(Photo credit: The U.S. Army)
After my first year of teaching I have revisited many of the words I wrote down in my leather bound Teach For America journal during my time at Houston Institute. At Institute we used buzz words. Lots of them. As much as I resisted using common language, I found myself evoking our buzz-word-language out of a desire to operate from a shared archetype. And as I sat down to revisit the words, I back-filled my journal with the meaning of my own experiences and the experiences of my students. In doing so, I’ve created new words that fit the reality of what I think my students need, now that my consciousness has been awakened. There is, however, still one word that lingers with me, and that I think it is important to examine. And that word is the Houston Institute Buzz Word of 2013: grit.
In its purest connotation, grit is an embodiment of tenacity, fight, and determination. The word conjures images of a crass, spunky John Wayne in True Grit or of a clenched-jaw athlete during a drive at the ten yard line during a tied game. Grit is certainly something I like to think that I have; and judging from the number of fellow corps members who included the word in almost every spoken and written reflection, most everyone saw it as essential.
Certainly, grit is positive. It’s about digging deep and giving it your all; but, the word also misses the boat with its images of gutsy cowboys and grass-stained offensive linemen. The connotations of grit missed what our students really need, which is to consider circumstance, lean into their feelings, and adapt after failure or in the midst of difficulty. I think our students would be better off if they learned to embody consciousness, feeling, and adaptation. In short, when they think about grit, I think our students would be better served to embody the idea of resilience rather than the idea of fighting back.
In her book “The Gifts of Imperfection” Brene Brown, a researcher and social worker focusing on resilience as tool for overcoming shame and living a whole-hearted life, writes about the importance and inherent connection between resilience and hope. Brown discusses the increasing cultural belief that “everything should be fun, fast, and easy.” This cultural ideology has produced disastrous self-talk during difficult encounters, experiences, and tasks. Self-talk like, “This is supposed to be easy, it’s not worth the effort” or “This should be easier: it’s only hard and slow because I’m not good at it.”
Although I can’t be in the minds of my students, I know them well enough to know this negative self-talk is likely how they talk to themselves when I hand them a text a few levels above their diagnostic level or when I give them an assignment that takes longer than usual. They lack resilience. They lack hope.
Brown describes a lack of resilience and hope as a sense of entitlement and hopelessness, a sense of “I deserve this just because I want it,” not “I know I can do this.” As a result, that hopelessness leads to a feeling of powerlessness, which is something far greater than educational efficacy; it is political and social efficacy that limits communities’ voices in the most important public discourse. In other words, our students who don’t have resilience are sitting in a pressure cooker that creates another vicious cycle of self-doubt, powerlessness, and ultimately silence.
Resilience and hope, on the other hand, give tolerance to disappointment, adaptation as a response to frustration, and a firm belief in what the self is capable of–not what one can’t accomplish. When my students are faced with this parasitic self-talk, I want their response to be “It’s okay if this is hard. It’s okay if I find this challenging. I am capable and I am enough.” I want them to understand how they feel, understand that it’s okay if they fail, and believe that their success in one endeavor is not indicative of their success in many others.
So how is resilience different than grit? Why should we be weary of solely focusing on images of digging deep and fighting for success? Because these images don’t account for how our students may feel during a challenge. There are certainly moments for grit—when they want to give up mid-stream, or when they don’t think they can do one more annotation—but these are moments, not a mental framework. Grit asks that they dig in and fight back, not lean in, re-frame, and positively evaluate their self-worth. Our students need to understand that things aren’t always going to be easy and that if they aren’t successful in an endeavor, they shouldn’t always hunker down and fight through it. Rather, they need to feel, adapt, and remain hopeful in their abilities.
And, so, as I revisit my journals and think about the buzz words we all use, I have decided that I want my students to have a buzz word that accounts for their feelings just as much as it accounts for their agency. I want a buzz word that takes them as a whole person. Here, I suppose, begins my campaign, “Buzz Word of 2014: Resilience”
 Brown, Brene. “Cultivating a Resilient Spirit.” In The gifts of imperfection: let go of who you think you’re supposed to be and embrace who you are. Center City, Minn.: Hazelden, 2010.