The Courage to Teach More than “Little Virtues”
I recently read an excerpt from Little Virtues by Natalia Ginzburg that has stayed with me for weeks. Born in an anti-fascist Italian-Jewish family in 1916, Ginzburg lived through a lot before she turned fifty. Her ideas about teaching children are still meaningful today, and they help us to reflect on what we want for our students. “As far as the education of children is concerned I think they should be taught not the little virtues but the great ones. Not thrift but generosity and an indifference for money; not caution but courage and a contempt for danger; not shrewdness but frankness and a love of truth (…). Usually we do just the opposite; we rush to teach them a respect for the little virtues, on which we build our whole system of education. In doing this we are choosing the easiest way, because the little virtues do not involve any actual dangers (…). We do not bother to teach the great virtues, though we love them and want our children to have them.”
“Not caution but courage” made me think of my parenting style and the things that I encourage/discourage my 4-year old to do. After reading this piece, I found myself stopping before saying “don’t do that, you might get hurt” and letting her jump (sometimes literally) without intervening, even if I was scared. In earlier posts, I’ve discussed how teaching is an emotional practice; today I would add that teaching children is a courageous act.
Courage is not the absence of fear, but our ability to do something that frightens us. Its Latin root, cor, means heart; in its earlier forms, the word courage meant “To speak one’s mind by telling all one’s heart”. Putting these two definitions together, we can say that being courageous means being open and honest with ourselves and the world around us, and taking action even when we are scared. In the context of teaching, being courageous might mean to yield control so we can empower our students to make decisions or form opinions on their own; it might mean focusing on the process of learning, with all its messiness, instead of the final outcome. It might also mean to ask difficult questions, to which we may not have any answers. How do we respond to students’ questions about poverty, violence or racism?
Going back to Ginzburg, teaching children the great virtues is a courageous act. First, it requires that we know what those great virtues are. Do we want our students to be just, generous, ethical, or resilient? And second, it requires that we reflect on how we are modeling these great virtues and creating the environment for our students to develop them. Let’s look at this process in more detail; you can use this simple template to help you reflect.
1.Name the great virtues (character traits or social and emotional skills) you would like your students to have. Although we might have an idea of what we would like for our students, it is helpful to name these things explicitly. If you did this exercise along with your students at the beginning of the year, this is a good time to revisit, and see how present they are in your classroom.
2. Provide examples of how you are modeling these skills. For example, you might think about a situation where you openly acknowledged a mistake you made or when you shared a story of struggle that you were able to overcome. Modeling means sharing personal stories about your life, but also the ways in which you handle yourself in the classroom. How do you respond to conflict? In which ways do you show kindness?
3. Identify strategies and/or times when your students have an opportunity to learn and practice these skills. The last step of the process is to reflect on how you are teaching the virtues you said you want for your students. This might include students participating in restorative circles or engaged in different projects in the community; students might have ongoing conversations about current events, its causes and implications for the future; or you might ask students for feedback about the curriculum or your instruction, as a way to engage students in their own learning. How are these skills learned and developed in your classroom?
Once you have notes for each step, look at the three columns. Is there balance among them? Does this process generate other ideas for ways to model or additional strategies you can use to help students develop these skills? Helping students develop these great virtues is a courageous act. It requires that we are open and honest with ourselves, and conquer the fear that might generate knowing when we leave, but not knowing where we will arrive.