Finding courage for the new school year with Brené Brown

Happy new school year! The 2022/2023 year will be my 32nd as an educator. What keeps you walking through your school’s doors year after year? For me, it’s helping others. This year, in my quest to help, I’m taking on the challenge to help myself and others become stronger and more skilled leaders.

My school is filled with leaders: student leaders, teacher leaders, support staff leaders. While they may not all have the title of leader and many look at my job as administrator and say, “Oh, there’s no way I would want to be the leader,” they are doing the work every day. I want them to be the best they can be at it.

So, what is my challenge exactly? I’m going to read three professional books, apply them to my work, teach my new learnings to others, and write about them on Teach. Learn. Grow. My choices are Dare to Lead by Brené Brown, What Great Principals Do Differently by Todd Whitaker, and When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing by Daniel Pink. In total, that’s not even 1,000 pages of reading. It’s totally manageable, right?

I decided to start with Dare to Lead because I’ve seen some of Brené’s videos on YouTube and like what I’ve watched. It was time to dig in a little deeper into what she studies and learn more about what it takes to be a daring leader. This book taught me so much and has given me the language I needed to have powerful aha moments. Dare to Lead has helped me prioritize courage this year—both leading that way and encouraging my staff to be brave, too—and my school is already reaping the benefits.

Below you will find my reading journal documenting how I started, stopped, struggled, and started again on this reading goal. I hope you have fun on this journey with me and maybe even feel a bit inspired to try something different in your approach to leadership.

July 12, 2022

Oh, my goodness. I can’t believe I just committed to reading three professional books this year so I can write about them for Teach. Learn. Grow. What was I thinking?

A voice in my head was saying, “It will be so great to learn new stuff and try out new strategies in my leadership role,” but now the evil twin of that voice is mocking me, saying, “You are way, way too busy to do this. Just write back and say you can’t do it!”

July 20, 2022

Okay, I ordered Dare to Lead used from an online vendor. One of my friends said, “I have that on my nightstand. You can borrow it.” “Aren’t you reading it?” “No, I’m too busy.”

Ugh. I knew I’d be too busy!

July 30, 2022

I decided to also buy the audio version of the book. That was a fantastic move. I love having Brené read to me. This is going to work! I just listened to the introduction and am hooked. I’m really going to be able to get at least one of my three books done!

Dare to Lead has helped me prioritize courage this year—both leading that way and encouraging my staff to be brave, too—and my school is already reaping the benefits.

In the introduction, there’s a great section about how Brené has used Theodore Roosevelt’s “Man in the arena” quotation when speaking publicly to help highlight what it means to have courage. I think I’m going to use courage as my opening theme for back to school. Think about it: Every day, in and out, our teachers really are in the arena. They are taking the punches—metaphorically—from families, society, sometimes students. They must have the courage to take risks and be vulnerable.

Brené puts it this way: “The courage to be vulnerable is not about winning or losing. It’s about the courage to show up when you can’t predict or control the outcome.” Isn’t this our job description, too? School leaders show up every day, and we can’t predict what each will bring. Sometimes a day brings amazing things, but unfortunately, many more days bring problems, conflict, and issues.

Good leaders show up each day and use their critical-thinking and problem-solving skills to make things good for staff and students. So, yes, courage will be my theme this year, with a focus on what happens when we choose courage. From Brené: “If you choose courage, you will absolutely know failure, disappointment, setback, even heartbreak. That’s why we call it courage.” My staff needs to know that it’s okay to feel these things and that they can come to me for support and encouragement.

Here’s my question for you: Where will you go when you need someone to have your back? We all need support and encouragement sometimes. I wrote about starting your own administrator/leader PLC last year. Did you do it? Do you have at least one person you can seek out? Please consider starting a connection with at least one other leader to help you be courageous. We need great leaders coming in and staying in our field.

August 2, 2022

OMG. There’s a read-along workbook that’s 39 pages long with a 22-page glossary. This is so not going to end well.

August 15, 2022

Okay, I’m not going to lie here. I haven’t been reading or listening. I’ve been way too busy thinking about the start of school, but one thing that will not leave my mind is the Square Squad. I’ll write more when I have more time.

August 20, 2022

I’m still percolating on the Square Squad. This must be a sign that I need to help others know about this!

Brené introduced this idea in her book Rising Strong and shared it again in Dare to Lead. The Square Squad is the people you know whose names fit in a one-inch square of paper, and they’re the people who push you to be your best self. I like the way Max Yoder describes it on the website Do Better Work.

If you only have a little bit of time—and a copy of Brené’s book—read Roosevelt’s quotation about the “Man in the arena” and then pages 19–23 of her book. This section will change your outlook and help you get really focused on whose opinions matter and whose don’t as you’re working on your Square Squad.

If you don’t have the book, that’s okay, too. Part of my goal here is to help you get the most out of it with the time you have, which may not be much.

In this section, Brené writes about the three lessons Roosevelt’s words crystalized for her. It’s the third that really got me. “The third thing I learned has turned into a mandate by which I live: If you are not in the arena getting you’re a** kicked on occasion, I’m not interested in or open to your feedback. There are millions of cheap seats in the world today filled with people who will never by brave in their lives but who will spend every ounce of energy they have hurling advice and judgement at those who dare greatly.”

There are millions of cheap seats in the world today filled with people who will never by brave in their lives but who will spend every ounce of energy they have hurling advice and judgement at those who dare greatly.

This one sentence has been bouncing around in my head since I read it. It’s such a powerful image and its impact has been profound for me. Please, if you do nothing else, figure out who is in your Square Squad and keep them close.

