Sunday, February 24, 2013

The "Courage Gap"

Continuing with my love of all things public radio, I tuned in last week to one of my favorite programs, This American Life.  The episode was the first of two in which the TAL team visited Harper High School in Chicago, where last year 29 current and former students were involved in shootings.  29.  Very early on in the radio program, the host, Ira Glass, makes a profound statement.  Basically, he poses the question, if this had happened in a wealthier suburban school district and not in the South Side of Chicago, where Harper is located, would this not have received national media attention?  Would there not be an outcry of horror and calls for change?

This past week, here in the DC metro area, Prince George's County, Maryland, saw additional shootings of teenagers, bringing the total up to six killed in the last six months.  Six.  Now, we have had attention paid here and there have been responses and calls to action from amongst county leadership.  When asked about the shootings, the county public safety officer said, "The thing that keeps coming back is people just don't know how to deal with conflict." (source:

College Board released their yearly report on Advanced Placement courses and test results.  While, overall, scores are up slightly, there are still large gaps by race and ethnicity.  Black and American-Indian students are still largely underrepresented amongst the whole population of students taking AP exams, and even more so amongst those students passing AP exams.


I recently attended a national conference for educators focused on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Questioning, Intersex, and Allies (LGBTQIA) youth, put on by the Center for Excellence in School Counseling and Leadership (CESCaL).  The conference brought together educators and leaders from all around the country who shared best-practices for working with LGBTQIA young people in schools, to include program development, standards and policies, advocacy, and ethics.  Ever the planner and maximizer of my time (there may have been lists involved), I went to this conference with a very specific agenda--to gather information and see what others had down with regards to staff developments and policy for working with LGBTQIA students and families in schools.  I was a man on a mission.  In the first session I attended, put on by a speaker from Gender Spectrum,  as a group we were discussing situations that other participants were experiencing in their own schools.  One of the conference-goers brought forth a situation in which all of the best practices and policies were made known to school leadership, and they seemed to be sympathetic.  However, the school leadership was not choosing to act.  The presenter speculated that this might be because of several things, one of which was a "courage gap," meaning that there was a space between what the leadership knew and agreed was right to do and actually doing it, for fear of negative consequences and repercussions.  There was that one last leap that they simply could not take.

What is the role of courage in school counseling leadership?  In the American School Counselor Association (ASCA) Model, 3rd edition, Dr. Anita Young writes:
"Once thought to be the job or administrators, advancing academic achievement, reducing barriers to learning and creating equitable learning environments are central priorities for school counselors...While there are many leadership characteristics and practices, utilizing effective school counselor leadership requires visionary thinking, challenging inequities, shared decision making, collaborative processing, modeling excellence, and a courageous stance." (American School Counselor Association, 2012, pg. 11)
Leadership is one of the prongs of the ASCA National Model, and thus of our profession.  As we develop comprehensive data-drive programs and become embedded within our school cultures, we have a real opportunity to help guide our schools to be more equitable for all students as well as create welcoming and inviting environments for everyone who walks through our doors.  Yet, I often feel that this point of the model is often the most difficult and challenging for school counselors.  We are a humble people, we school counselors.  Inherent within most of us is a desire to keep the peace, to broker compromise, and to keep the seas smooth versus making waves.  Our strong relationship-building skills allow us to do things like mediate between students, students and teachers, and help build consensus at committee meetings involving our school leadership.  Many of us do not like to stand up in the crowd and go against the grain.  However, part of our mission is to examine our schools and school systems as a whole, identify achievement gaps and areas of need, and then work to address these systemic issues.  Sometimes, in order to do this, we must be willing to speak out and advocate on behalf of what is best for students and to leverage our reputations and relationships to bring about policies and practices that either level the playing field or create safe spaces.

While I am no expert on leadership, I have learned through the years that we often mistake "managers" for "leaders."  What is the difference?  I believe it is this one piece, this final tip on the iceberg--courage.  Many school counselors have a vision, espouse a long-term strategy, hold to a set of core-beliefs, and possess strong skills with regards to their practice.  Additionally, they provide resources and even professional development to help bring others along and get everyone on the same page.  However, this is only the beginning.  You have a choice to make at this point--either you maintain the status-quo and "manage" what you already have in place day-to-day, year-to-year, or you begin to advocate for what your professional practice and data tell you is best for kids.  Courage and fear are yin-and-yang to each other--we cannot have one without the other.  To lead others through change is not for the faint of heart--it can have moments of great challenge, and can even involve risk to our professional and personal relationships, as well as our positions.  Yet, unless we are willing to truly serve as "leaders" versus "managers," we cannot ever really be the agents of change and advocates that our students and families need us to be.  This is no more real than in the school district of Anoka-Hennapin, which has received a great deal of attention in recent years do to a number of suicides of students who were bullied for their real or perceived LGBT orientation.  One of the middle school theater teachers, Jefferson Fietek, put his own job on the line in order speak up for policy change with regards to supporting LGBT students in the school district.  As I went from session to session at the CESCaL conference, I heard stories of other teachers, administrators, and school counselors who were putting themselves and their jobs in jeopardy every day by advocating for Gay-Straight Alliances within their schools or for policy changes that would make their buildings safer and more inclusive for LGBT students.  They possessed skills, the knowledge, and the resources to lead, but they also demonstrated their courage.

