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Why Teaching Kids "Grit" Works

A teacher testifies

Chris Hondros/Newsmakers

As a teacher, I know that helping kids succeed academically, while absolutely essential, is only part of my job. Another equally important part is helping them develop the character strengths they need to overcome challenges and to be good people. For the past five years, I have made this my goal as a middle school teacher and administrator at KIPP Infinity Middle School, a public charter school in Harlem. 

So I read Jeffrey Aaron Snyder’s essay on KIPP’s character work with great interest. In the end, I found his criticisms unfounded. The program he describes does not resemble the one I see in action every day.

Snyder claims that KIPP teachers talk about character, but don’t make it relatable for students. In fact, the opposite is true, and I’m living proof. I immigrated to the U.S. from Nicaragua with my family when I was a child, and we lived below the poverty line. I wanted to go to college, but I knew it would be a huge challenge. So I worked as hard as I possibly could, and eventually graduated from Harvard. I then joined Teach For America, and ten years later, I’m still working in education.

So when I talk to my students about character, it’s not abstract. It’s personal. My students can identify, and they recognize how my journey might be similar to theirs. I’m always conscious that I’m leading by example, showing them what grit and optimism look like in real life. 

Snyder says that “we don’t know how to teach character.” This assumes that we’re looking at character in isolation, rather than as part of a student’s entire learning experience. I can share one example of a student who built character strengths through the classroom. This student had struggled all year with impulse control. His reading teacher placed him in a study group with a few other struggling students, and asked them to set goals for each other for the year. For this student, the experience clicked while reading the novel Hatchet, about a boy who gets stranded in the Canadian wilderness. The student recognized that both he and the protagonist had to shown grit and self-control to reach their goals. He was able to both articulate the character strengths needed to reach a goal, and also to describe how they applied to his life. 

The second claim Snyder makes is that “character-based education is untethered from any conception of morality.” He goes so far as to state, “While it takes grit and self-control to be a successful heart surgeon, the same could be said about a suicide bomber.” Not only is this statement completely sensational, it’s also untrue. Our character work is grounded in morality, and especially in the principle of “Work Hard. Be Nice.” Kindness is central to KIPP Infinity. When we work with students on character, it is always in the context of being conscientious citizens and treating other people well. The behaviors we help students emulate—like keeping your temper in check, or showing respect to your peers—are things that thoughtful, conscientious people do. And they’re also tied into what students are learning at home, so that we’re partnering with parents and other caregivers to reinforce the habits and behaviors that they’re already trying to impart to their kids.

While KIPP’s character work is moral, it is not judgmental. Our character growth card is a great illustration of this. Instead of the traditional ways of describing student behavior—“Excellent,” “Satisfactory,” “Unsatisfactory,” and so on—the character growth card allows us to look at a student as a whole, to see where they’re already strong and where they still have room to grow. 

We’ve seen overwhelmingly positive responses to this approach from parents. For example, one mother had a son who was extremely active, and in previous schools he had been labeled unruly or difficult. But at KIPP Infinity, we saw him differently. His enthusiasm for learning and social intelligence were strong. So the main area that we needed to work on with him was self-control. His mother was blown away; she said that none of his other schools had ever looked at him as a “whole child” before.

Finally, Snyder claims that character development “drastically constricts the overall purpose of education.” By nurturing our students’ character strengths, we are drastically expanding their opportunities for life after high school. At KIPP Infinity, we are preparing our students to have the opportunity to attend college. Whether they choose to attend college, or to go to trade schools, or to become entrepreneurs, or some other path, they need to have all of those options open to them. Traditionally, the students we serve struggle to overcome major obstacles on the way to graduation. Our character development work is one way of helping students open the door to expanded opportunity. That’s really all we want for them.