Why Courage?

unleash the inner courage

On the first day of my Bachelor of Education Program, Dr. Deborah Berrill walked onto the stage of the Wenjack Theatre at Trent University to welcome us all into a very special world. The time period was ‘way-back-when’, so as clearly as that moment continues to resonate, I am at best paraphrasing her words. I am however certain that her provocation was as simple and poignant as this: “the education system is broken. It is letting kids down.” Here I am remembering a dramatic pause. And then, “what are you going to do about it?” Wow!

I don’t remember much after that. A mic drop? A silent exit stage right? As if everything that needed to be said had already been said? Knowing Deborah a little more now than I did then, she almost certainly continued, illuminating whatever darkness loomed, expertly balancing along the tightrope between desperation and inspiration, despair and hope. She certainly meant to shake us, she may even have meant to filter us. For those of us who chose to stay in the moment, there is no chance Deborah would allow us to leave without first connecting us to the profound potential within, and an emerging confidence and determination to engage in the truly important work. 

Now, we can certainly debate the truth of her statement, and that might even be fun. For my money, whatever that may be worth, that might also be missing the point. Truth of course can be realized in many ways beyond the conventional consensus form of our western mindset. What is indisputably true is that each of us were challenged within an industry in deep need of challenge. Moreover, we were challenged within a field whose strength or potential is built upon the very idea of challenge. What is also true is that for at least one person in that auditorium, an entire mindset was quickly, magically, transformed. 

There is a particular way in which I choose to remember that day. I choose to remember entering that auditorium under a cloud of doubt with relative certainty that my participation in the program would not last. I choose to remember sitting alone, slumped near the back with a swell of disdain towards the education system at large that was the outcome of a disenchanted high school experience. And so I also choose to remember suddenly, under Deborah’s spell, jolting to life – ass pressed into the vertex of the chair, back straightened, being pulled forward by my eyes, lured, like at a campfire, into a mesmerizing glow. I choose to remember floating out of the theatre, lightened and lifted by words I’d waited a lifetime to hear. 

I also remember desperately wanting to grasp not only the moment, but the very idea of a moment. How a person, a teacher, wields the capacity to affect and transform, to ensure and inspire learning in the most lasting way. Within every interaction, I quickly decided, lies the possibility for such a moment. For the outlooks and lives of kids to be shifted in beautiful ways because of the experience we, the educators, choose to carefully craft,  provide, facilitate and unpack. Within every precious moment is an endless world of possibility, should we summon the courage to realize it, and not so easily dismiss it, as we so often do. Deborah changed my life that day because she had the courage to challenge me, us, beyond our realm of comfort. She was courageous, and I found courage in that. 

James Raffan, the Canadian author, explorer and experiential educator, seems to capture the idea and importance of courage in all he does. His work is both a journey and invitation, “to the edge of what we know or believe” (Summer North of Sixty). In this way, James presents an alarmingly obvious concept of learning. How can we begin to learn – to acquire new knowledge, understandings, perspectives – without first traveling beyond what we already know or believe? If we are to accept this idea as a model of education, then Jame’s life and work is an inspiring metaphor, if not a template for the educator.

I first met James on a ship that was circumnavigating Newfoundland. The whole operation fell more strongly into the comforts of tourism, but it was distanced enough – in proportion and abundance from a lavish, modern-day cruise that it managed to maintain a sense of expedition. Similar to my experience with Deborah, James first caught my attention from his place on stage. I was the vulnerable audience member, struggling to settle into my seat. The day on the high-seas was being described as “harrowing”, and I found myself caught. That day, we’d been transferred by Zodiac to the northern tip of the island to explore L’Anse Meadows, the re-created Norse settlements that is a national historic site. By the time we returned to the ship, the wind had come up, and with it the seas, making for a tricky and tense transfer out of the zodiacs. By the time James took the stage, the main auditorium was abuzz with laughter and tall tales – the warmth of rum transferring fears to elation. As usual, I found myself in between. Was that actual adventure and fear, or merely the illusion of under the safe blanket of a well-orchestrated machine? 

No matter, it seemed. James the explorer became James the writer, and he addressed his audience with a poetic musing, capturing the intoxicating beauty of Mother Earth, even in her somewhat fierce state, and our potential experience with, and in respect of, her. Like a ‘dark and stormy’ traveling through my esophagus, and comforting my gullet, James bridged the chasm between tension and lucidity, the intellectual and the explorer. Between judging and feeling. Quite suddenly, I had entered a moment I will never forget. Wisdom, expertise, and yes courage. James the writer had become James thet teacher. 