We can apply this to multiple situations in different schools around the country.  For example, because we have the pulse of the school, and because we are the connection between so many different stakeholders, as school counselors, we know first-hand what is happening in schools like Harper or in Prince George's County, MD.  We have opportunities to shine lights on what is happening with regards to young people dying in violent ways in order to garner support at higher levels to address this epidemic, to speak out until someone listens.   Additionally, we are trained in how to address conflict resolution, and can work with students, starting in the elementary schools, on building positive coping skills.  We can advocate for more resources with regards to social/emotional and grief supports.  We can help to build community between students, parents, neighbors, and law enforcement to try to develop webs of support both within and outside of the schools.  A colleague of mine on Twitter was asking what we could do about the inequalities that still exist in the Advanced Placement program around the country.  My answer: School Counselors.  Why?  Because we are positioned to lead.  We are the ones who academically advise our students, who help them map out the courses that they need to reach their post-secondary goals, and who encourage them and support them when they are taking rigorous and challenging courses.  We are the ones who can put our hands on course data, grades, and test scores, and identify areas of need and then advocate for support programs or changes in enrollment policies with teachers and administration to help encourage more minority students to take AP courses.  It is not enough for us to simply recognize these achievement gaps, we must also act to address them.  I am in no way implying we do all of these things alone--systemic change does not occur in a vacuum.  However, it may often be up to us to both determine where inequalities exist and then, using our relationship-building skills, lead others in addressing them.

Last year, I wrote about our responsibility as advocates and posed the question, "Who do you advocate for?"  This year, as I was working with a group of counseling interns last week on preparing for their upcoming interviews with school districts and schools, I said to them, "School counseling is not a career for everyone. It takes a special kind of person to do so much of the work that we do everyday."  And so, I ask you, do you possess the courage to lead?

The following work was cited as part of this piece:
American School Counselor Association (2012).  The ASCA National Model: A Framework for School Counseling Programs, Third Edition.  Alexandria, VA: Author  


  1. Excellent post. I agree that as counselors we typically strive to keep the peace, and I think that puts us in a wonderful position to skillfully invite others to join us in meaningful conversation. For myself, I would say my number one strategy in advocacy comes from timing thoughtful and specific questions while sharing data that drives my curiosity. Add to that my comfort with silence and use of the "we" as much as possible, and I have found more success in advocating for students as well as systemic change within my school.

    1. Indeed, Holly. Something I touched on in the post but believe in fervently is the need for all school counselors to have strong relationship-buildling skills. Not only is it essential for helping work out issue and conflict amongst our students and stakeholders, but if you become a valued and respected member of your school team, people will be willing to listen to you and be guided by you when there is an issue that needs to be addressed. Thanks for taking the time to comment!

  2. BRILLIANT post! Leadership of school counselors was my dissertation topic (you'll see some 'Mason' references in the Model to that work) and I've recently had a number of conversations on leadership vs. management with colleagues at the higher ed level as it pertains to us and what it means for the counselors we are preparing for the field. I believe in our field the courage gap is very real and very prevalent; there are those that 'do' and those who only 'talk about doing.' You've hit the nail on the head with courage and fear being at the heart of this matter. My dissertation research utilized the Leadership Practices Inventory which assesses on 5 essential leadership practices. For the 300+ I surveyed, the practice participants reported being the lowest on was "challenging the process." This couldn't be more in line with what you have written and is what I believe contributes to the "courage gap." I love ALL of your posts, Darrell, but this one really speaks to me. I'm sharing it WIDELY. Thank you for YOUR courage to be professionally involved, to put your reflections out for others to read and to challenge us all for the sake of the students we serve.

    1. You realize I now feel a need to read your dissertation. It's interesting--I too have been having conversations about leadership as well as giving a lot of thought to what components make strong leaders, and more specifically strong school counselor leaders. I am very much looking forward to the pre-conference session on this topic at ASCA 2013, as I think there are strong leaders who possess courage both within counseling teams as well as leading in more administrative roles.

      I think your finding about challenging the process if fascinating. I feel that if we take a step back and think about it, we possess all the skills necessary to compassionately confront and build support around our students. Maybe it is in how we challenge the process that we need additional training.

  3. Outstanding, thought-provoking post! Thanks you so much for opening up the conversation about the "courage gap" - what a great, sum-it-up term! We teach and expect our students to show courage in bullying and other situations, but how can we expect them (or our colleagues) to be courageous if we don't model it? I look forward to a broader discussion among school counselors about the courage gap - How can we get that started?


    1. I think we just did! I think the first people we need to have this conversation with is ourselves on an individual basis. If we are being held back from working on some of the academic inequalities or school safety concerns that we see and that are supported by data, we need to try to figure out what is holding us back. Additionally, there are many ways to show courage--quiet courage, for example. I think we need to be self-aware enough to determine in what ways we are most comfortable and most effective in advocating for our students, families, schools, and profession and then figure out how best to move forward. I do think that we need to begin to have these conversations as a profession. Having an #scchat on Twitter is a great idea, and I would highly recommend the ASCA 2013 Pre-Conference Session on School Counselor Leadership, as well, to get started.

  4. You have a gift & I am so grateful that you share it with us. Your insights are thought provoking and so beyond on point with what is happening in the field right now I feel like you are a mind reader. I am often told that if I don't keep my mouth shut & learn to fall in line with the crowd I could be without a job, but that is just not me. I ruffle feathers and I say what others think, if my students feel that justice has been served than I have done my job. Sometimes a battle or a war must be fought & I feel, as a school counselor, I not only have the skill to be on the front lines for my students, but also the duty to advocate for their rights & so much more. Courage & fear is right on point, no doubt about it. I think the stronger our prep programs become & the stronger our professional as a whole becomes, the narrower this gap will become. Kudos on such thought provoking insight.

    1. Thanks for the comment and kind words. I agree we have a duty to advocate for students, and most often we use data and our relationships with our communities to help bring about change.


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