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What’s Missing When We Talk About Grit

By Luke Reynolds — October 23, 2018 5 min read
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As a high school and middle school teacher for many years, I watched with interest as the buzzword “grit” roared into dominance on the teaching and parenting scene. I started hearing that grit, or a combination of perseverance and passion, was the magic key that would unlock the potential of any child.

Countless professional-development sessions regaled its life-changing ability. Parenting books and blogs testified to its prowess. Thought leaders and public intellectuals spoke about it in packed public lectures and on radio and on television. The verdict was in: Grit would redefine and reinvigorate the possibilities for our children.

But has it?

Case in point: At the height of the grit craze, a 7th grader of mine struggled to accomplish any work. Homework? He never had it. Essay assignments? Nope. Active class participation? Nonexistent. The tenets of grit propose that such a student need only see that hard work eventually leads to success. I could regale my struggling student with tales of how powerful working hard is—all the goals it could help him accomplish, the pride he would develop by learning to put in the hours.

Or, as my student heard, yada yada yada. The more I tried to impress upon this student the need to develop the muscle of grit, the more turned off to school, writing, and academic pursuits he became. Instead of helping him build a sense of determination, I was losing him.

And then the epiphany came, prompted in part by a passing comment I made in class one day. We were sharing responses to a writing prompt regarding things we loved as young children. As an example, I shared how a group of my friends and I used to pretend to be the Ghostbusters. Suddenly, I noticed my struggling student’s eyes go wide and bright.

Then, after the rest of the class had left, he hung around, watching his shoelaces.

“Eliot, is there anything you wanted to talk about?” I asked.

“You like the Ghostbusters?”

“I love the Ghostbusters, Eliot. They’re only about the most awesome group of characters ever.”

He smiled wide and responded with, “Cool.” Then he was gone before I could dive into yet another overzealous barrage of questions and comments.

A few days passed, and nothing came of our joint interest in all things Stay Puft Marshmallow Man and Slimer. Then Eliot stayed after class one day and looked at his shoelaces again.

“Anything up?” I asked.

“Well … it’s just … this.” Eliot took off his backpack, closed the classroom door, and pulled out a slew of Ghostbusters toys. Then I did something I never expected I would do as a 7th grade English teacher. We played Ghostbusters for a while. Eliot and I did voices, reenacted famous scenes from the film, and laughed.

That was all. We didn’t discuss homework, essays assignments, or anything that required immense work and focus. We just had fun.

But the truly miraculous trend that began to develop was Eliot’s increase in class participation, homework completion, and essay writing ability. The more we talked about and played Ghostbusters, the more willing he seemed to be to work hard. In other words, Eliot began developing grit because of our relationship, not because of any logical testament to the power of hard work for hard work’s sake alone.

This is often a missing link when we consider how to help students and children learn the value of hard work and perseverance. We try to convince them with logic, rather than with love. However, lasting change only comes from relational commitment.

People are not deeply transformed because of statistics; we are transformed because of stories. When we tell stories about our own lives, and connect to the stories of our students’ and children’s lives, we begin to forge relationships. It’s these relationships that motivate kids to want to work hard and persevere.

Each Child’s Story

However, even when driven by relationships, grit alone still fails to address the basic questions of systemic inequality. Grit has thus been critiqued, and rightly so, as a cop-out by some. In her book, When Grit Isn’t Enough, researcher and principal Linda Nathan writes, “In celebrating and generalizing the individual nature of success, we disregard the imperative to rethink social and economic policies that leave many behind.”

The committed, close relationships we form with students need to be leveraged to help us speak out against society’s injustices. As we begin to know and connect with children in their specific realities, we start to truly see the way systemic oppression targets students consistently.

This opens an important door to invest in and fight for the children with whom we work, speaking out about what affects them, as well as raising our own awareness about inequality. Telling kids and families to work hard does nothing to alleviate unjust systems, or a sense of being unloved or unseen by kids. However, encouraging a deeper connection and concern can be a powerful way forward.

As I have transitioned from working directly with 7th graders to preparing future teachers in their college courses, we read and talk specifically about how racism, sexism, and other prejudicial structures exist in schools and classrooms across America. We ask deeper questions about standardized test score statistics, and examine the trends of so-called “miracle” turnaround schools, whose test scores may rise dramatically, yet long-term retention and success for students still lags.

Finally, with my soon-to-be-teachers, we work on the need to get to know every child’s story—to truly understand the context and the struggle that each child lives through, rather than making assumptions based on generic attributes. These discussions and activities foreground the essential need to dismantle the myth that all it takes to succeed is grit.

In Fantastic Failures: True Stories of People Who Changed the World by Falling Down First, I researched 35 such stories of true world-changers—people who made and are making a deep difference in the world through their work in science, sports, humanities, exploration, music, and other areas.

The commonality among these 35 world-changers is not only that they all possessed determination to keep moving forward even in the face of great mistakes and setbacks. Instead, the common denominator is that they had people who cared deeply about them, loved them, and helped them find their own story. They often worked not just for their own success, but in concert with others to change an unjust status quo.

Grit’s gap is that logic and statistics do not change lives. Hard work and determination alone cannot help our students or our children. Instead, relationships and a commitment to justice form the foundation on which we can help our students and our children learn to keep moving forward, and to not give up.

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