Monday, April 7, 2014

School Culture and the Importance of Grit and Resilience

I was talking with a colleague from a different school today.  She asked me what buy in from parents have to do with school culture?  I answered her that it has EVERYTHING to do with school culture. The culture of the school, of any school, where you implement changes, however small, has to be one of grit and resilience.  Of prioritizing students not just learning, but becoming the drivers of their learning.  We want students to be lifelong learners who appreciate and value not just the education they have been given, but the tools they have acquired to utilize throughout their lives.  Too often we want our children to be happy, we want them to have self confidence.  This alone is not the problem, but it is when we want these things to the exclusion of wanting them to be able to pick up the pieces when they fail, or be willing to work harder when they don't get something at first.

I try very hard as a parent to never tell my daughter that I am proud of her because she is "so smart" or because she is "the best." Instead, I tell her I am proud because she tried so hard or she got back up when she made a mistake and corrected it.  I don't want to fall into the trap of making her thinking that if she fails it is a reflection on her as a person.  Instead, I want her to realize that how she reacts to failure, how she grows will determine her ultimate fate, not what she is given.  I want her to not take for granted her intelligence, but want to work hard and not freak out every time things don't go her way.  If we want a culture that motivates students to grow, to be critical thinkers, not just of material, but of themselves and their lives, we want to create a culture in a school that encourages hard work and rewards it.

This past year, my daughter went on a school bus for the first time.  It was a huge change in her life and the dynamic of her entire school day changed.  She was now spending 40 minutes each way on a bus to get to her school when it was a mere 10 minutes away.  She wanted to understand why she was with students in grades much older than her in a confined space.  She had to adjust to the whole "seating arrangement" on the bus.  She had to adjust to the complete lack of structure a school bus has, as oppose to a classroom.  She had to adjust to the boys on the bus and their rather immature behavior.  She doesn't love it, but I think she is a tougher, less sensitive kid now because of it.  In the beginning it was particularly hard on her.  She wasn't the most patient of children.  She wanted to know why she had to get up so early.  She was confused as to why the bus would not wait for her if she wasn't out there.  She didn't understand why people on the bus could say and do pretty much whatever.  It was a growing up process.  She now gets it and has matured a lot from the experience.  She has come to terms with the bus as part of her experience.  Just like I came to terms this year with my commuting through Staten Island to get to Brooklyn.  She's learned what not to say and who not to bother during the ride.  She has figured out where she is to sit and that she needs to time herself in the morning in order to make it.  We all go through this as parents.  This process is a maturation processes.  It's also a process of teaching grit.

I could have driven her.  I know many great parents who do.  But, not only did my work schedule not allow for it, but I also knew for my kid, that was not the right thing.  She needed to have that experience.  She needed to get thicker skin.

Another case and point example is when our children first learn how to read.  While most experts will tell you, it takes till about mid way through first grade for most kids to really learn how to "master" reading, there is a lot of blood, sweat, and tears parents, educators, and most of all, students go through to conquer this onerous task.  I myself was a very late reader.  However, I firmly believe that my difficulties learning to read were perhaps one of the greatest gifts I was given.  I worked extremely hard learning how to read.  I went to a rather traditional prep school that insisted on children learning to read at a very early age.  I was far from ready.  However, my parents gave me extensive tutoring and my teachers worked extremely hard with me to make sure I stayed on task and learned what I needed to.  After over two years of intense struggle, I mastered it.  I'm now a veracious reader.  But, even more importantly, I now know, with enough effort and focus, I can master many things.  That was a huge life lesson I was blessed enough to have at a young age.  I was also extremely blessed to have parents that were singularly focused on my academic success and teachers, like Mrs. Thompson from Chapin, who instead of seeing where I was at as a label, saw it as a starting point.

Ok, so you are saying, the bus and learning how to read are where parents, teachers, and kids all "get" grit.  It's the many other areas that complicate things.  I agree.  These are rather easy examples where you can quickly get buy in.  However, I would argue every situation is like the above.  Failed a math test?  Great, now you know what you don't know.  If you can diagnose why (and there is always a reason), you can then know what you have to do to improve in the future.  Failure is great.  It's black and white.  It's the "red flag" that allows you to address the issue head on.  The real test for perseverance and determination is when you get the "C."

In an effort to almost cushion the blow of semi-failure to students, some schools have replaced grades outright with anecdotal.  I believe this is not always as productive as they intend.  Many schools are good meaning and believe that grades tend to fail to explain the why behind the letter and force students and parents to instead look at the result without the process.  I hear this, but I also think the letter holds merit.  The letter allows for clarity.  The letter allows a student to feel the blow of rejection, the blow of failure.  The blow of not living up to what was expected.  That is actually a priceless feeling.  It can be a motivating feeling if handed out with the expectation that it is a starting point.  It can be an eye opener and formative assessment if it comes with an action plan for future success. When it is handed out with the clear expression that it does not define the student or permanently label them, it can be the springboard for self reflection.  The letter or numeric grade is not the enemy.  Neither is the anecdotal. The real question is how is it delivered, what comes with it, and where do you (the parent, school, and student) go from there.

