“Conscience doth make cowards of us all.” William Shakespeare – Decision Making
Is it brave to do the right thing?
Thinking about the right way to act requires patient and careful thought. Acting from a good conscience in this way conveys strength and confidence. But our conscience also makes us feel weak; oftentimes we don’t know what the right choices are and so we are plagued by indecision and fear. Doing the right thing becomes a burden too great to bear and we turn to our instincts to bail us out. Morality requires bravery.
Join Steve and Dan Fouts – founders of Teach Different and twin brothers with over 50 years of teaching experience – along with adjunct professor Cindy Zucker and education student Jenna Daube from Loyola University in Chicago, Illinois, for a compelling conversation about decision-making, enriched by the Teach Different Method.
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Dan Fouts 00:00
Hello, Steve and Dan Fouts here from Teach Different. We’re veteran teachers from the United States bringing educators together from around the world to learn a simple conversation method, which we model on this podcast for you. If you’re a teacher, administrator, or parent who wants to use the power of conversations to build stronger relationships and fight polarization, stay tuned to hear the impact our method can have on your discussions. Then join our Community of Educators at teachdifferent.com for additional resources and to participate in lively conversations among teachers and faculty, free for 30 days.
Dan Fouts 00:29
Hello, everybody. Welcome to the Teach Different podcast. This week, we’re excited to have a couple of guests. One is a returning guest, Jenna, from Loyola University. She is a freshman there and a former student of mine, I’m proud to say. Cindy, one of Jenna’s instructors, will also be joining us. She has a really interesting background as a teacher administrator and does some great work in the city of Chicago. They will introduce themselves once we get started.
Dan Fouts 01:03
The quote this week is from Shakespeare with a theme of decision making. Let’s begin with a reminder of the Teach Different conversation method. We start with the quote, then we have a conversation in our own words about the claim the quote is making. About halfway through, we’ll move to the counterclaim to push against what Shakespeare is saying and to look at the world from a different perspective. This is the tension we need. We’re adults having this conversation, but visualize what it would be like having this conversation about this quote with your students. How would they react to this? Here is Shakespeare’s quote from Hamlet with the theme of decision making, “Conscience doth make cowards of us all.” “Conscience doth make cowards of us all.” Cindy, welcome to the show. Please introduce yourself and weigh in on this quote.
Cindy Zucker 02:42
Thank you for having me. This is quite an intriguing quote. I’m Cindy Zucker. I worked at Chicago Public Schools as a teacher for about 20 years, both in high school and as a bilingual teacher in a dual language program. I did that in a number of large high schools in Chicago, on the south and west sides. The dual language program I taught at was a program that my own children attended. It’s where both Spanish speaking and English speaking kids learn Spanish and English together. It was a Latin American focused curriculum, a very family like situation. My teaching experience in high school was quite different. Then, I became an administrator and assistant principal for seven years at Jordan Community School in Rogers Park. That was an interesting experience. That was a high poverty school, as were all the high schools that I was at. Jordan School was about half black, with many students from the Caribbean and Afro Caribbean, and Mexican and Mexican American kids. I was the bilingual coordinator and assistant principal. I was also a disciplinarian and had to intervene in a number of situations. This quote brings to mind conflicting types of situations.
Cindy Zucker 04:40 – Claim
Shall I go into my interpretation of this quote? I think that when you look at this quote, you have to understand it in the context of Hamlet, which is a vengeance play. I was a high school English teacher, and an ESL teacher, and I don’t think you should look at the words literally. When he says, “conscience doth make cowards of us all,” I believe he was contemplating murdering Claudius, who he thinks killed his father in order to marry his mother to take over the kingdom. Why doesn’t he kill him right away? He’s always pondering things, and it drives him mad. It would drive anybody mad. The situation that he’s in is a very difficult one. He has doubts, and that’s what I’m thinking conscience is. It’s his doubts about whether or not this is true. Did Claudius really kill his father? And, is he going to suffer consequences, or go to hell, if he acts on this. Coward is not a coward in the literal sense, like someone who is not able to stand up for what’s right. Coward is that he’s stepping back and thinking about the situation. This reminds me of situations in high school when we had conflicting situations. A lot of fights would break out. Kids need to learn conflict management skills. They are often impulsive, jumping into something when they get insulted, and don’t think twice about it. Hamlet is in a situation where he’s hesitating. He’s wondering and pondering what to do. This is something we want our students to do, to step back and make more rational choices before jumping into a fight. I wish I had taught more conflict resolution skills. I think that’s very useful. That’s what I think the quote is working at. It’s not being cowardly to think about what to do when someone insults you. Instead of punching him in the nose, try a different approach that is beneficial for both of you. I’ll just leave it at that.
