Teaching Bravery, Not Perfection: Empowering Girls in Education 

I have spent much of May half term reflecting the many and excellent attributes of our Northampton High students. At the start of the break, I found myself engrossed in Reshma Saujani’s compelling 2016 TED talk titled ‘Teach Girls Bravery, Not Perfection’. In this thought provoking talk, Saujani elucidates the stark contrast between the societal expectations placed upon boys, encouraging them to embrace boldness, take risks and venture into uncharted territories, while simultaneously imposing upon girls the traditional notion of playing nicely, achieving highly and striving for unattainable perfection. Saujani’s captivating delivery, replete with a diverse array of illustrative examples, resonated with me as her message spoke an indisputable truth. Astonishingly, even in the 21st century, we find ourselves perpetuating an archaic stereotype of female perfection, inadvertently stifling the potential and authenticity of girls’ education.

It is imperative that we start by educating girls that being brave is more valuable than being perfect. When they learn how to be brave, they can learn how to be imperfect, and it will make them happier and more successful. As such, we need to instil in girls the understanding that they don’t have to be perfectly suitable for a job to go for it; they don’t need to possess impeccable emotional regulation to have their voices heard; they don’t have to get every answer perfectly right in class, and most importantly, they should never feel compelled to alter their bodies to conform to the skewed ideals propagated by social media, which dictate what constitutes the perfect female body.

The cultivation of bravery and the embracement of failure – at times even in a striking and dramatic manner – must assume a prominent position within the girls’ education movement, knowing that it is a stepping stone to growth. As Saujani convincingly asserts, our primary objective should revolve around teaching girls the significance of summoning the courage to attempt new endeavours and to be their unguarded, authentic selves, unfazed by the outcomes or reactions of others. Such audaciousness is deserving of celebration and serves as a testament to their strength of character.

Saujani’s talk serves as a poignant reminder that the aspiration towards unattainable standards of perfection permeates virtually every facet of a young girl’s life: from social media’s emphasis on the ideal female form, to a fear of being assertive, to the hesitancy girls feel when voicing their opinions or ideas within the classroom, and the imposter syndrome that afflicts numerous young women in the workplace.

So, as educators, what proactive measures can we undertake to effectively counteract these implicit biases? Furthermore, how can we bridge the substantial gap that exists in the approach to educating girls and boys?

Nurturing bravery involves normalising failure in the classroom. Students should understand that being brave means being willing to fail and accepting setbacks as opportunities for growth. This can be accomplished by setting clear expectations that within the classroom, the journey of making mistakes, acknowledging them, and rectifying them while progressing towards the completion of a task is equally significant as the final outcome of learning.

For example, in the context of an extended essay, motivating students to showcase their editing process using a distinct colour both visually and symbolically emphasises that achieving perfection on the initial attempt is not the norm – and it figuratively highlights that it isn’t normal to ‘get it right’ on a first attempt. Feedback should also be given in small, incremental stages, with an emphasis on skill mastery rather than fixating solely on creating a perfect end-product.

I have personally found that the most powerful and impactful lessons I teach are the ones when I share imperfect examples with pupils, and collaborate with them to gradually refine and re-craft the work. I have also observed that by intentionally demonstrating the process of making mistakes in front of the class and seeking the students’ help in identifying errors and suggesting corrections, I am effectively normalising the notion of imperfection and the act of learning from mistakes within my classroom. Consequently, the classroom transforms into a safe place where imperfections are not only accepted but also celebrated as an integral part of the learning journey.

There is no doubt that the students at Northampton High show bravery in various aspects of their lives. What intrigues me is their humble unawareness of their courageous actions. They are consistently encouraged to voice their ideas regardless of whether they perceive them as right or wrong and to embrace failures and rejections proudly as a testament to their bravery. Our teachers actively foster this environment by discouraging the use of phrases like ‘I don’t know’ and instead urging girls to engage in critical thinking, replacing self-deprecating expressions such as; ‘I don’t think this is right’ with positive self-talk like ‘I’m going to give it a go…’, ‘This question presents a challenge, but I believe ….’.  Through this courageous approach, we emphasise to young women that their ideas and opinions hold inherent value and significance. Our teachers actively embed these principles into their planning, questioning techniques and feedback. I am confident that our ongoing efforts will continue to empower girls to think, speak and act bravely. This reaffirms my conviction that our students are well-served by learning in an environment where there are no stereotypes about what girls can or cannot achieve, where they have the granted space and encouragement to explore their own interests and, of course, receive exceptional guidance about higher education opportunities and potential career paths.

I had the privilege of witnessing our students who participated in Sports Day embody the very essence of Reshma Saujani’s proposition: taking a risk, trying something at which they might not excel immediately and learning from the experience. The same can be said for our musicians and singers, every time they pick up their instruments or open their mouths to embark on a new piece of music. They know it won’t be great when they play it through for the first time but they have faith that with dedicated practice and expert guidance, their performance will undoubtedly improve over time. I am enormously proud to be the head of a school in which the students are willing to push their personal limits and exhibit a resolute determination to be 10% braver, thus embodying a remarkable spirit of growth and resilience.

By teaching bravery instead of perfection, we equip our girls with the mindset and skills to face challenges head-on, contribute meaningfully, and thrive in an ever-changing world. We are teaching them to become the best they can be and to achieve success as they define it.

Dr Lee