As with all great poems, James’ provocation was decoded through tone, mood and subtext, and so here I am interpreting rather than paraphrasing. Nonetheless, when I think back to that moment, I like to hear James – the endlessly courageous explorer, continually and willfully interacting with the brutal and even catastrophic outcomes of thoughtless human existence – imploring us to hold onto our high-seas adventure in such a way that it may inspire more. To remove ourselves from whatever comfortable perch we unconsciously default to, and will ourselves to the edges within reach of deeper, lasting, important moments. 

Moments. Forever remembered and felt. Moments so powerful in memory that I am shaken in mere contemplation of them. What is it like to feel as if anything is possible? What is it like to realize – if only for a moment – that I may in fact be crazy enough to accomplish anything? These are moments characterized by the transfer of courage. In both instances, the courage of a teacher is passed to the student. It is worth noting that in my career as an educator, I have had infinitely more experiences characterized by the transfer of courage from student to me. The reciprocal flow of courage creates the most fertile soil possible from which learning – understanding, wisdom, depth – may grow.

I have often said that if an educator can somehow summon the energy for an extra 10 minutes of planning, a well-planned lesson can become a memorable one. Courage, I have realized, is at the core of this concept. 10 thoughtful minutes, or even less, to identify the potential of courage – how it may be modeled, summoned and nurtured. 10 minutes to imagine the exciting experience of students being struck by the unexpected, pushing them – as James might say – to the edges of what they may otherwise expect of themselves. Imagine too, the administrator, the school leader, also finding that 10 minutes before addressing a team, unveiling a new implementation, taking a moment to consider not only what is being asked and why, but also how. What song might you sing? What costume might you wear? What character might you ask them to embody and explore?

As I consider my relationship to Deborah and James, I imagine myself as the rambunctious puppy dog. Bounding with energy, racing in all directions all at once. And yes, my tongue and tail wagging, perhaps just cute (or desperate?) enough to grab their attention (please don’t ever forget the importance of providing the approval your student seeks and requires). Indeed, I will feel just like that puppy dog as I share this musing with each of them. I should say that in the years I’ve known each of them, Deborah and James have been kind enough to return the odd text or email. Every now and then, even, I’ve managed to convince them to hang out with me, to share a moment and explore an idea. It occurs to me only as I write this, that I seek their attention as a source of my courage, and that we should all be lucky enough to have such sources. And this idea alludes to a powerful concept in which courage is passed from one person to the next in an exponential and unending flow.

10 minutes you say? Not bad. 

2 thoughts on “Why Courage?

  1. Wow! Thank you Graham, “Why courage?”
    “What is it like to feel as if anything is possible? What is it like to realize – if only for a moment – that I may in fact be crazy enough to accomplish anything? These are moments characterized by the transfer of courage. In both instances, the courage of a teacher is passed to the student. It is worth noting that in my career as an educator, I have had infinitely more experiences characterized by the transfer of courage from student to me. The reciprocal flow of courage creates the most fertile soil possible from which learning – understanding, wisdom, depth – may grow.” I really love this. It is so true. It resonates with me, my teaching experience.
    It is not rare to hear in my class at the beginning of course: “Ms. I can’t do math, it is not my favorite subject” or even worse “Ms. I hate it”.
    We, I and students, work together starting from what they know and building up on that the new knowledge. While we work the courage goes from me to them and the moment comes when I hear from my students: “Ms is that it? That’s it? I did it yes I did it.” Their confidence is boosted. And this inspires me to try something really crazy like playing a Kahoot online math game before starting writing a test. The students were concerned about timing although they liked the idea as a warming up, as a quick review.
    I had to insure them that if we fail we will accept it and will try again.
    It was a success beyond my expectations.
    Why courage? I would say: “Because courage fuels the engine of teaching-learning process.”

    1. @iqatipi, thank you so much for taking the time to share in this way. Amazing, I love this so much! I once spent some time with Math Teachers identifying the similarities between cracking a complex problem and completing a long portage on a canoe trip. So many overlapping skills and mindsets, but also feelings, and what characterizes those feelings. Courage! I think the moment of epiphany that you describe (when anything feels possible) is common to all great learning, and is about the most exciting thing we know. What would happen if, as educators, we were to focus most strongly on facilitating experiences/learning that might best ensure those moments. Hmmmm. I look forward to connecting at the next F2F (a day, by the way, in which we will build the courage to…)

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