The Seeker

A Meta-Cognitive Journal About Writing… Plus Other Stuff

Grit v. The Helicopter

with 3 comments

We spent a lot of time at school last year recognizing the value of grit, and I’ve found myself thinking about it this summer, more so now that the start of the year is imminent.  Though some in the building are telling students in a “we’re almost clear on this now” way that we haven’t quite defined “grit” yet, “grit” is generally being defined in psychological circles as “perseverance and passion for long-term goals.”  The concept has been on national social and educational radars for a few years.  I read a few articles starting about two years ago, and a rather popular TED talk made its rounds  in our advisory classrooms.  None of this is to say that I wasn’t skeptical.  I was.  I think any time somebody drops something in your wheelhouse you had damn well better be skeptical to save yourself chasing your tail and wasting your energy on fruitless or half-thought ideas that charlatans tell you are a panacea for whatever may be ailing your classroom.

Here’s how we’ve been doing it.  Each month, teachers are nominating students they feel demonstrate grit.  They are strongly encouraged to nominate only one.  It’s not going to be the nice girl who sits in the front row and answers every question and sometimes puts an apple on your desk; nor is it going to be the academic all-star who can skate through class without much difficulty.  While those are both great types of students to have, you really have to look to the middle-range or struggling students who you can sometimes hear sweat as they work throughout the semester.  They show up every day and put in their best effort as a matter of habit.  They are the kids who internalize their frustrations when you demand more or better work instead of cussing you out or giving up and taking an “F”.  They stay the course, and continue to stay the course until they achieve.

This might well be something that adults take for granted in themselves.  Who among us hasn’t stayed up late the night before final exams to cover those concepts we’re still shaky on in order to preserve a “B” in a class?  Who hasn’t kept running after the fifth mile, despite the stitch in the ribs from dehydration?  Who hasn’t kept sending out the manuscript, despite dozens of rejections?  You can’t get too far into adult life without demonstrating some kind of grit—at least not if you plan on living a productive and meaningful life.  But our brains are developed as adults, and our reasoning centers, the last parts of the brain to develop, help us understand that gratification can be delayed and that which we struggle for is more meaningful once we attain it.  It’s hard to convey that idea to a teenager, though.  Which is where the recognition of “grit” comes into play.

So we call these kids out.  They get a certificate of recognition, the card the teacher originally submitted to recognize the student, a “grit” t-shirt, and a decent recognition breakfast.  I went to all of the breakfasts we held last year to give the students I’d recognized a pat on the back.  Each breakfast had a few dozen students, very few of whom are going to be invited to the honors banquet or awarded an athletic scholarship to a Division I school.  But the value of these students in a classroom is immeasurable.  They are the ones you want everyone to watch as they work through their frustrations, and that includes the apathetic students and the academic all-stars (who, more often than you might believe, shut down when they are frustrated).

Something that stands out about grit is that it’s not moralistic.  We’re not preaching good behavior and positive social skills and whether or not a student meets a vague ideal professed in the school’s mission statement.  We’re also not rewarding behavior we already expect in students, i.e. “Johnny is being recognized today because he comes to class on time every day.”  That kind of stuff kills me.  Where in the real world does a person get recognition for something they are supposed to do in the first place?  Chris Rock said it best in one of is standup routines when he talked about a “brother” who was bragging about not having been to jail.  His response:  “What do you want, a cookie?  You’re not supposed to go to jail!”  Yet we’ve spent time on that kind of recognition in the past, and that includes a special recognition from a past principal who ended up recognizing faculty for doing the job they were supposed to do in the first place.

So recognizing grit sounds good, huh?  We’ve found something that is true to human experience, valuable in the classroom, and will show dividends for students as they pass through the building and move on to further education and adult life.  I’m buying it.  But it isn’t all bliss.  I’ve already experienced the hitches that not only undermine our push for grit, but that can pull the plug on it.

Here’s how it works:  Patricia gives a speech.  She runs over time, mumbles a lot, isn’t able to wrap things up when I am forced by time constraints to stop her, and turns in only half an outline.  In short, she didn’t prepare herself properly.  When she gets her grade back, she starts cussing, whips out her cell phone, and storms out of class.  I pursue her, trying to track down a hall monitor to make sure she goes to the proper place, which is the dean’s office.  There is a behavior problem.  But Patricia is quick with that phone, and can push her parent’s buttons with as much ease as the ones on the phone.  She orders her parents up to the school, throws in some extra drama along the way, and within a half hour, her parents are not only in the school, but in an administrator’s office.  No need to demonstrate grit.  No need to grind a few teeth, settle oneself down, and possibly talk to the teacher after class for a few minutes.  No need at all because the parents are on call for this very type of episode so that Patricia doesn’t have to agonize over anything.

Want another example?  Rick has to be removed from class one day…  it’s the cell phone again.  He’s listening to music when he should be typing a paper.  He misses turning the paper in.  He shows up the next morning during the time when he’s an office aide and asks to turn the paper in.  He has seen on the electronic grade book that it’s a zero, and since it’s early in the semester, that really hurts his grade.  I listen to him and explain why I won’t take the paper, and even refer him to classroom policies posted on the bulletin board.  Instead of returning to his duties as an office aide running passes and whatnot, he finds a bathroom and hides himself in a stall so he can sneak a call to his mom.  Within ten minutes, she has fired off an angry email to me about how my decision has ruined her boy’s grade, and demanding that I reconsider.  The implied threat is tangible; the parent knows contacting me is the first step and if I don’t accede, she need only step up the ladder to my direct supervisor.

These are not unusual stories.  Any teacher can tell either one of them, and more.  Things like this happen a half dozen times a year to most teachers, though that first one is on the extreme end of the spectrum of parental tampering.  What makes them more significant, though, is how helicopter parenting is working to actively undermine what is one of the best and most effective social initiatives we’ve had going at school for quite a while.  Parents aren’t seeing the value in their child having to experience discomfort and tension in their educational experience, even when that discomfort and tension is a natural consequence to their decisions.

What’s more, these helicopters are subverting the systems we have set up in the school specifically to benefit their child.  Any of these students is entitled to a visit with their counselor to discuss the issue.  They have an advisor they see every day that they can talk to.  There are numerous other venues through which any student can address a concern if they pursue them…  coaches, social workers, activity sponsors, other teachers.  Heck, they can even say, “I screwed this up, but in the future I’m going to do things differently.”  So in addition to the sundry distractions that cell phones cause in a classroom, they are also providing students with instant gratification and a means by which to subvert demonstrating grit.

The problem is not the cellphones.  Cellphones are a reality, and they’re not going anywhere any time soon.  The problem is with the parents.  When they set expectations that their child can call them instantaneously with whatever grievance and expect that immediate be action taken on their part, that’s the problem.  The parent can subvert grit and put it off all they want, but at some point that child is going to have to build a cache of grit and demonstrate it.  It’s better to do it in the formative years when the stakes are still relatively low.



Written by seeker70

August 24, 2014 at 6:49 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

3 Responses

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  1. This one should be on NPR… “With a perspective, I’m Jeff Burd.”

    Andrew Burd

    August 25, 2014 at 11:59 am

    • That’s a good idea… never thought of it! I’m years out of touch with NPR, so I wouldn’t know where to send it or whatnot.


      August 25, 2014 at 9:59 pm

  2. […] how unfairly her daughter was being treated in my class.  They arrived with such frequency that I began to hear helicopter blades chopping the air every time I read one.  I picked a few lines out of her emails that […]

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