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It Takes Courage to Make Schools Better

Maurice J. Elias

Prof. of Psychology, Director, Rutgers Social-Emotional and Character Development Lab (, Director, the Collaborative Center for Community-Based Research and Service (
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Looking up a flight of stairs in school toward double doors and the outside

Courage is not something that is reserved for leaders. Anyone who wants to see a school improve needs it -- and needs to be prepared to initiate and participate in courageous conversations.

As an example, let me tell you briefly about besa. This is a main value in Albanian culture. When the Nazis overran Albania in World War II, they demanded all the Jews be turned over for termination. Because of besa -- the value of protecting guests even at the cost of one's own life -- the people of Albania, without having meetings or being asked, took all the Jews into their families.

When the King of Albania was confronted by Nazi leaders, he said that were no Jews in Albania and the Nazis were welcome to look. Thousands of lives were saved. The value of besa was lived with courage.

At times, you will be asked to go the extra mile, though likely not to the extent required of the Albanians. To go beyond your boundaries -- to have a vision and to act on this vision of greater coordination, cooperation, and collaboration -- requires courage. Courage requires confronting and overcoming fear of disapproval by colleagues and superiors.

Planning Courageous Conversations

Making one's school better requires honest conversation, and that requires courage. Maybe it should not have to, but in most cases, it does. Here are some conversation starters that can be used in faculty meetings, grade-level or subject-area planning or preparation periods, or as a professional development activity:

Questions for Discussion

  • What is one practice in which you are currently engaged in your school that you would stop doing?
  • What is one practice you are not doing in your school that you would start doing?
  • What is something you are doing in your school that you question and would finally want to resolve?

If You Had Courage . . .

  • How would you begin a conversation among those in your school about the core ethical principles that you would most want to define what you do, how you do it, and how people will treat one another?

  • What rituals, routines, and other tangible signs will allow someone to experience/know/see/hear/feel these values when they walk into, walk around in, and spend time in your school? (Think, in particular, about entrances, the main office, hallways, lunchroom, detention room, and staff lounges.)

Getting Started

Use the questions and suggestions above to begin courageous conversations with your colleagues in school. Sometimes it's helpful to distribute index cards and have individuals write their answers, and then share in pairs or small groups before a general discussion. Hopefully, you will find it enlightening and liberating. Everyone knows the things they should and should not be doing, things they have wanted to change but have never gotten to.

The conversation about core ethical principles will be especially important. While many will apply, you will want to focus on a small number, just three to five, that you will seriously try to implement as part of school culture and climate.

Some examples include respect, dignity, justice, caring, aspirations, integrity, and support. Remember, selecting some focal principles does not mean that you reject the others. It simply means that you have decided on priorities that you will be communicating to students, staff, parents, and the wider community, as well as ensuring experiences that will build these principles in all students.

Having these conversations with even a small number of your colleagues almost invariably leads to improvements in the school climate, better experiences for students, and better outcomes.

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Maurice J. Elias

Prof. of Psychology, Director, Rutgers Social-Emotional and Character Development Lab (, Director, the Collaborative Center for Community-Based Research and Service (

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Clare Roach's picture
Clare Roach
Coordinator, English as a New Language Program, Institute for Educational Initiatives, University of Notre Dame

Maurice, I agree that this post is outstanding. We all need reminders that our profession is mission-driven.

Jeff Kress's picture
Jeff Kress
Associate Professor of Jewish Education

Thanks Maurice for these great suggestions for helping to bridge vision and action!

Elana Leoni's picture
Elana Leoni
Edcamper, Former @Edutopia, Founder of Social Media Marketing Consultancy aimed at helping educational orgs.

Maurice -

Your "besa" example really was moving and while we might not be putting our lives on the line like the Albanians did, I found it inspiring and it was a great way to set the stage of the power of a courageous culture.

I particularly like your suggestions on how to start these sometimes tricky conversations. I think allowing anonymity and really setting a culture of listening is key to moving forward with these courageous ideas.

This is an inspiring Winston Churchill quote I turn to at times:

"Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen." -Winston Churchill

Ed Eldridge's picture

More noise focused on the fuzzy, how about something concrete, less administration, less micro managing, fewer state and district test. More money for supplies, time to prepare, smaller classes. Less advice from disconnected experts.

Joe Kokinda's picture

How about changing the paradigm? IBM has. Schools and Administration need to stop the curious from being, well, curious. One will never Learn if they do not have the ability to choose what they want to know about. See "Did You Know?" on You Tube for an 8 minute long eye opener....

Patrick Faverty's picture

Dr. Elias, you are so correct - to be a great school leader you have to have the courage to do the right things. I might add that rather than the theoretical questions you suggest, another starting point might be the following: 1) Why are we here (collectively as a school and individually as a professional)? 2) Why do our efforts matter (impact)? These questions would start any school year in a positive direction (Many thanks to Principal, Ben Hazzard for these thoughts).

johnwilsonedu's picture

Thanks for this well-considered and thoughtful piece. Very useful sensible advice for a new Head who wants to implement change.

MsEmilyPE's picture

Thank you for the down to earth post. Navigating an undesirable, negative school climate can feel overwhelming. It is nice to consider that iniating and engaging in courageous conversations can start the ball rolling in the right direction.

jwarden's picture

Having the courage to speak up to promote change is definitely what good school leaders should do. When the climate is not positive this can be an extremely difficult thing to do. However, like the example of Besa it takes one person to begin the process. Starting with conversations that are real and authentic can be intimidating or perceived as negative but perseverance and passion are contagious. Respect and listening can bring about change when there is agreement within the team. Practicing the decision like the Albanians is the next step in implementing a change. Small groups working together to creatively brainstorm solutions is a positive first step to creating a change in a school.

Lauren's picture

Thank you for your sharing your thoughts within this well-written and inspiring post. The title of your post immediately caught my eye because I know that courage is often what is holding me back from stepping into a greater leadership role within my building. As a newer teacher, I have often found myself feeling uneasy about voicing my opinion among veteran teachers. However, you are right - honest conversation is CRUCIAL to bettering yourself and your school and honest conversation is only going to happen if everyone has the courage to speak up. Thank you for offering possible discussion questions. I am excited to share these questions with our leadership team and discuss how we can utilize them within our building.

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