Grit is a great thing. Of all the various rhetorical footballs that get kicked around in education debates, grit is one that everybody loves. Reformsters love to talk about it, and nobody that I can think of in the Resistance is out there bad-mouthing it. Nobody is saying, "We need wimpier kids with less toughness and resilience. We need kids who will fold under pressure and buckle when things get tough." Well, at least not out loud or on purpose.
We do have confusion and disagreement about where grit comes from and how it works.
Grit is not self-esteem. Self-esteem is about what you think you deserve. Grit is about what you think you can handle.
All of our concerns, all of our worries, all of our fears, anxieties, distress about the future-- they all come down to grit. Every statement we make about a Bad Thing That Could Happen has an unspoken coda. "I might lose my job" or "The house might burn down" or "I might not get into college" or "I might get stranded on an ice floe with a brace of rabid arctic ferrets"-- every one of them is followed by an unspoken "and I wouldn't be able to handle it."
Think about it. All the things you don't worry about, you don't worry about because you know that you can handle them. "The point on my pencil might break," you say without fear because it's followed by, "and then I would sharpen it." But even good things like graduation and marriage can trigger stress, because they trigger the sme question-- "Can I handle what happens next?"
So building grit is about just one thing-- learning that the answer to "Can I handle what comes next?" is "Yes. Yes, I can."
Some grit proponents like to talk about it as a personal quality, by which they seem to mean that you either have grit or you don't. And some grit fans believe that grit emerges magically from the hard dirt of tough times. Just keep punching someone in the face, and if they have what it takes, they'll develop grit.
This is incorrect. Adversity can be part of the mulch from which grit grows, but it's not the whole part. It's not even the most important part (which is why some people who have had soft, cushy lives still manage to be gritty as hell).
The important part of developing grit is becoming convinced that you can handle whatever it is. Developing grit is becoming convinced that, "Yes. Yes, I can." is your answer. And most often our students get that convincing from another human being. And not because that human being keeps punching the student in the face. Every story of grit emerging from adversity includes one common feature-- a person who said, "Stand up. You can do this."
You develop grit in students by standing with them and saying, "You can do this."
Now, that can be tricky business. Different teacher-student combinations require different styles of interaction. In one case, soft, gentle hand-holdy support may be just the thing, but in another case being all soft and gentle may actually communicate, "You are weak and fragile and can't really handle this." Tough love, even when seemingly harsh, can be just the thing because it communicates, "Well, of course you can handle this. I'm so certain of it that I find it ridiculous to suggest otherwise."
You do not help students succeed by making them feel small. You help students succeed by helping them see themselves as bigger than their challenges. How you do that depends on you and the student you're dealing with, but the key is the focus-- helping that student be big. But you don't do it by making them small, by focusing your attention on all the ways they aren't enough. You do not make them gritty by smashing them down.
The concept of grit is too often used as excuse not to help, treating a challenge in life as a test to which grit is the answer, and if you don't have it, well, no cheating and it sucks to be you. But we have a responsibility to help others-- particularly young others-- develop grit. And sometimes we can do it in a moment. Neil Degrasse Tyson talks about the grit and toughness and resilience it took for him to grow up African-American with dreams of becoming a physicist. And he speaks glowingly about how the great scientist Carl Sagan met him, talked to him, and cemented the idea that he could absolutely do it-- that he was just as big and tough as his dreams. Sagan made him feel big enough.
That should be the goal for all of us (and not just teachers)-- to help others be big enough. If we want grit to grow in the garden, we have to tend it-- not just walk away and insist that it somehow grow itself.