Got Grit?

Got Grit?

As a Black girl growing up in poverty, getting to and from school was an act of courage, an act of resilience. On my way, I passed drug-dealing and street-harassing men. I passed candlelit memorials in front of brick buildings for those lost too young—reminders of the violence that colonized my city block. I passed hard-working men and women, mostly immigrants like my mother, who struggled to provide their children with better lives despite the systemic injustice that kept them marginalized and voiceless.

Yet, in many ways, school was my salvation. I excelled in school because I had to. It was my ticket to a better life. It was there where I found my passion to be a lifelong learner and educator, where I persevered despite the obstacles, where I was grittiest.

I cannot speak about grit, which can be defined as passion and perseverance for long-term goals, without referring to the many ways I have had to be gritty to get to where I am today. As a panelist for the discussion “Got Grit? Examining Links Between Non-Cognitive Skills and Academic Achievement,” at the Education Leadership Conference organized by Yale’s School of Management, I spoke of those experiences as a student—and later as a middle school teacher—in the Bronx. At that conference, panelists and participants explored the relationship between grit and academic achievement and discussed ways to teach grit in our nation’s classrooms.

Importantly, we also discussed the dangers of being too narrowly focused on grit, as well as other tensions associated with grit. For example:

  • Is teaching character skills going to solve the problems of low-income students of color?
  • Do we want gritty youth who lack emotional intelligence skills?
  • How do we support a child who is gritty but does not experience success?
  • How do we guide a student who is gritty but lacks the metacognitive awareness to determine that they are not so good at something?
  • How do we teach youth to experience failure if we are teaching them to be gritty?

These questions mark the beginning of an ongoing and necessary discourse about grit and pedagogy. Yet, as we learn more, it is important to realize that grit is only part of the equation. What is grit in the absence of compassion, kindness, and emotional intelligence? What are we not focusing on when we focus on grit? Should we concentrate our efforts and mental capacities more on shifting the unjust system that requires that some youth be grittier than others just to make it to high school—or simply to their eighteenth birthdays?

In sum, in any discussion about education, particularly education reform efforts, it is important to ask ourselves: education reform for whom? We cannot speak about opportunity and achievement gaps without a nuanced discourse of the history of white supremacy in our nation. When we begin to break down the barriers and bring humanity and culturally responsive and student-centered pedagogy back into our schools, we might see some improvement—even if just a little—in our educational system. We just have to be gritty, persevering at whatever costs to ensure that all youth, gritty or not, have the opportunity to be successful in school and in life.


Simmons-Dena-e1421255574640 Dena Simmons, Associate Director of School Initiatives