On Saturday, May 26, I met one of the bravest people I’ve ever met deliver one of the most courageous speeches I’ve ever heard.
It was our annual Speech Day; the highlight of the school year it is a moment when the whole school community and local dignitaries gathers to celebrate our pupils’ academic successes, farewell our leavers, award prizes and reflect upon the progress in the last 12 months whilst keeping half an eye on the future.
Similar events take place at boarding schools all over the country in May and it must be a profitable time to be a marquee owner!
Such events typically have a Guest of Honour and this year we were delighted that Flt. Lt. Nathan Jones accepted our invitation.
Nathan was a former pupil and is now a pilot in the Royal Air Force. However, his life whilst in the RAF has been anything but straight-forward.
Google Nathan Jones and you will read of a very serious air incident which led to him breaking his back whilst saving the lives of the men on the plane. You will also read of his involvement in the Invictus Games including Captaining the GB Team.
Such a backstory is remarkable enough but it was a more recent event that made for a memorable Speech Day. As part of his rehabilitation, Nathan had further, significant, back surgery on just four days before Speech Day; he was only released from hospital on the Thursday.
To watch Nathan hand out prizes and deliver his speech on being grateful to teachers, taking every opportunity and not taking things for granted whilst clearly in serious pain was difficult and inspirational in equal measure. Few will forget that morning in a hurry.
The issue of “teaching” courage in schools is a difficult one. Being courageous is such an important life skill – usually called a “soft skill” and yet being courageous and becoming more courageous is an incredibly hard thing to do.
I often think soft skills should actually be called “hard skills.” We all want our children and pupils to be confident to try new things and try to do things differently, to be risk takers, to be ready to tackle new topics and challenges in the classroom, to speak out in lessons, to ask for help and of course to have the moral courage to speak out against injustice and inequality.
Watching pupils sing on stage for the first time in front of a packed audience, play the lead role in a play with all those lines to learn or take the last minute penalty or make the last gasp tackle to win a match is one of the most enjoyable parts of my job.
All such things take courage but how can we develop this quality? We can’t teach a pupil to be courageous in the way we can teach them to solve a trigonometry problem in maths or how to book a restaurant table for four in French.
However, we can role model it (other pupils, teachers and of course parents) offer opportunities and activities to test it as well as provide the support systems when pupils have tried it but not necessarily succeeded. In such a way courage is caught rather than taught. Establishing this sort of culture in a school and at home will mean our pupils are less fearful, more able to cope with adversity but more importantly try new things and discover the benefits.
However, we must avoid the temptation of assuming that it requires lots of outdoor pursuits type activities – rock climbing, sailing etc. – which are undoubtedly beneficial but courage can nurtured in other ways too. Voluntary service and thereby meeting other members of the local community can introduce pupils to people from all walks of life, their challenges and their successes.
Introducing particular characters in literature or the Classics as role models for pupils can also exemplify bravery. History too can be a vehicle for explaining the importance of various types of courage be it soldiers on a battlefield, explorers, politicians or activists.
On March 26, Linda Brown died at the age of 76. Sixty-seven years earlier the father of Linda Brown then just nine years old living in Topeka, USA, tried to enrol her at Sumner Elementary School, an all-white school.
The school’s refusal led to the 1954 case of Brown vs. Topeka Board of Education and the subsequent Supreme Court ruling that segregation in schools was unconstitutional and unlawful. Some have argued that the case was the starting point for the whole civil rights movement.
Linda Brown went on to be an educator and successful civil rights activist. Linda Brown’s life reminds us that sometimes the most unlikely people including children can, with a little courage, make an incredible impact.