Core Practice #2: Courage

Fear will always be triggered by your creativity because creativity asks you to enter into realms of uncertain outcome, and fear hates uncertain outcome.

Elizabeth Gilbert

My journey of exploring our school core practices continues with reflecting how courage plays an elemental role in my daily professional practice. While the etymology of courage seems quite straightforward: ‘cor’ – heart, ‘agere‘ – to lead; courage – to lead with [the] heart, examples of courage in our teaching and learning appear to be more elusive. One thing has become apparent as I examine courage and its use within all of the stakeholders that make up our learning community: there is a foundational embodiment of courage by students, teachers, and families, alike. And as our school faces an existential crisis, we must again heed a call for collective courage.

As regular readers know, that while I have been a parent at our school for nearly a decade with three children passing through, my role as a teacher is just entering its third year. And in that brief period, it has become very apparent that being a teacher and being a parent at the school require one unique element: courage. While it took courage to bring our family to this ‘hippy-dippy’ school with the funny name and its odd assortment of students and families. Teaching within this multi-age thematic perspective requires an inordinate amount of courage to be a teacher at our school; to stop everything when conflict within the learning group arises; to have hard conversations with families about realities involving their child’s learning struggles; to show up for families to help them with the child and their learning struggles; to allow creativity and personal interest help design deeper, thematic project-based learning opportunities.

Our school has ‘lived outside the box’ of public education as an alternative for nearly two decades and since accepting a proposal from the school district. This decision has required an immense collective courage from teachers, students, and families. So far (and with a lot of conscious effort), the school community has been able to hold its boundaries through challenges to its pedagogy, multi-aged classrooms, thematic based learning, homeschool component, and oddly enough, its believe that time with family is the most important part of learning which has resulted in a four-day school week.

Parker Palmer’s The Courage To Teach is my one of my favourite books. Ever. Throughout the last three years, I have repeatedly sought solace and strength in Palmer’s ode to heart-led teaching. I often struggle mightily to prove or uphold (or both) the legitimacy of our school core practices within my classroom and our larger community. I am truly grateful to those teachers and parents that have gone before me to find the courage to support something…different. It took (and continues to take) courage to stand and valid the school’s place in our public education system as an alternative for all learners.

Academic institutions offer myriad ways to protect ourselves from the threat of a live encounter. To avoid a live encounter with teachers, students can hide behind their notebooks and their silence. To avoid a live encounters with students, teachers can hide behind their podiums, their credentials, their power. To avoid a live encounter with subjects of study, teacher and students alike can hide behind the pretense of objectivity. To avoid a live encounter with ourselves, we can learn the art of self-alienation, of living a divided life.

Parker Palmer, educator/author of ‘The Courage to Teach

As soon as one decides to accept the school’s core practices (as a teacher), one must expect an enormous degree of uncertainty be a part of their daily practice. The school’s founder and original teacher, Liz Tanner, in an open letter to parents and school board trustees shared her view of teaching with the heart and from the heart: “I don’t set deadlines for myself as I build curriculum [thematic, project-based at the class level]. I find no point in stopping lessons because I’ve reach an end to the week or month. We will move on when it feels appropriate.” An argument could be made that Tanner’s perspective is a teacher-centred approach. I, however, hold the conviction that she, in fact, asks for immense courage and trust in the learning journey for each student. Big on depth, short on breadth. Learning, for Tanner, is about giving our kids time and space. Two things that our standard westernized public education does not truly value and afford our learners.

Tanner also acknowledged the courage and bravery necessary to dance the dance of governmental-directed learning outcomes with what’s happening in the moment for the learners. “There are compromises in the curriculum. A child received a fraction of what the Ministry sets out for their age level each year. This is because I work across grade level lines to find the material to suit yearly themes.” She was also very clear that she “cannot offer the amount of repetitions necessary” for the students and believed that in the long run it would not be “an issue”. She wisely acknowledges that “we live in a culture that has very set ideas about what they should be able to do at a given age”, but that we don’t have to succumb nor conform. Time and space.

Good teaching cannot be reduce to technique; good teaching comes from the identity and integrity of the teacher.

Palmer Parker, educator/author of ‘The Courage to Teach

Our school continues to feel pressures from the district to conform. At the moment, there is a proposal afoot–under the guise of inclusivity (new catch word that I find being thrown around by many non-classroom teachers and administrators rather recklessly)–to move our middle school program in the larger middle school just two blocks away. We are being asked to show up again; to come with courage; to hold strongly to our values; to maintain healthy boundaries. Our entire school community (K-9) is in a collective shock, of sorts. But we also know truth. We know this ‘merger’ will have massively adverse affects on so many students in our program (many of whom have sought out our program as an alternative to the mainstream middle school environment).

In light of this earth-shattering news, my class continues to hold our daily circles. We continue to share our concerns. We continue to ask questions. We continue to learn and stay as focused on what we need to do each day in spite of unmentioned fears. We, collectively, continue to show up with courage.


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