If you’re a teacher in an underfunded urban high school, it’s sometimes difficult to keep hope alive. No matter how hard you work, failure is all around you. And it’s menacing. And there’s a lot of it.
Even worse, failure is often predictable. The statistics are strong, and the patterns are unwieldy. You see students drop out. And even those students who succeed do so haltingly. You wonder if they’ll make it in college.
But then, if you’re lucky, you read a book like How Children Succeed, by Paul Tough, and all is well again.
I highly recommend that you read this book.
Mr. Tough’s argument is that the greatest determiner of success in school is not academic skill. Rather, it is character. Qualities like grit, self-control, social intelligence, and zest separate students who succeed from those who don’t.
(For many of you, these character traits seem foreign. Grit? Zest? What about integrity and compassion? you ask. I thought the same thing. In the book, Mr. Tough divides aspects of moral character from those of performance character. For poor kids of color, who have experienced severe stress in their childhoods, performance character skills like grit are what matters most.)
Leaning heavily on the research of Angela Duckworth, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, Mr. Tough emphasizes that character is malleable and can be taught. A ninth grader may enter high school with significant academic skill gaps, but if that student builds her performance character, she will have the resilience necessary to meet her long-term goal.
Although the last chapter left me wanting more how-to specifics, the rest of this short book is filled with bright and hardworking folks dedicated to the growth of young people.
And it got me thinking about my journey last year as an AP English teacher. A few weeks into the class, several students approached me and wanted to drop the course. It was too hard, they said. I was grading too harshly. There was no way they could do the work. At first, I was shocked by their low stamina and their willingness to quit. But then I read Mr. Tough’s article in The New York Times Magazine, and I realized that I needed to teach grit as much as I taught analytical reading of obscure and challenging texts.
So one day, as I passed back another set of mediocre essays, I introduced the notion of grit to my students. For several months, the word — which is funny to say, is similar to grits, and is evocative of dirt — became a little joke in our class. But the students soldiered on, bounced back from struggle, and kept going. I suppose I was teaching character.
Too bad my students did so poorly on the AP test. After all, this story would’ve had a better ending if they all passed with 5s. But that’s not reality, and that’s not what happened. I am hopeful, however, that my students, even though they did not reach that marker of success, will this year demonstrate the grit necessary to persist in college.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that one of my students tonight wrote the following on Facebook: “Life doesn’t get easier. You just get stronger.”