On courage

An online friend remarked to me this week, “You’re so brave”, and this completely stopped me in my tracks. Me; brave? Certainly if you’d told me at the start of lockdown that I would be presenting to up to 1000 History teachers at the Seneca/TeachMeetHistoryIcons event on Saturday or have my own blog alongside Katie, I never would have believed you. I’ve written before about my imposter syndrome, and how as an introvert I do really struggle with stepping up and sharing resources or presenting, especially outside the relative comfort of my own school. And yet Iittle by little maybe I really am becoming braver.

Courage is defined as the ability to do something which frightens you; to have strength in the face of pain or adversity. Interestingly, the root is actually from the Latin word for heart, “to speak one’s mind while telling all one’s heart.” Courage is not the absence of fear, it is being able to overcome that fear, to quieten the negative voice so it doesn’t stop us taking action. Having courage doesn’t mean you’re invincible. We all have doubts and fears but it’s tackling them head on that means we are brave, it’s putting our pride on the line and taking a risk. We are all born with an innate sense of courage, whether it is to take the first step towards a parent with outstretched arms, or to read our first words. However, for some of us more than others, bad experiences or memories begin to hold us back. I know if I trace back my lack of courage in my teens and twenties, I am drawn to experiences with bullies at school who made me feel inadequate. My voice was unfairly silenced and my fear of being vulnerable or getting something wrong began to swamp my thoughts. I did take steps of course; becoming a teacher then a middle leader and eventually a senior leader, but fear has really impacted my career and my social life at various points. I saw a post from Matt Haig the other day that said “You can sound confident and have anxiety. You can look healthy and feel shit. You can speak well in public and be a wreck. You can be privileged and not mentally privileged. You can lift barbells and be weak. You can be a man and cry. You can have everything and feel nothing.” These words resonated with me so much. I’m sure colleagues and friends would look at me and think I was confident, had it all sorted and worried about nothing. And yet, at times the opposite was true. Fear would keep me awake at night (and still does!) and the negative voice in my head would become a shout. I would replay negative moments and convince myself I was a fraud.

So what has happened to help me find my courage? As with the lion in the Wizard of Oz, I’ve realised that I’m not a coward, I just needed to believe in myself and make a concerted effort to look within, to let myself be uncomfortable and try and rearrange my thinking. I’ve developed several strategies that have helped me and I thought I’d share in case they may help you.

