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How About We Talk About 'Grit' for Policymakers and School Leaders?


Laura Thomas

We don't need to teach kids to be "grittier."  Kids come to us with a lot of grit and slowly, over time, we burn it out of them.  We teach them to sit still, not ask questions, play by our rules, and ignore their own thoughts and feelings about the world.  We take away their free play, their recess time, their connections to one another and to the communities they live in. Then we test them and, should they fail, we burden them with more of the same until they somehow, someway, succeed.

We don't need grittier teachers. Teachers come into schools with plenty of grit. They know what they're getting into when they join the profession. (Or at least they do if they come to the profession with eyes wide open after a thorough preparation program.) They recognize that teaching is a marathon, that they're walking into a battle ground where the collateral damage is measured not in test scores but in children's lives. They steel themselves every Sunday night to walk back onto the front lines and to stand between their children and policy decisions that would do more damage than good. When their students fail, we fire them for not overcoming years of poverty, hunger, and fear in 180 days.

If we're going to talk about building grit, let's talk about the kind of grit that will really change the game in schools. Let's see some policymakers with the gumption to say no to the "test is best" lobbyists and who will refuse to cut aid to needy families. Show me some district leaders who are willing to cut the testing budget in favor of more field trips and more time for collaboration among teachers and parents. Reward the principals who are willing to free teachers from the rigid parameters of high priced textbooks, choosing instead to foster environments where teachers are able to think creatively about ways to bring content to life in contextual, real-world ways. Show me ambitious teacher candidates who commit to teaching whole-heartedly, though a full teacher preparation program, not a five-week TFA prep course or an alternative-certification model lacking the full range of experiences and content necessary to create a well-prepared (albeit novice) teacher. Let's celebrate the parents who refuse to do for their children what their children can do for themselves, even if it means sacrificing the A or facing the wrath of an irate 5th grader denied another hour of video games.

After over 20 years in education, I reject the notion that we should waste any more time or energy on "grit," because it's simply beside the point.  Grit or no grit, we know what teachers need to succeed. The National Commission on Teaching and America's Future outlined it over 30 years ago.

  • A clear understanding of what we mean when we talk about good teaching.
  • Solid preparation from high-quality programs, with well-prepared teachers in every classroom.
  • Opportunities and support for ongoing, meaningful collaboration, planning, and reflection with peers, outside experts and parents

Stop searching for ways to build illusive qualities like grit. It's a trap that will only divert us from our real goal—high quality, supported, well-prepared teachers for every child, in every classroom no matter what.

A teacher, school coach and staff developer since 1993, Laura Thomas, MEd., is the director of Antioch University New England's Center for School Renewal and the author of "Facilitating Authentic Learning" (Corwin Press, 2012). She can be reached at lthomas@antioch.edu.

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