“Are your students listless? Unengaged? Apathetic?”

“Do you want them to get going when the going gets tough—to give 110% all of the time, every time?”

“Then sign right up for our new professional development opportunity, Becoming a Screaming Sports Coach! You’ll learn how to get in your students’ faces. You’ll learn how to yell. To spray saliva. To inspire. We’ll show you how old-school, no-excuses, tough-love approaches never fail to create students with indomitable spirits and an abundance of perseverance.”

Of course, life doesn’t work that way. Outside of the movies, screaming is more often devastating than inspiring. We all want to cultivate perseverance and grit in our students, but if we can’t pull out our trusty whistle and tap into our inner football coach, what can we do?

True Grit

For years, grit has been a hot topic in education. We recognize that soft skills, such as perseverance in the face of adversity, are just as important for student success as knowing the capitals of every South American country. As interest in grit has grown, so has the amount of time devoted to teaching it. Too often though, the so-called teaching of grit has resembled a watered-down version of Becoming a Screaming Sports Coach. We talk about grit. We preach about how important it is. We give some examples, or do some role-playing activities. And then we wait for the grit to begin.

When we do see instances of perseverance in class we praise them, and when students struggle with it, we preach about it some more. And then… nothing. Talking about grit isn’t the same as teaching it; it doesn’t produce meaningful and lasting results. So what’s the secret? As is often the case, the secret is simple but not easy. But given the importance of perseverance, just because it’s hard doesn’t mean it isn’t worth it.

The Power of Passion

The secret is passion. Researchers who have investigated perseverance have identified, quite convincingly, that at the root of all grit is passion. This passion comes in a couple of different flavors. One is a passion for the task. A ballerina who loves ballet will carry on even when her feet bruise; an apathetic one will quit at the first callous.

We can nurture this type of passion by cultivating a love for our subjects—by letting students play with and explore our content, by helping them to experience the flow that comes from solving appropriate challenges, and by connecting content to their lives. We often associate grit with negative experiences—we define drive as our willingness to endure them—but paradoxically, we develop grit not by exposing people to the negative but by immersing them in the positive.

What can you do tomorrow to help your students fall in love with your subject? How can you allow your students to dive into your content and play around with it?

Remembering Yourself

Another passion that contributes to perseverance is a passion for yourself—a belief in yourself as a persistent problem-solver. Recall Edison’s famous quote, that success is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration; consider whether he believed in the power of his own perseverance. Again, we develop student self-efficacy in this regard by creating opportunities where they can work hard and succeed. When we validate a student’s view of herself as a person with persistence, we develop in our students a passion for themselves. Today, it might help them finish another draft of that paper that’s giving them trouble; tomorrow, they’ll be inventing in Menlo Park.

By developing a student’s passion for subject and for self, we lay the foundation for improved perseverance both today and in the future.

What about you? Share your thoughts on cultivating grit in the classroom!