Education Opinion

To Harness Teacher ‘Grit,’ Remove Obstacles That Hinder Teaching

By Jennifer Barnett — March 18, 2014 3 min read

Jennifer Barnett

Of course we need more gritty teachers. Teachers with passion, perseverance, and the motivation to reach long-term goals are the people transforming teaching and learning today. But I’m not convinced that we will achieve a workforce of teachers with more grit simply through recruitment.

We’re fooling ourselves if we think just recruiting more gritty teachers constitutes a thoughtful solution to our most pressing educational issues. According to the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future 2010 report “Who Will Teach? Experience Matters,” we need to hire between 2.9 and 5.1 million full-time teachers before 2020. (As one of the 3.7 million teachers in America, this boggles my mind.) In response, many district administrators and personnel directors have already kicked recruitment into high gear. Yet before debating the selection of teachers with particular characteristics like grit, we need to look at current working conditions and evaluate what practicing teachers need to be happy and effective educators.

This is an opportunity to address how we might awaken the passion of the 84 percent of teachers who stay in their schools each year. It is my belief that most teachers are already passionate individuals with long-term goals. And you can ask any educator: Teachers are masters at accomplishing goals despite obstacles. But, for many teachers, there is a point when passion diminishes and drive slows. What administrators and policymakers should ask themselves is: How can we address teachers’ professional potential differently? How do we make ourselves see that the grass can be just as green in our own pasture?

In 2006, I had the privilege of meeting the director of instruction for a large school district in New England. I asked the director what she saw as her primary responsibility—and her answer stuck with me for years. She said, “I’m here to remove obstacles for my teachers.” She understood that her staff already had the grit and resilience of highly accomplished, effective teachers—they just needed clear pathways to pursue their long-term goals. In order to help them do so, the director provided teachers with training, support, encouragement, and, most importantly, freedom.

This isn’t to say that a conversation about grit isn’t valuable. Angela Lee Duckworth makes some valid points about the impact of teacher grit in her TED Talk and research report. But I believe it’s shortsighted to assume that using a factor like grit to inform our recruitment efforts will have the impact expected. Instead, how can we think about teachers’ needs differently? Can teachers lead the transformative work needed in our nation’s schools? Arne Duncan shared his thoughts on advancing teacher leadership and the Teach to Lead initiative at the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards’ Teaching and Learning Conference this past weekend. Good stuff. Let’s not wait, though. School leaders must act now. They should focus on providing the freedom and opportunity for all teachers to behave like the gritty, passionate educators they already are.

We need to see that the grass is plenty green in our pasture—it just needs enrichment and care. Removing obstacles that hinder teachers from turning their passions into practice will likely result in the transformation we seek.

For more than 20 years, Jennifer Barnett has served Alabama as a classroom teacher, technology specialist, and teacher leader. She currently serves as Teacher Leader in Residence for the Center for Teaching Quality. A member of the CTQ Collaboratory and co-author of “Teaching 2030: What We Must Do for Our Students and Our Public Schools ... Now and in the Future”, she manages a tech help wiki and spends far too much time on Twitter.

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