George Lucas Educational Foundation
Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)

It Takes Courage to Make Schools Better

April 27, 2015

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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  • Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)
  • Administration & Leadership
  • Professional Learning
  • School Culture

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