Courage emerges when we are vulnerable to be and be seen for who we are. It is often considered a keystone virtue because it enables us to act on other character strengths or values. Courage guides us to be the people we want to be and can manifest in many different ways.

On March 12, 1930, Mahatma Gandhi (center) led the Salt March to protest the British salt monopoly in India. On March 12, 1930, Mahatma Gandhi (center) led the Salt March to protest the British salt monopoly in India.

Seminal examples of moral courage come easily to mind: Gandhi’s Salt March to spearhead the Indian independence movement, Rosa Parks’s refusal to give up her seat on a segregated bus, which helped to invigorate the civil rights movement, and the unidentified “Tank Man” of Tiananmen Square who resisted a column of tanks and became a symbol of resistance.

But, while those illustrations of courage are all justly famous, in daily life the rubber most often meets the courageous road in smaller and less spectacular forms: facing fears, admitting mistakes, and taking responsibility.

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As a high school teacher, I believe acts and biographies of courage should be studied and discussed to inspire students (and all of us) to live more courageously. Courage is a necessary gateway to authenticity, purpose, and doing the right thing. In times of conflict and crisis, beacons of courage can illuminate the perspective of hope and the possibility of change.

With these intentions in mind, I recently guided my 10th grade classes through an activity where we reflected on the practice of civil disobedience exemplified by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his wing of the civil rights movement. We watched King in the Wilderness, a documentary about the last years of his life, from the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965 to his assassination in 1968. After, I had my students evaluate the power and effectiveness of King’s commitment to nonviolence.

This process of reflection was facilitated through an activity called Compass Points. On the center of the whiteboard, I wrote “The Power of Nonviolence,” which was then encompassed by the cardinal directions: N, S, E, W.

The W cardinal point represents what students find worrisome or what they think may be the downside of nonviolent resistance. The E represents what excites them or what they perceive as the upside of this practice. The N stands for what further needs they have or what additional information may be helpful to make a more thorough and thoughtful evaluation. Finally, the S corresponds to their current stance or opinion on the power of nonviolent resistance.

Students were given four post-it notes each, corresponding to each of the compass points, and captured their thinking about each of the cardinal direction prompts. After articulating their thinking, they aggregated their perspectives by posting them around the compass points. They then shared their responses in small groups. Finally, we transitioned to a whole group discussion about each of the prompts.

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Two key takeaways emerged from our exploration of nonviolence resistance: the astonishing courage and unwavering commitment of King’s moral leadership, and the nuanced moral intuitions my students unpacked through the activity.

There was universal admiration for King’s immutable devotion to nonviolence. While most students didn’t think that nonviolence was an absolute principle in their lives, they nonetheless were deeply inspired by the heroic effort of King and his colleagues. The actions of the civil rights leaders seemed superhuman, and therefore unfathomable from a certain perspective.

We then shifted the conversation to what an increased commitment to nonviolence might look like in our lives. Nonviolent communication came to mind. How might we deescalate conflict? How might we increase effective communication, especially with people we don’t see eye-to-eye with?

We talked about how civil discourse appears to have faded from media coverage, yet high standards and models for having difficult conversations and resolving conflicts with wisdom and compassion are of paramount importance. Otherwise, we seemed to agree, it’s easy to fall prey to cynicism and pessimism.

Research reveals that teens show greater moral courage when adults provide opportunities for them to voice their opinions regarding important decisions, which ultimately leads them to speak up in the face of injustice. According to this work, having role models of moral courage is vital because they help lead and inspire others in their pursuit of cultivating moral courage. This approach to the good life is called virtue ethics and has roots in ancient Greece. Rather than just thinking about what’s right or wrong in a situation, virtue ethics emphasizes building good character traits that guide how you act and treat others in your daily life.

After facilitating this reflection on moral courage with sophomores, I was eager to hear senior perspectives on this topic. During an advisory session, I had my senior advisees contemplate what kinds of courage have been most essential for them throughout their high school experience.

We reviewed that courage features three things: a risk, an intention, and a goal that may benefit others.

I then outlined four types of courage: general, brave actions perceived by others; personal, actions that are courageous in the minds of the actors themselves; academic, perseverance in the face of academic difficulty or fear; and moral, prosocial behavior with high social costs and no (or rare) direct rewards for the actor.

Next, they responded to the following prompt: Reflecting on your time in high school, what type of courage has been most important for you to practice? Personal courage was unanimously the most important. As one student wrote:

I struggled with self-advocacy and confidence and my experiences in high school put me in situations where I learned how to truly value myself. I learned how to put myself out there and reassure my abilities when others did not. Coming toward the end of high school, my inner courage has become stronger than my freshman self could ever imagine.

Another wrote about the value of continually putting themselves in uncomfortable situations so that they would be challenged to learn and grow. This habit of diving into situations where they are uncomfortable or nervous has enabled them to build confidence and courage, which has increased their sense of success and happiness both academically and personally.

A different student conveyed the importance of having the personal courage to stand up for what they believe in. The beginning of high school was very intimidating because they were constantly worried about what others were thinking about them. Over time, they realized everyone was too worried about themselves to care that deeply about what others said or did. They have come to understand that people will like you for who you are and not who you are trying to be. Looking back, they wished they had the personal courage to put themselves out there and explore all that high school has to offer.

Finally, I had the seniors envision what kind of courage they would likely need to foster after high school. Again, personal courage was the supreme choice. Their sentiments were best captured by one student’s reflection: “Personal courage is essential when envisioning my future. To be an independent thinker and develop the life I want to live—no matter what others think—will require that I am courageous about my ambitions and overcoming adversity.”

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Adversity no doubt is a feature of life. Within this landscape, courage is an essential method of wayfinding. As Hellen Keller reminds us, “Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing.”

As an educator for over 20 years, I have often asked myself: How can I encourage and inspire students to boldly go in the direction of their dreams? While I haven’t discovered a standardized answer, I’ve found that an environment riddled with carrots and sticks is kryptonite for living courageously. An overreliance on extrinsic rewards and punishments saps us of meaning and purpose.

Meaning and purpose are kindled in an environment of psychological safety. Discovering one’s values and strengths, and confronting one’s own limitations and fears, requires conditions where we can be vulnerable and authentic. I have witnessed, with the catalyst of courage, students and teachers alike embark on their daring adventure with a sense of meaning, purpose, and joy.

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