Steve Fouts 08:53
Great. Thanks for kicking it off. I think that you’re revealing something, Cindy, about some of these quotes that we put in front of our students. All of these quotes come from a context, or in this case a play. This context can help you learn about why the quote was made by a certain person, and it can help you understand it. Imagine putting this quote in front of a middle school class. I would suggest that the first thing you do with this quote is circle a couple of words. You could probably circle three words in this quote. Doth is one. I think kids would enjoy learning that doth was actually a word at some point. That’s how I would start this. Cindy, I think you’re right about the idea of hesitancy. I looked up the word conscience right before we started, and here’s what I found, an inner feeling or voice, viewed as acting as a guide to the rightness or wrongness of one’s behavior. I think that’s probably a more modern definition of conscience, and that it might have been used in a different way in this context. That’s something that I would want to bring out, that we’re really talking about a decision that you’re making. What is Shakespeare saying here? He’s saying that your sense of right and wrong is going to make you hesitant. It’s going to make you appear as if you can’t make a decision. Maybe you are a little unreliable. Coward is a strong word. My own way of understanding is that people who worry about doing the right and wrong thing all the time end up not acting. They’re hesitant and come off like they’re afraid.
Jenna Daube 11:44
One of the things that comes to mind, Professor Zachary, when you mentioned getting into fights, is the threat, are you scared. Are you not bold enough? Aren’t you brave enough to face me right now and just let your fist fly. How do you respond to that? That’s where you’re either a coward or you’re brave, but it’s situational. I would not consider it cowardice to think about whether or not I’m going to get involved in something or when making a big life choice. It’s not that you’re scared to make a decision, but that you value the decision. Honestly, I think my way of thinking of this quote has totally changed after hearing the definition of conscience. It’s that moral check. If that makes you a coward, I’d prefer to be a coward with a moral check in place.
Steve Fouts 13:02
You’re ready for the counterclaim?
Dan Fouts 13:04
You’re ready to disagree with Shakespeare. Cindy, one thing we like to do with the conversation method is to encourage the kids to engage in storytelling. Here’s where their personal experiences, the richness of their lives, can come into this conversation. You can prompt them to talk about a time when they were about to do something, but hesitated because they thought it might be wrong. When was it? Why did you hesitate? How did it work out? Let that question sit there. The kids will share their personal experiences. You can work with the different personal experiences to see where your kids are on this particular quote. That’s one good way to push the conversation along.
Steve Fouts 14:07
If I can just share how this constantly happened to me as a teacher on the west side of Chicago. Mainly high school teaching at Crane high school, or Douglas and Austin. They were all challenging high school teaching environments. Often during class, something inappropriate would happen and I’d have to address it. Of course, I would get frustrated and angry, but would check myself and think, be careful with the way you’re talking. If I said something I would regret, then I was going to have to deal with a classroom who knows how to push my buttons. The good news is that I was really good at thinking about whether I was doing the right thing. I think I treated kids fairly, or at least I tried. I also know that some kids viewed me as weak. They wanted me to take charge, and let go a little bit. At times they knew I was angry, they could probably see it in my face, but I didn’t follow my impulses. The kids were used to impulsive behavior, so when I didn’t do that, I was perceived as weak. That’s my personal story and how I understand the quote.
Cindy Zucker 16:00
I like this idea of linking the quote to the kids’ lives, and asking them about a personal situation in which they were about to do something, and they either did it, or they stepped back. I think that that sort of brings it home. What is your conscience? What does it tell you? A little angel on one side, and a devil on the other side are telling you what to do. Who are you listening to? What is the super ego, in the Freudian sense, telling you that you need to do. That’s a good way of personalizing this quote. I understand what you’re saying, Steve. When you have a conscience, and you use rationality, you’re modeling that for students. It might not seem tough or cool, and may not follow the street norms that some kids experience, but what do we do about that?
Steve Fouts 17:36
Cindy, with your experience with English language learners and different cultures, how would they process words from this quote? These quotes are so beneficial for any type of classroom, especially language learners, because we’re not overwhelmed with the text. What does being hesitant and having a conscience look like in a different culture? How is it perceived? It’s different across cultures. I don’t have to tell you that. The kids can learn a lot from each other.
