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Joanne Yatvin is a retired teacher, principal, superintendent, and literacy expert in Oregon.
Topping the national news several months ago was a story about two dangerous criminals escaping from a high security prison. For several months they had devoted themselves to preparations: persuading a woman prison employee to get them the tools they needed and agree to drive them away when they got outside the prison walls, digging a route to the outside of the prison from their cell, and working late at night to avoid attracting notice. When their preparations were finally complete, they also went through several rehearsals before carrying out their plan. Unfortunately for them, they were captured only a few days after their escape. Their promised driver had broken her promise and left them without a plan or an opportunity to practice any new tactics to reach safety.
What interested me about this story was that men who had wasted so many years of their lives in crime rather than seeking education or legal jobs were able to plan so well, work hard, and show so much patience in carrying our their escape. They certainly showed “grit” when the goal was important to them and the stakes were high.
Another story of grit is told in one of my favorite movies, “Cool Hand Luke”, which is about a man arrested and imprisoned for a minor crime. Because he is smarter and more independent and resourceful than his fellow inmates, he is continually singled out for punishment and public humiliation. Yet, he endures everything and continues to defy prison rules and trying to escape. Finally, he steals a prison truck and drives a long distance before hiding out in a deserted building. Unfortunately, the prison officials manage to track him down and set fire to the building. In the end Luke chooses to take his own life rather than surrender. Yet, by losing his life he also wins: he will never go back to prison and no one can punish him ever again.
Although Luke is gone at the end of the movie, his lessons of “grit” inspire other prisoners to follow his example and stand up for themselves against prison cruelty. Although the movie shows so much harshness and sadness, its ultimate message is one of hope.
In both the real prison escape and the movie’s story, I found lessons about “grit” not understood by the experts now calling for teaching that skill to students in the classroom. Not tyrants, prison guards, nor teachers can teach grit. Human beings—and most animals– develop grit only when they are so dedicated to reaching a particular goal that they will push on through obstacles, rejections and repeated failures.
As a teacher and principal I often saw ordinary students develop grit on their own because the conditions in the classroom were right. Their teachers taught lessons that were interesting to young people and offered opportunities for self-chosen projects, collaboration with classmates, and innovation. And because the kids had already tasted success and satisfaction in previous classroom activities, they believed they could stretch themselves even further this time. Yes, the work was harder than before, but it was doable, and in their eyes the goal was worth the extra effort. They had already developed grit and could use it. And they believed in themselves.
Education should be a dynamic experience for all students. It’s not preparation for college or the workplace, but a laboratory for exploring who you are and what you want to do; for trying out your interests and talents in a safe place and for sifting out the gold buried in the sand of school subjects. It’s also a place to develop grit because you believe you can.