by Thomas Hoerr
The rush to grit is pretty intense, but so is the push-back. I’ve been writing about grit in articles and a book (Fostering Grit) and giving lots of presentations on the subject. I’ve spoken to schools and parents; presented at conferences; and have been a guest on NPR. Universally, grit is embraced. Everyone sees the merit in teaching our kids to accept challenges, step out of their comfort zones, and know how to respond to failure. So far, so good.
Grit is hanging in and never giving up, but it’s more than that. Grit is being comfortable when you are outside of your comfort zone, and it’s forging ahead when you hit the wall because you know that you’ll get up and continue moving forward. Grit is a life skill! But sometimes teachers are uncomfortable with the notion of fostering or teaching for grit. They’re uneasy with the role they must play and I get that. We went into education because we wanted to help students: we like it when they succeed and it gratifies us when our class is filled with smiles. When our kids do well, it tells us we’ve done a good job!
Some teachers say, “My students are already failing. I’m trying to help them succeed.” It’s hard to argue with that. Finally, others say that they see the need to do this, but their students’ parents won’t understand, and that’s a problem. Believe me, I hear these concerns. I’ve heard them from my faculty and I’ve had to work through them personally. But the more we think about why we need to foster grit, the clearer it becomes that the real disservice lies in not preparing our students for the future. It’s how we approach grit that is the key.
Fostering grit is a dialogue. It’s not something that we do to our students; rather, it is something that we do with them. An important part of fostering grit and teaching for it is being transparent to everyone – students, their parents, and the administration – about why this is necessary and what it takes to get there. No one would expect to get a good workout at the gym without sweating, and no one should expect to know how to handle adversity without experiencing it. Here are three ways to start the grit dialogue.
1. Grit should be in everyone’s vocabulary, talked about, written on the board, and mentioned in report cards
The goal is to have kids and their parents understand what grit is, why it is valuable, and to routinely use it in their conversations. Often on Mondays, I’ve had parents and kids make a point of telling me how much grit Susie or Jose displayed in a soccer or t-ball game over the weekend. That’s good!
2. We should consciously and visibly work toward grit with our students
Talking with the class about an upcoming “grit day” means that we work on this together. Not only do the students anticipate that the expectations and routines will be different, preparing for a “grit day,” gives us license to push and push and push some more. The students won’t like it, but they’ll understand our motivation and its benefit.
3. Teaching the whole child means ensuring that a student’s preparation goes beyond the 3 R’s
Too often we view scholastic success as our goal when, in reality, it should be the floor, not the ceiling. Our students need to master the academic content we teach but they also need to learn to learn, appreciate people who are different than they are, and to have grit when things are difficult. These are the life skills which will enable them to succeed.
I appreciate, also, that some kids come to school and struggle on a routine basis. They already experience frustration and failure. And probably because of that, they aren’t as resilient as they ought to be. Fostering grit for students who don’t expect to succeed begins with helping them focus on their strengths, breaking the tasks into small, achievable units, and then progressing one step at a time.
Teaching for grit means taking the long view, looking at the kinds of people we hope to develop, not simply the grades that our students will receive. Understanding the importance of grit and how we can foster it increases the likelihood that students and their teachers will succeed.
Thomas R. Hoerr has been the head of New City School in St. Louis, Missouri, since 1981. Tom founded, directed, and taught in the Washington University Nonprofit Management Program. He is the author of Fostering Grit: How do I prepare my students for the real world? (ASCD, 2013), The Art of School Leadership (ASCD, 2005), and Becoming a Multiple Intelligences School (ASCD, 2000).