Dan Fouts 18:23
Yeah, definitely. I was just going to say that the students could learn a lot from each other about how they make decisions in situations. I think this quote is about many things, but mainly decision making. Decision making is often a private experience that people go through. Here, you’re making a private experience public, and people are processing how they actually make decisions. Here is where a student can learn from another student. They can learn another way of handling a similar situation. They have a different perspective, which is really important.
Cindy Zucker 19:09
This brings up something that one of my students in the current class with Jenna brought up in a project that we just did. She talks about growing up in a Mexican American family and the machismo that exists in her family. This is getting away from the quote, I realize, but I think it’s related to this, to this sense of culture. This young lady was told that she shouldn’t go to college, that she should be a waitress. She should support the family and take care of the kids. She should do all the traditional things. She had to fight that very prevalent machismo among older people. When you’re talking about machismo, there is a culture of men having, what we might call, toxic masculinity. They put forward their superiority, and look down on women. Those are the negative parts, but there might be some positive parts in terms of pride, like pride in one’s culture. I don’t see that as machismo, I see it as more like sexism. In this case, that was certainly true. Maybe we’ll go to the counterclaim. You need to stand up for yourself, you need to take on a situation directly, verbally or physically.
Steve Fouts 21:39
Feel free. You kicked us off, Cindy, unless someone else wants to share a specific experience about how hesitancy, or thinking about doing the right thing, appeared cowardly. I love doing this with students. Challenge them to come up with a counterclaim to this and use about the same amount of words. Say something that makes this not true? How can I put that on you, Cindy or Jenna? Can I ask you both to give me your own quote of what the counterclaim is?
Cindy Zucker 22:34 – Counterclaim
I can take a stab at it. Something along the lines of, when confronted with an insult to one’s dignity, or to oneself, one should always stand up for oneself. Combat or fight against the insult. One should jump in and not hesitate. It’s important to stand up right away, to not give any pause in a situation.
Steve Fouts 23:34
With that, and this goes to the group, do you think that includes all situations, not just when you feel threatened or when someone is insulting you? But does this go in all cases? Should we act on impulse or intuition? Impulse sounds like we’re about to make a mistake. Intuition sounds more positive, like we’re going to love our decision later. We’re getting there. We’re in the counterclaim and it has to do with a lack of hesitancy. We have a good start for a counterclaim. Dan, what are you thinking? What’s in your head?
Dan Fouts 24:23
I’m going to take a different angle on the counterclaim. Conscience doth make heroes of us all. Doing the right thing makes you a hero. It doesn’t make you a coward. It provides a sense of strength, not weakness. I would go right to the storytelling and ask, who has done the right thing and felt like a hero? What did you do? Who did you help? How did it feel? and That could be the entire class period, if they’re in the right mood. Jenna, what do you think? We should have done this one last year.
Jenna Daube 25:12
Honestly, about 10 seconds ago, I typed the exact same thing. What’s the opposite of a coward? Doth make heroes of us all. I think it makes a lot of sense. I think students can connect to that in many ways. I connect to that. The story that comes to mind is like a villain story. When I take on that role and override my conscience to make a decision, I regret what I said. The whole time I was thinking, should I say this? It would be really nice to say this. I’d like to take revenge and feel good about it. The moment that came out of my mouth, I instantly regretted it. My conscience kicked and reminded me that there is a reason for it. Had I listened to my conscience, it would have saved me from having to make an apology later. That ties both listening to a conscience and making the right decision, because you took the time to pay attention to the voice in your head. I’m sure plenty of students would connect to conscience being overridden by emotion. I think that is probably the biggest thing that turns us around and makes us make bad decisions.
Steve Fouts 26:39
Dan, did you say conscience doth make heroes?
Dan Fouts 26:52
Yeah, I just used the word hero to replace coward.
Steve Fouts 26:58
If I can just unpack that, you’re basically saying that when you’re focused on doing the right or wrong thing… I’m thinking conscience means you at least care, and you’re hesitating because of it. That can make us a hero.
Dan Fouts 27:25
What makes us a hero is to not succumb to our instincts and our impulses, but to choose rationality over rashness. It’s dramatic, but that’s why it’s a counterclaim.
Steve Fouts 27:41
I’m trying to think of an experience that I can relate to the counterclaim. If someone else has one jump in. When I was a teacher, I was seen as weak at times, but hopefully then years later when they think about Dr. Fouts, my students can appreciate my hesitancy. I don’t know if hero is the right word. You do appreciate people who care about the right and wrong thing. They might come off as meek at the time, but you feel safe around them.
