than mustering up the courage to give their all in school. As adults, we know that what looks like the easy route now is likely to be a hard route later. Students though are usually more concerned with the here and now, so how do we convince them to examine themselves and develop their courage? (Yes, it can be improved, don’t forget about the Lion from the Wizard of Oz!)

Find the Roots: Most of the time when we lack courage in one area we are self-conscious. We believe ourselves to be deficient in that area. Because we have this negative core belief, we tell ourselves that we are ‘not good at math’ or ‘not a good reader’ or ‘I won’t ever use that stuff anyway.’ The first step is helping kids find where this belief comes from and encourage them to challenge the thinking that keeps them stuck.

Share Your Story: The odds are pretty good that you’ve struggled with something in your life. Maybe it is the same thing as your students, and perhaps it isn’t. Regardless, share your story. Share what was hard, how you felt. How you wanted to give up but didn’t, what happened and why it mattered. Make connections so that students can see how being courageous will benefit them.

Make Your Class a Safe Place: Help kids feel safe to take risks and fail. Teach them not to judge each other and how to react when their classmates fail. Fail in front of them yourself so they can practice responding to you and see your reaction to your own failure.

Help Students Be Their Best Selves

Courage is interlinked with failing well and building grit. Let’s focus on this critical skill to help our students be the best they can be.

By: Amy Curletto

Amy has been teaching for 12 years in grades K-2. She has a bachelor’s degree in Early Childhood and Elementary Education and also has endorsements in reading and ESL. Besides education, her other passion is writing and she has always dreamed of being a writer. She lives in Utah with her husband, her 3 daughters, and her miniature schnauzer. She enjoys reading, knitting, and camping.

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