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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Should Children Really Be Expected to Have Grit?

By Peter DeWitt — September 10, 2013 3 min read
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There is a new word being used in education circles...and it’s called “grit.” When I first began to hear the word grit so often in articles and presentations, I thought I missed a new Clint Eastwood movie (...or John Wayne). It is not my intention to sound flippant, but it is just not a word we hear every day.

Grit is how students can get through (and take on) failure. It will help them learn to cope with the issues that often face us in life. Take the image of Clint Eastwood fighting a group of cowboys who wronged him, and replace it with the image of someone getting up after a dose of failure. They have to wipe themselves off, pick themselves up, and get back into the game. Something that kids these days don’t seem to be known for, which is unfortunate.

Kids these days” have a bad reputation for not being able to cope with life’s difficult moments. They are accused of being coddled, and adults around them worry that every moment of every day is defined for them...much more than when we were kids. You’ve heard the suggestions that kids stay inside and play video games too much. They are accused of not knowing how to talk with one another and work through problems, which is odd because there are more character education programs than ever before.

Now grit comes along as a way for kids to learn how to toughen up. In Principal Connection (Educational Leadership, September, 2013), Thomas Hoerr wrote, “Resilience and tenacity, what I call grit, are in the air. I can hardly pick up a newspaper or an education magazine without seeing a reference to the importance of this trait.”

Grit or Resilience?
Not that I disagree with Hoerr because he is one of my favorite contributors to Educational Leadership, but to me grit has sort of a negative connotation. I much prefer resilience because it can coincide with empathy and compassion. Grit doesn’t give me that same impression. However, critics have questioned whether children can learn how to become resilient or gritty....or whether it’s an inate skill they are born with.

In the same edition of Educational Leadership, Carol Ann Tomlinson wrote an article called Growing Capable Kids dispelling that concern. She said

Conventional wisdom has it that creativity exists on a continuum. Some people, like Albert Einstein or William Shakespeare, appear to be born with a great cache of it in tow and are sometimes called "Big-C" creative. Although it appears that most of us exist further downstream on the continuum than Big-C creative types, the good news is that little-c creative people can learn to develop their creative capacities--and be the better for it."

Carol Ann goes on to explain how the same focus on creativty can be tranferred to resilience.
Tomlinson writes,

My theory is that it's the same with resilience. Some people seem to have been born with bounce in their genes.Whenever the moment or the day or life knocks them down, they rebound to higher than where they were when they fell. But many of us have to learn to bounce back. Powerful teachers help students grow their capacity to be resilient by mindfully providing students with three elements: affirmation, opportunity, and support."

In my opinion, one of the ways we can best help students learn to be resilient or find “grit” is through the trust that we build with them. When students trust a teacher or a principal, they are more likely to confide in them, and more likely to work harder in their class even if they are afraid of failure.

A teacher who builds trust with their students will find it easier to help students stretch their thinking. However, the same can be said for the relationship between a teacher and a school leader. When a school leader fosters a climate of trust, they are more likely to see teachers take risks and not just follow rules. Of course, that means that the school leader is alright with teachers who might go against the grain.

How Do We Establish Trust?
Trust is not handed to us by every student, and teachers certainly do not immediately trust a new school leader. In most cases, especially with students who have struggles at home, trust is not easy to establish. Tomlinson goes on to write,

Many students come to school weighed down with ballast of A teacher's affirmation of a student's capacity to do impressive things is powerful. inadequacy. They believe they aren't smart or aren't smart enough. They have little sense of what it means to act on their own behalf, they lack coping skills, and they are demoralized by failure. Teachers who teach resilience communicate to students their rock-solid belief that effort rather than ability fuels success. They build trust with students, one at a time. They knit the group together into a team determined to support the success of its members."

The same can be said for teachers who worked previously for tough administrators who did not care about trust. Those teachers don’t step outside of their comfort zone because they are afraid of being slammed or unsupported. As we get older, many of us find it harder to trust the “boss” because we have prior experiences where the boss was not someone to trust. For new school leaders to establish trust, and for teachers to establish it with their students, it takes time and a great deal of effort. However, it is so worth the effort when trust is established.

Establishing trust takes one conversation at a time. Trust encompasses the words we use, the body language we give off, and the reactions we have to good times and bad.

In the End
Bottom line, no matter what you call it...grit or resilience, students need to understand that failure is a part of life. We want them to take risks, just like school leaders should want their teachers to take them. Playing it safe and never stepping outside our comfort zones is a lousy way to experience life. And it’s trust between all stakeholders that makes us more likely to get there.

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The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.


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