I am moved, just as you likely are, when I hear a story of a kid who somehow found it within herself to do something very brave. Last year, we all heard of Malala Yousafzai, the 17-year old girl who was shot three times by the Taliban in Pakistan for her work to insure girls get an education. After surviving the wounds, she continued to take a stand. She became the youngest recipient to win a Nobel Peace Prize. One journalist called her the “most famous teenager in the world.”
All week, I’ve been musing about how we can better cultivate courage in students. In a day where so many of us (both educators and students) fear failure, where we avoid taking a stand for fear of making enemies, where we hesitate to say something because it may haunt us on social media for the rest of our lives—we must find ways to equip students to take courageous steps, even when they’re afraid.
After covering why courage is essential and why it’s difficult to muster in Part 1, I wrote yesterday about what courage really is (and what it isn’t). Today, I’d like to launch a conversation on how we develop courage — both in ourselves and in our students.
Cultivating Courage in Students
My friend Andy Stanley suggests that courage is a blend of clear perspective and the irresistible urge to act. Clarity generally comes first. Here are some steps we can take with our students to enable them to grow in courage:
1. Help them clarify their moral compass.
This means we talk over what they really believe in deeply. We are most likely to exhibit bravery when we know the principles we most value.
2. Identify their strengths and unique gifts.
Courage surfaces when students have opportunities to act in line with their primary gifts. In other words, they’ll be most confident in areas of strength.
3. Read the stories of past courageous leaders.
Once a person exhibits backbone, the spines of others are often strengthened. Help students locate narratives of past leaders who stood amidst adversity.
4. Attempt something new and risky every week.
I’ve practiced this for years now. Courage requires a risky step. Ask them: when was the last time they did something for the first time?
5. Together, make an “all in” commitment to a good habit for a set time.
Being brave is often about doing a good thing, not a great thing. Identify a good habit you can start practicing together and commit to it for two weeks.
6. Hold them accountable on key decisions they’ve made.
Courage is sustained through friendly accountability. Once they decide to commit to a brave decision, hold them accountable to follow through.
7. Interview a courageous leader and ask: what gives you courage?
This has been priceless to me. I love finding people who’ve displayed bravery and discussed what it was that enabled them to act courageously. Take notes.
8. Encourage them to participate in “rejection therapy.”
This is a self-help game created by Jason Comely, where being rejected by someone is the sole winning condition. This exercise emboldens the players.
9. Nudge them to get involved in a cause for which they’re passionate.
Ambrose Redmoon once said, “Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the judgment that something else is more important than fear.”
10. Help them do what they fear the most… and the death of fear is certain.
True strength is keeping everything together when everyone expects you to fall apart. Courage expands when we initiate in an area we fear treading.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. made an incredible statement just a year before he died:
You may be 38 years old, as I happen to be. And one day, some great opportunity stands before you and calls upon you to stand up for some great principle, some great issue, some great cause. And you refuse to do it because you are afraid. You refuse to do it because you want to live longer. You’re afraid that you will lose your job, or you’re afraid that you will be criticized or that you will lose your popularity or you’re afraid that somebody will stab you or shoot at you or bomb your house; so you refuse to take the stand. Well, you may go on and live until you are 90, but you’re just as dead at 38 as you would be at 90. And the cessation of breathing in your life is but the belated announcement of an earlier death in the spirit. You died when you refused to stand up for right. You died when you refused to stand up for truth. You refused to stand up for justice.
In the end, the brave may not live forever, but the cautious don’t live at all. Let’s equip our students to really live.
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