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'Grit' Is Not a Substitute for School Support of Teachers

Cindi Rigsbee

I have a story I share sometimes. It goes like this:

Chapter One: In 1979, I began teaching.

Chapter Two: In 1980, I quit.

The End.

Well, not really "the end." I like to say that whatever called me to teaching in the first place ... called me back. Seven years later I returned to the classroom and have been at it ever since. That first year was a tough one, though, and I'm disappointed in myself when I think that I almost gave up for good.

I often look back at my first year teaching and wonder why I didn't sail right on to my second year. Truly, the students were almost my age. (I was reminded recently that my seniors from that year are now 53 years old; that provides a little perspective!) In addition, there were no support practices in place back then—no mentor teachers, no beginning of the year orientations, no collaboration meetings for novice educators. We were placed in the classroom, handed a textbook, and told to "go forth and teach." Also, no one spoke of "teacher working conditions." The fact that I taught four different levels of English (different grade levels and ability levels) and worked with three different extracurricular groups was not unheard of back then.

But what if I'd had more "grit?" What if my twenty-two year old self had persevered?

There has been a great deal of discussion recently about grit relative to teacher retention and student achievement. As a high school and college student, I was definitely one who persevered. I was the passionate one, going after my dreams with vigor, refusing to allow obstacles to stand in my way. And later, after returning to teaching, I was that same tough, tenacious, tireless worker, willing to give my all for the profession I had chosen first, and then, chosen again.

Although I understand it may appear that I lost my "grit" when I turned in my resignation that first year, I truly believe there were many other indicators that influenced my decision to leave teaching. First and foremost, I needed more support. When we expect a first-year teacher to perform like the 30-year veteran in the classroom next door, we set that teacher up for failure. As a profession, we also need to be aware that many of our novice teachers need more than assistance with classroom management and lesson planning; many are away from home and on their own for the first time. Isolation can knock the grittiest teachers to their knees.

I believe those of us who choose teaching as a profession are pretty darn gritty from the get-go. We know teaching is hard, although rewarding, and we're up for it! But it takes more than grit to be successful, accomplished, and experienced.

Cindi Rigsbee is a National Board Certified Teacher currently working on educator recruitment and retention initiatives as a Regional Education Facilitator for the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction. A member of the Center for Teaching Quality's Collaboratory, Cindi served as the North Carolina Teacher of the Year and was a finalist for the 2009 National Teacher of the Year. The author of "Finding Mrs. Warnecke, The Difference Teachers Make," she was also a contributing author to "Teaching 2030: What We Must Do for Our Students and Our Public Schools—Now and in the Future." Cindi blogs at cindirigsbee.com.

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