Beef with Grit(s)

Topics: Education Policy

When we talk about having grit, or not having grit, in the classroom, we often prioritize it as a one-size-fits-all concept. I have to admit, I came up with the title “Beef with Grit(s)” before I came up with the content for this post. I actually came up with the title about a month ago, when I decided it would be great to write about why I struggle with prioritizing student “grit” in the classroom. But then I got distracted, forgot to write the post, and was left with nothing but a catchy title.

Does that mean I don’t have grit? Let’s check. As published in a recent Atlantic article, a student’s level of grit is often gauged by using prompts like “New ideas and projects sometimes distract me from previous ones,” “I often set a goal but later choose to pursue a different one,” or “I finish whatever I begin.”

If the quality of my grit is based on the first two questions, I severely lack it. I’m easily excited by new ideas, as evidenced by the 27 tabs I currently have open on Chrome to read.

I’ve always considered myself a rather driven person, but I’m never quite sure where that drive is going to lead me… in other words, I change my mind. Is that so bad? To some people, it is. But this is where I have privilege. I would argue that because of my race and class, society is set up for me to succeed, which allows me some leeway. I have grown up with support systems that keep me moving ahead, who understand that, though I may come up with a title and forget about the post for an entire month, I am adding value to work and relationships in other ways. Not so coincidentally, this same privilege and support has enabled me to develop grit over time. (More exploration on that in a future post.)

When we talk about having grit, or not having grit, in the classroom, we often prioritize it as a one-size-fits-all concept. We are imposing middle class, “bootstraps” values for diverse student bodies that include students with myriad abilities, some of which don’t include sitting still at a desk and completing a project start to finish no matter the struggle.

We also easily leave behind children who come from different cultural perspectives. For instance, some cultures value community over individuality. If a student wants to work in a team and let others lead, they may not have “grit” the way it is defined now. Does that mean they are a poor student? (Spoiler alert, I don’t think so.)

Many students work to overcome obstacles even before they get to school. The grit they display may look completely different than the grit prioritized in the classroom. Does the student who had to cook breakfast and dress their four younger siblings every morning, but can’t quite finish that report have less grit than the student whose mom drove them to school today and finished the report in a week? Absolutely not. So then why are we assessing them that way?

Tyrone Howard, PhD, associate dean for equity and inclusion at UCLA, offers alternative scaling questions that expand what student engagement means in a classroom and views the whole student at a deeper level. Some of his scaling questions include, “I always have bus fare to get to school.” “Whenever I get sick, I am able to go to a doctor.” “I have at least one teacher who cares about me.” Dr. Howard argues heavily in favor of an academic climate that is as mindful of the prompts in the second category as much as those in the first grit scale.

As schools begin to focus more on social emotional development, it seems to me that we need a careful review of what type of social emotional learning we prioritize in the classroom. (And what policymakers determine classrooms should prioritize.)

Districts should consider perhaps personalizing social emotional development and assessment. With the reauthorization of the ESEA, schools are now measured on performance that can include school climate or engagement. There is a tie between the soft skills students learn and how they engage in school, so social emotional development should be culturally competent and personalized to reflect each student’s development.

Social emotional development and trauma-informed teaching / learning are extremely important topics to me. Here are some questions I’ve been considering as I start this blog series on the topic, and I hope they make you stop and ponder as well.

What kind of “grit” are students showing by simply coming to school? What type of resiliency are they already showing? How can practitioners (teachers, social workers, other students) show empathy around each student’s experience?

What other social emotional skills and qualities can we teach students in the classroom that help a student succeed and become an independent learner? How does grit still fit in?

How can we adjust our thinking to include a more trauma-informed approach to a student’s education? How will that affect our view of grit?

How does social emotional learning intersect with accountability systems? Is it “good” to quantify and scale social emotional development?