In a school that's singular focus is to prepare students to succeed at life, then its a small roadblock.  Then, it's an obstacle to be conquered.  In a school that defines it's students by their individual successes and failures it can be a permanent label on a child that can follow them throughout their academic and social career.  It has to be viewed with a growth mindset.  Parents have to see it as a flair being shot up to let them know they need to encourage their child to work harder or differently.  It has to be an opportunity for the teacher to be able to incorporate colleagues, parents, and the child to come up with a plan of action for that student.  It has to be leveraged as a motivator to the student to grow from and becoming better.  But, this involves school culture.

Too often, schools see failures or anything less than A's and B's as scary to report because it involves potentially annoying parents and hurting children's "self confidence."  I find the lack of this reporting to be the most damaging.  Imagine your child has gotten A's and B's all grade school and then takes a high stakes test for high school and fails miserably.  You as a parent, rightfully annoyed, your child beside herself, have no clue what to do.  Your child thinks, I must be stupid.  The parent thinks, the test must be the fault.  Or maybe, worse yet, the school.  The school then turns around and blames the test or the high school for utilize the test in the admissions process.

Yet the test is not the enemy here.  It is the lack of clear standards from one grade to next that are assessed and documented in each child from day one.  It is the lack of feedback, even not so easy feedback to the parent, to the teacher in the following grade year after year that has now added up.  This can be even more damaging if it is a high school student who gets A's almost all high school and then goes and takes the SAT's or even ACT's and totally bombs it numerous times.  Where should the buck stop then?  Some will say, my child is just not good at standardized testing.  This might be the case.  But it certainly doesn't help a high school senior to hear it.  It doesn't solve the problem.  It can't be, as one administrator in a "high risk" district told me that, "Everyone at the high school is bad at standardized testing."  It certainly doesn't help a child's self confidence when those test scores come back.

Grade inflation is certainly a reflection of school culture.  It is a profound problem in public and private schools across the country.  In fact, it is so apparent, that many colleges unweighted GPA's taking out additional points for honors courses, extra electives, etc.. in evaluating a student for university.  In addition, it remains the main reason colleges hold on to standardized testing to evaluate different candidates to begin with.  So, being "nice" to students actually is the very thing that is hurting them.

If we want kids to be able to objectively self reflect and confidently embrace their mistakes and weaknesses in an effort to tackle them head on, we need teachers and parents to be like this too.  We need everything in a student's life to reflect this culture.  How can we do this?  We can embrace mistakes.  We can share them openly.  We can do what Google does for their employees at work. While it might be impossible to get a job at google, it's equally hard to get fired there.  Why?  Because they require all employees to keep journals.  To document not just their successes, but their entire course of work, including failure.   They then have status meetings to strategically analyze the failures and how they occurred to learn from them.   They expect their employees to fail.  In fact, they cherish those failures as opportunities for growth.  Why can't we do the same for our students?  We know going in students will encounter obstacles on their path through their learning, why not create communities of growth for them?

As a parent, we have to be willing to embrace our child's failure whether behavioral or academic and tackle it head on.  We have to throw it back to the child and ask them how they can solve it, prevent it from occurring in the future, and grow as a person from it.  We have to start doing this at a young age.
Last year, my daughter told me she did something wrong in school.  I thanked her for telling me.  In this case, it wasn't that she didn't get something, it was that she said something she shouldn't have.  She was disrespectful.  I wasn't happy with her actions.  But I was thrilled she told me.  I made her call her teacher to apologize, but I also told her how proud I was that she told me about it.  I also went over with her why she thought it was bad, why it objectively was bad, and made her brainstorm with me about how she could avoid doing it in the future.  I also told her about the time I was mean to someone when I was little and what I did.  It made her put it in context.  She loved that she wasn't the only person who messed up, but she was still held accountable for her actions.  She has not done that since, but if she does.  I will respond the same way.

As a teacher, I often tell my AP students more important than anything in preparation for the AP you can learn, is that you have to have grit.  You have to be willing to study when you'd rather be watching TV, talking with a friend, or going out for dinner.  I have told them, more important that any one test taking tip, they have to focus on the task ahead.  They are always looking for shortcuts.  I told them there are none here.  The AP European is the perfect example of grit.  It doesn't matter if history comes easy to you.  It doesn't matter if you are quick reader or a slow one. It doesn't even matter whether you walked in knowing a lot beforehand, although that could help.  What matters more than anything is what you put into it above and beyond what we go over in the classroom.  What matters most is you.

I remember one year way back when, I asked an AP student, what she got out of the class. The student remarked, that she had to work hard, really hard to just be in the running.  I smiled and thought, as I still do, that that kid is already ahead of the game.

We all realize that in order for a child to learn how to ride a bike, they may occasionally get bruises and scrapes, even with the head gear and knee pads, but we accept it.  It's time we accept that this same bruising and scrapping happens when our children are learning how to be successful students, successful workers, and critical life-long learners.  We need to embrace those wounds like warriors badges and grow.