Is "Getting Gritty" The Answer?Photo: Littlehenrabi/iStock/Thinkstock

Can grit solve all your students’ problems? This urban high school teacher shares her experiences.

Most educators can’t scroll through their social media feeds without seeing at least two or three articles about grit, the character trait that researchers say is a more reliable predictor of success than IQ.

Of course, it’s easy to see why grit is such a popular topic in education these days. It’s a formidable tool and one that I try to encourage in my low-income, urban high school students because I know it can spur them on to success, despite the odds. According to University of Pennsylvania professor Angela Duckworth, who coined the term, grit is “the tendency to sustain interest in and effort toward very long-term goals” (Duckworth, Peterson, Matthews, & Kelly, 2007). The attributes of grit include determination, perseverance, an ability to set clear goals, and patience and flexibility in handling small obstacles. Grit also reflects a capacity for human connection, collaboration, and an overall inner strength that helps power a student to his goals.

Will students who don’t triumph over poverty be blamed for lacking grit?

I witness grit in my classroom and students every day. I see it in the Bosnian refugee turned AP student and track star. I see it in the undocumented immigrant who lands a Posse scholarship. And I see it in the homeless student who graduates while working full time and helping raise his younger handicapped brother.

When I first began teaching 20 years ago, I realized almost immediately that, as an urban school teacher, I needed to encourage grit in my students (though I didn’t know to call it that at the time). So I did. I told gritty anecdotes of success and worked to help students overcome obstacles in their lives. Most importantly, I tried to show students that there is more than one route to success — and that there can always be a Plan B, C, D, E, F, and even G.

I beamed with pride when this strategy proved successful with Naid, whose low grades prevented him from attending college. At first, Naid had difficulty seeing himself on the college or career track. But I urged him to apply to the Year Up Boston program after high school. Thanks to Naid’s own sense of grit and the support he received in Year Up’s high-expectations program, he was able to learn marketable job skills, receive a stipend, get an internship, and earn college credits. He is now employed in the finance department of an international bank and is attending college in the evenings.

I also worked with another student, Ledra, who dropped out of high school her sophomore year. I encouraged her to get her GED and helped her find resources (often a difficult hurdle for urban students). We kept in touch, and I provided some support as she finished her associate’s degree by helping her fill out paperwork, occasionally proofreading her papers, and giving her advice on time management. But Ledra’s own grit did the rest as she pushed forward to receive her bachelor’s degree. I couldn’t have been prouder when she told me she had decided to become a teacher. Ledra was anxious to give back, eventually working as a special education teacher in our district.

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