Dan Fouts 28:35
They’re also trustworthy. You want to be around people who have a conscience and believe in doing the right thing. They have something that you want. In that sense, they’re a role model for you.
Jenna Daube 28:53
Sometimes we’re thrown into situations where we have to think fast. Fight or flight can save you at times, or help you out in a pinch. Having a conscience doesn’t mean you have to sit for days thinking about something, it can happen quickly. You could use your conscience to quickly identify what needs to happen and what doesn’t need to happen.
Steve Fouts 29:53
Jenna, that’s fantastic. We are thinking that having a conscience includes hesitating, but I think you’re right. Someone acts quickly, and they’re projecting strength. It’s not impulsive strength, but determined strength. It’s already baked in. It’s been thought through. If that leader has trust from people, then they can accomplish something with that type of conscience. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. turned conscience into a strength, in my opinion.
Dan Fouts 30:41
It became a habit of action. It became a routine of his character. As you said, Jenna, it was automatic, it wasn’t hesitant. That’s what made it so powerful. Yeah, it’s great.
Jenna Daube 31:00
An image that comes to mind is a firefighter making fast decisions, having to quickly decide what needs to happen in this situation. What decision will enable you to save this person’s life. Quick thinking can mean the difference between saving someone or not saving someone. Conscience is baked in. You automatically make those decisions without having to consider whether or not they’re the right ones, they just are, and it’s so plain to you.
Cindy Zucker 31:46
I’m trying to come up with a situation, and I’m finding it a little bit hard. I’m thinking of something we did when I was an administrator at Jordans school. We would ask kids to let us know if they heard that a fight might be taking place after school. At first, we didn’t get many takers, because they were snitching on their friends. But, after a couple of kids got hurt, students would let us know. This helped us stave off the situation. We knew the two kids who were planning on fighting, and we would make sure that one stayed with us and didn’t go out after school, or we would intervene in some other way. It took a little time to get kids to buy into this behavior. You can intervene to stop something, if you know about it ahead of time. The kids who were telling us about the fight may have heard from their conscience, I can’t tell on my buddies, but their conscience was also saying that you should stop someone from getting hurt.
Jenna Daube 34:09
I really like your example. There are two sides to that. The students had to sort out the right choice to protect other people. The delay may have allowed the student who wanted to fight time to simmer down and decide that fighting wasn’t a good choice. That time and space is probably really beneficial.
Steve Fouts 34:58
I always think kids want fights to be broken up, that’s why they have fights in school. They don’t want to have a fight on the street. School is a safe place where someone will intervene without them losing face. You know. I like your example a lot, Cindy. I hope that those kids realized that doing the right thing by preventing the fight took some courage. We haven’t talked about courage. We used the word hero instead of coward, but courage is another word that we could use.
Dan Fouts 35:42
Yeah, really good. I like these. Any other personal experiences to share before we wrap up the conversation? Alright, well, this was good. We took this out of the context of Hamlet and into the life of a classroom. We know that students are going to put their own spin on these quotes, and we just have to go with it. The higher purpose of these conversations is that the kids are thinking critically about real life themes that impact them directly. They want to talk about their own lives and how these quotes interact with it.
Dan Fouts 36:32 – Essential Question
We like to end these conversations with an essential question. We have one prepared, but often essential questions occur organically during the conversation. I recommend having one prepared, but be on the lookout for one that evolves. Is it brave to do the right thing? This could be an exit ticket out of this conversation for the kids to reflect on, or you could tie it somehow to the content you’re teaching. It all depends on what your goals and objectives are as a teacher. Cindy and Jenna, thank you so much for joining us tonight. You guys were fantastic guests. This was a really thoughtful conversation. We appreciate your perspectives very much.
Cindy Zucker 37:38
Thank you for the very interesting conversation.
Steve Fouts 37:43
Thank you so much.
Dan Fouts 37:46
Thanks, everybody. We hope you’re walking away feeling energized by some great ideas, and have a sense of confidence that you too can master the art and science of conversations to make a lasting impact. We at Teach Different are dedicated to supporting you along that journey. Please visit teachdifferent.com to join our Community of Educators for additional resources and engaging discussion among fellow teachers and administrators, free for 30 days. We’ll see you there and next time on the Teach Different Podcast, take care!