August 25, 2022

I’ve been listening to the book on my way to and from work. Hopping out of my car at home in the evenings has seen me highlighting and tabbing my physical book for all the things I need to remember.

Section 4, “Digging into Shame,” has brought more clarity for me. Today, while waiting at a stoplight, I needed to capture my thoughts around something Brené wrote: “Shame is watching things change so fast and no longer knowing how and where I can contribute.” Wow. I wonder if I have staff who feel this way. I really need to let them know it’s okay to not all contribute in the same way. I don’t think they know this is okay.

Here’s what I wrote on that scrap of paper: “You all contribute! I can’t run this school without each one of you. We all don’t contribute in the same way, but with each unique way we make one whole school. You are important! You matter to me! Thank you for leaning in and being in the arena with me this year.”

I think I’ll end my back-to-school faculty meeting with these thoughts.

August 30, 2022

It’s my big day. In just a few hours, I will be with my staff at our first faculty meeting of the 2022/2023 school year. It’s a two-hour meeting, and traditionally we spend the first hour on team building. Every time you get a new staff member, it’s a brand-new team.

We do important work around crafting our passion statement: that sentence that captures the essence of what keeps us walking through those school doors each day. We focus on how we will act when we are together (this is our norming work) and our accountability protocol should we break our agreements. And, of course, it’s my job to set the tone or theme for our work over the next 178 student days. Big gulp.

I’m going to teach them about the Square Squad and have them fill in their square. This year is about courage. I know I can do this! I’m using the read-along workbook to help me with this, pages 3 and 8. Wish me luck. This could go one of two ways!

August 31, 2022

Okay, umm, I have no idea what the reaction was to my focus around Brené’s work and the Square Squad at our faculty meeting. No one has said anything yet. Crickets.

Maybe everyone is just busy getting ready for students (they all arrive tomorrow!)? The doubt gremlins are whispering to me, “Maybe the meeting wasn’t that great. Maybe everyone already knew this stuff and it wasn’t eye opening for them at all.” Grr. I want to tell those gremlins to be quiet!

Another thought: I need to get my secretaries involved in this work, as they show up in the arena with me, too. They are both in my Square Squad and should know how important they are to me and how grounded they help me remain each day. I’ll try my talk about Square Squad on them and they will certainly give me honest feedback. (Oh, drat. In hindsight, I realize maybe I should have started with them. Oh, well. Hush, gremlins.)

September 1, 2022

OMG. OMG. OMG. Someone just said to me, “Don’t listen to the cheap seats. That’s cheap seat behavior!” I am crying tears of joy for my staff. My message resonated with them. Thank you, Brené.

This is going to transform our school community by allowing my staff to narrow down and filter out some of the noise we all get when we are in a public position. Giving them the tools and a way to start to put down their armor is the best gift I can give all the leaders at my school.  Squashed gremlins now!

September 2, 2022

I just finished reading Dare to Lead. I’m going to read it again. Maybe not cover to cover, but certainly sections.

I loved “The rumble: Conspiracies, confabulations, and s****y first drafts (SFDs).” When I first read this section, it got me thinking about stories.

The courage to be vulnerable is not about winning or losing. It’s about the courage to show up when you can’t predict or control the outcome.

We all tell ourselves stories: things we assume are true when we’re interpreting other people’s comments. For example, the other day, in the midst of preparing for back to school, long commutes, and more work at night, my husband said to me, “I’m out of socks. There are no clean socks.” My internal reaction was, “What the heck? I can’t believe he’s complaining about me not doing the laundry. Doesn’t he know I just worked 13 hours? Can’t he figure out how to turn on the washing machine?” You can imagine what my comments back to him were.

I should have (after reading Brené) been more in tune with what an SFD was because the story I was telling myself was this: “I stink as a wife and caretaker and you, husband, must be sick of me being so focused on everyone else but you.”

When we think things like this, it’s really easy to get defensive and lash out. I could have said back to him, “So I hear you complaining about the laundry, and the story I’m telling myself is that you think I stink as a wife and don’t care about you.” Knowing my husband, he would have responded with, “Are you kidding me? I just need to do the laundry. My comment had nothing to do with you. I know you’re super busy and I can take care of myself. Promise!”

So much stress would have been avoided if I’d stopped and listened to the SFD story and not acted on it but tried to clarify things first.

I’m going to keep working on myself. How many SFDs have I had in my head around comments made to me? How many SFDs have my staff had around comments I’ve made to them? This will be the next big thing we talk about at work as I know it will provide another transformative learning experience they can use personally and professionally.

Have courage

I hope I’ve inspired you to pick up Dare to Lead or, better yet, the audio version and the book!

Set your goals high and make it a point to learn something new about yourself and your leadership style this year.

Brené has a Daring Leadership Assessment on her website that can help you in your journey (her entire website for this book is tremendous, actually). I took it and am encouraging you to take it, too. You get feedback on your strengths and opportunities for growth. If you are looking for a professional goal for yourself this year, you’ll be able to find your focus areas on your assessment results.

Thank you for coming on this reading journey with me! I’ll be back in a few months with my thoughts on my next selection, Todd Whitaker’s What Great Principals Do Differently.

Blog post

Helping students grow

Students continue to rebound from pandemic school closures. NWEA® and Learning Heroes experts talk about how best to support them here on our blog, Teach. Learn. Grow.

See the post


Put the science of reading into action

The science of reading is not a buzzword. It’s the converging evidence of what matters and what works in literacy instruction. We can help you make it part of your practice.

Get the guide


Support teachers with PL

High-quality professional learning can help teachers feel invested—and supported—in their work.

Read the article