The Courage It Takes

There’s a great story about General Westmoreland that reminds us what can happen if we are brave with each other. The general was reviewing a line of paratroopers and decided to talk to three of them.

“Son,” he said to the first one, “Do you like to jump out of airplanes?”

The paratrooper grinned before responding enthusiastically, “Yes, sir! It’s an adrenaline rush, sir!”

The general nodded approval and moved to the next soldier. “Son, do you also like to jump out of airplanes?” he asked.

“Yes, sir,” the soldier said. “I’ve dreamed of doing it all my life, sir. If you get the opportunity, you should try it some time. It’s like nothing else in this world!”

The general smiled and moved to the final soldier. “And how about you, son?” he asked. “Do you like to jump out of airplanes?”

The soldier saluted and responded so quickly and confidently that it took the general by surprise. “No, sir!”

The general paused, then stepped closer to the soldier and looked him in the eye. “Then why are you a member of this paratrooping division?” he asked.

Again, the soldier didn’t hesitate. “Because I like to hang with guys who do like to jump out of airplanes, sir!”

Courage is contagious. When those around us demonstrate courage, it’s easier for the rest of us to be brave. And if we are brave together, imagine what we can accomplish!

I first recognized the potential of this possibility when I was talking with a student of mine who was a member of a violent gang. We were talking about the increasing number of gangs in our community. During the conversation, he turned to me and said, “You know, Mr. W., gangs are only as strong as the town lets them be.”

I was stunned. He was correct, but I had never considered the idea. Instead, I had been wallowing in troubled desperation over the growing violence among students. His comment spurred months of personal reflection, however. I wondered: What’s not working for these children who join gangs, and what leads them down such horrific road? In what kind of community do I want to raise my own children, and what am I going to do to create and maintain it?

I attended several inservice trainings and conferences on gangs and youth violence and found kindred spirits in the participants. With each conversation with these similar-minded people, dealing with the issues that drive students to gang affiliation, solutions on how to dissolve gangs in our town, and returning neighborhoods to healthy places to raise children seemed more and more possible. Today, things have improved, but we are not finished, and there’s no room to waver in our diligence.

Deciding What’s Important
The mindset needed to take on gangs and other issues in our schools is expressed compellingly by rock band manager James Hollingworth, a.k.a. Ambrose Redmoon, a paraplegic: “Courage is not the absence of fear, but the belief that something else is more important than that fear.” Reflecting on our everyday classroom practices with students and interactions with colleagues, what might we consider so important that it trumps our fears of rejection, embarrassment, breaking rules (hidden or not), or ruffling others’ feathers?

How about choosing a different novel if the one mandated by the English department isn’t working with a particular student?

How about risking embarrassment by confronting (in a constructive manner) a colleague who is doing something with students that takes a lot of class time and a lot of school resources but usually results in little or no student learning?

How about suggesting the school re-dedicate itself to teacher-advisory programs, including offering training for teachers and re-adjusting the master schedule to provide opportunities to conduct the advisories, even if a faction of faculty members don’t support it?

How about being a seasoned teacher who admits to colleagues that he doesn’t know how to teach a particular student and would like some assistance?

How about giving up the classroom we’ve had for years and taking the roving, classroom-teacher-with-a-cart position so that a new teacher can have your room and one less thing to worry about during her first years in the profession?

No one said courage was easy. Yet colleagues and mentors throughout our careers have bravely taken such risks. The least we can do, then, is dedicate ourselves to courageous acts of teaching and collegiality, even when we don’t feel like we’re up to the task.

Acts of Courage
Courage in middle schools can’t be left to chance. If we are not at a point in our careers where we can be courageous, let’s do whatever we can to help others be courageous. Our current and future students depend on at least some of us swapping fear for potential right now.

Consider doing a common, yet wonderful staff development activity: Write your personal list of what you would do if you were truly brave. As you record your thoughts, remember that you don’t have to do the tasks alone, and in fact, you’ll be more successful by sharing the journey, if for nothing else than bravery’s contagious nature.

Here is one act of courage on my part—to put forth for educators’ scrutiny my own personal list of what I would do if I were brave. It’s dangerous for me to share this list because you may disagree with me, judge me, or refuse to read anything else I write.

Nevertheless, I shall not take the timid route when so much is at stake. After reading the list, I hope you’ll create your own list to rally your energy in the new school year. Here are just 9 of my many brave acts to take:

Adjust the school’s master schedule to support best practices, not sacrifice best practices to support the master schedule.
Make it easier to let ineffective and toxic teachers and principals go. Some folks have misidentified their strengths or misjudged the date of their retirement.
Ask principals who demand next week’s lesson plans from all teachers to be submitted for review each Friday to present their principal plans for next week to teachers for their review each Friday. Before I’m misquoted, however, know that I fully support struggling teachers submitting their plans for review, professional learning communities exchanging plans for collegial review and coaching, and proven veterans submitting plans at least once a year so the principal knows what’s going on in his or her school.
Help change teacher evaluation systems so that those principals with little or no teaching experience in a teacher’s subject or grade level do not do the majority of teacher evaluations for that teacher. To critique and evaluate teachers, we must be up-to-date on the subject being taught.
Choose to teach the students no one else wants. They are the ones who bring out our true teaching colors, who most inspire our creativity and efforts. In our democracy, we teach all students, not just those easiest to teach. It’s a feather in our cap to be considered the answer to a problem.
Revamp most of our country’s grading systems. They do not accurately portray what happens in standards-based, differentiated classrooms.
Open teacher practices to public scrutiny. Brave educators must have frequent opportunity to publicly defend their thinking on educational issues, formally and informally, rather than living safely behind the closed classroom door. When we must articulate what we do, it becomes real and actionable, something we constantly reference, not an abstraction.
Question No Child Left Behind and every other federal education mandate from any political party in power from now until we retire if we have concerns about it.
Mandate all students and their teachers get residential, outdoor education experiences of a week or more every year, including ropes initiatives courses. Adults and students come back changed for the better, closer to who we really are, critical thinkers, and appreciative of learning and each other.
Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “A hero is no braver than an ordinary man, but he is braver five minutes longer.” For our students’ and communities’ sake, let’s take the opportunities in the school year ahead to dare greatly and be brave five minutes longer.

Rick Wormeli is a long-time teacher, consultant, and author living in Herndon, Virginia. His latest book, The Collected Writings (So Far) of Rick Wormeli: Crazy Good Stuff I Learned About Teaching Along the Way, which this column is excerpted from, is available from

Published in AMLE Magazine, May 2015.

Bring Rick Wormeli to your school. Contact AMLE Director of Middle Level Services Dru Tomlin at for more information.