  1. Accept it could go wrong. When I’m feeling scared about taking action on something or pushing myself outside my comfort zone, I often ask myself, “What’s the worst that could happen?” The majority of the time it isn’t actually as bad as I might fear. Take for example sharing a resource on Twitter. Firstly, I rarely post anything without sharing with a trusted colleague or friend as a protective move. Second, the worst that could go wrong is that someone in the teaching community poses a question, or criticises my resource. Sometimes that criticism may be valid, and I will amend and the resource will become even better. Sometimes the criticism might be unfounded, in which case I would probably agree to disagree, accept that not everybody will like everything I design and move on. Even if someone is deeply unkind about my work, what is really the worst that could happen? Sue Cowley in the WomanEd book 10% Braver also addresses this: “It might sound strange to take a negative viewpoint like this. But what happens is you realise your worst thing isn’t that bad.” It’s highly unlikely I’d be laughed out of the teaching community (something I honestly have a fear of sometimes!) so I mustn’t let my mind take that direction. The reality is that it’s often nowhere near as bad as we fear. Often I’ll also think about the inverse – what would happen if I do nothing? I know if this option is not preferable that it’s right to step outside my comfort zone. As Bene Brown says: “We have to be able to say, Look I don’t know if I’m going to nail this but I’m going to try because I know what i’m sure as hell not going to do is stay quiet.” Lastly, I’ll try and reframe my worries to “What’s the best that could happen?.” This also often motivates me to take the bolder step.
  2. Learn to discern between an unfounded and irrational fear and a helpful fear. A certain amount of fear is helpful – it’s the fear that stops us jumping off a cliff or not put our hands in a fire. Sometimes though our fears though are illogical. I’ve spent many wasted nights lying awake thinking “What if…” when actually the fear is completely unfounded. What if I can’t remember anything in my presentaton? What if everything I’ve planned is wrong? What if the pupils in my class start fighting? These things may happen, but they are extremely unlikely and lying awake at night thinking about them certainly isn’t going to make them less likely to happen. When I have moments like this, I try and do two things. Firstly, I share my fears. Somehow getting things out in the open makes them appear much more ridiculous. Secondly, I take action. If my fear is about Year 9 starting a riot P5 on Friday, I’ll ensure my lesson is planned extremely well. I’ll go through my lesson step by step, ensuring my subject knowledge is up to scratch, that I’ve planned my questions and responses and thought about potential misconceptions. I’ll ensure my seating plan is right, that I greet at the door and use praise to motivate pupils. These are all simple actions which I can take to allay my fears.
  3. Have someone who keeps you accountable. In my life I’ve been lucky enough to have close friends and mentors who have often said just two simple words to me: “Why not?” I remember when I was discussing a temporary Assistant Head post which had come up at my school and cautiously voiced my thoughts about whether I could do the role. The colleague who later became my mentor and is still a close friend to this day uttered those exact words to me. She made me believe I had as much right as anyone else to throw my hat in the ring, and to give it a shot. She was not a yes woman who would just tell me to do anything, she was someone I trusted but who made me stop writing myself off and made me believe I could do more than I had ever dreamed of. She held me accountable in a way I really needed. I’m so lucky to have supportive colleagues at school and on Twitter who are not afraid to challenge me and tell me not to hold myself back. I honestly believe starting this blog would not have happened if Katie and I were not each others “Why not?” colleagues. It’s important to have someone in your life, who pushes you even slightly outside your comfort zone and makes you believe you can. Surround yourself with supportive people or networks and people who will uplift you. If you don’t have that “Why not?” person, get in touch, I’d love to help.
  4. Understand that courage is about a single step. On the wall of my office I have the quote from Martin Luther King “You don’t have to see the whole staircase, just take the first step.” This is a great motivator for me. Courage for you might not be presenting at a conference, it might be sending an email with a resource to another member of your team. Courage might be volunteering to help someone out with organising the school play. Courage might be not staying quiet when a member of staff tells a boy to “man up.” Courage might be running a 5 minute CPD session for NQT’s, or offering to lead the sharing good practice section of your departmental meeting. I love the WomenEd motto of 10% braver and understanding that courage is taking an action, however small towards your goals and that every step along the path counts. Cowley writes “It’s not about being pushy, or shouting how great you are; it it just about trying something that has always frightened you, or doing something to boost your self-image.” Again, Bene Brown uses a lovely illustration here: “Dr. Brown tells a story about her daughter joining a year-round swim team, and how the coach assigned her to the 100m breast stroke, which is a tough race, and not her daughter’s strongest stroke. She was upset and said her friend told her she could scratch her heat, which means she could pretend not to hear her heat get called and miss her race. She asked Dr. Brown if she would get grounded if she scratched her heat, Dr. Brown said no. Her daughter said, “I’m never going to win this race,” Brown responded, “You will never win this race, but maybe winning for you is getting off the block and getting wet.” The day of the race comes, her daughter shows for the heat, and it was ugly. She was so behind that everyone was out of the pool and waiting for the next heat to start by the time she finished. She was devastated and crying, when she reached Dr. Brown. She looked down and said, “But I was brave and I won.” Brown summarizes the meaning of the story, “Vulnerability is hard and it’s scary and it feels dangerous. But it’s not as hard, or scary or dangerous as getting to the end of our lives and having to ask ourselves: What if I would’ve shown up? What if I would’ve said ‘I love you?’ What if I would’ve come off the blocks? Show up, be seen, answer the call to courage and come off the blocks. Because you’re worth it—you’re worth being brave.”
  5. Remember that courage is a habit. Once you take the action to move outside your comfort zone once, it becomes slightly easier to do it the next time. You become more resilient. One blog turns into two. One resource shared leads to a scheme of work. One CPD session becomes a new leadership role.

Nelson Mandela said “I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.” It’s okay to feel afraid. It’s okay if your knees tremble or your stomach is filled with butterflies. It’s okay if your hands shake or your voice wobbles. Courage is being able to take that step anyway, to overcome those moments of trepidation using whatever strategies best suit you. I have written before about the rewards that can come when you overcome imposter syndrome and I think that applies here too. Without overcoming that fear and making your own mould you do not know what possibilities await you. When was the last time you enlarged your comfort zone and did something to make yourself 10% braver?


For further reading I really recommend 10% braver, the WomenEd book edited by Vivienne Porritt and Keziah Featherstone.

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