Missing in Action: Developing Students of Courage

By Monica Van Aken, Ed. D, Head of School


A school’s mission statement, though broad in nature, states the values and goals that are the roadmap for day-to-day practice. This series highlights our school’s stated mission: to educate children of knowledge, courage, personal integrity, and compassion. With so many admirable values in a school community, why do we highlight courage in our mission?

At Milwaukee Montessori School, there is a pervasive attention to ethics and values, not as theories for a philosophy class, but as a way of doing human existence. In conversation and through observation, I have learned that very few of our teachers see a distinction between ethics and education in their classrooms or on the playing field. “It’s interwoven,” says Catherine Brys, “it just comes through in everything you do.”

Courage can be thought of as having two basic elements: sensibility and willingness. General William T. Sherman put it this way, “courage is a perfect sensibility of the measure of danger and a mental willingness to endure it.” In other words, to do something risky with no sense is foolish; to know danger and run away from it is cowardice. Courage lies in the balance. However, for most of us, another element of courage may be more relevant – that of moral principle. This is the courage required to take a stand on matters of integrity, put conviction into action, and commit to being honest, responsible, and fair. This kind of courage requires not only tough choices, but also tough actions.

As educators at Milwaukee Montessori School, we are called to recognize and foster our students’ moral choices so they might practice principled actions. We believe that courage is habit forming. We are not talking about bungee jumping, but confronting a peer who is teasing another peer or including someone weaker in the backyard football game even if it may jeopardize the touchdown. It could mean confronting a friend who has spoken disrespectfully to a store clerk or done shoddy work in the group assignment or challenging someone who brings a poor attitude to team practices, or refusing to participate in mean- spirited gossip.

Because the way in which one expresses convictions can cause conflict, we work with students on respectful discourse skills and ways to effectively verbalize opinions. Toddlers are taught to say, “I don’t like that!” as an alternative to biting their friends. Children’s House students are taught to say, “Excuse me, but I was sitting here,” rather than pushing the hapless offender off the chair.

Using critical thinking-based teaching approaches, students in literature or history lessons may be asked, “What could he have done instead?” to reflect on the motives and constraints within decision-making, whether by a protagonist or a commander-in-chief. These discussions bring to light that sometimes the most important and difficult decisions are not right vs. wrong, but one right vs. another right. Given the complexity of many moral decisions, how do we help our students navigate?
One tool we use is the “four-way test.” The scenario below may be read for a small group discussion:

A 12-year-old decides that she is going to load her I-Pod with a cutting edge selection of music for an overnight with her friends. Her father gave her $10.00 for her birthday to spend at the I-tunes store, which is sort of annoying because she needs more than 10 new songs. She knows it’s illegal to download songs for free so she backs away from TIDBIT. Instead, she decides to visit a site that someone told her about that does not abide by American copyright law, but by Russian copyright law. The result is that she can purchase an entire album for $1.00. Her $10.00 will get her close to one hundred songs which is more in keeping with her expectations.

The girl reasons that it’s probably OK to use the newfound Russian site. First and foremost, because this is sort of her father’s fault, a person needs more than $10.00 to buy music. She also reasons that she is not actually downloading songs for free; in fact she is paying for them! She wonders though, should she purchase the songs from the site that follows the conventions of American copyright, which ultimately benefits the musicians who wrote the music to a better degree?

In this example, the 12-year-old girl is confronted with a choice: Do I use the site that follows Russian copyright laws so that I can have more songs and keep some extra money?

We ask our students to consider their possible choices thru the four-way test:

  • Legal Test: Is this choice legal?
  • Gut-Feeling Test: Is this choice consistent with my gut feelings about it? Physical reactions, such as gut feelings, often indicate a need for further thought.
  • Front-Page Test: How would you feel if your choice was on the front page of the local newspaper?
  • Role-Model Test: What would your mother, father, grandparent, or trusted teacher do in the same situation?

As our students consider choices through this simple test, they begin to learn that while exercising moral courage may not be easy, the reward is an unmatched feeling of personal integrity. This connection between courage and integrity is so important that we educators believe we must give special attention and focus to the development of courage in our daily lives and in our curriculum. One way we do this is to highlight courage in our school’s mission.

Milwaukee Montessori School
345 North 95th St, Milwaukee, WI 53226
T: 414.259.0370 F: 414.259.0427
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