True Grit

If you’ve worked in education for any period of time, you’ve learned the importance of the pretty bow. Any valuable educational ideal soon finds itself wrapped with labels decided upon by some bureaucratic entity in a land far, far away from the classroom. As a result, we educators must reach said standards, and not for what they truly represent, but because of the perceptions placed upon them by some mindless suit. So when time comes for the Quality Review, schools spit shine the inside of the toilet tank and administrators point to themselves in reverent praise. Unfortunately, this process generates money for our schools. A good reputation assists our students in college entrance. And, lets be honest, keeping our schools open probably is good for our children. There we see the value of the pretty bow. The polished resume, clean classroom, and buttoned down shirt. Teach for America crams this image down our throats until we vomit pretty pink bows. Something else exists, and in that I find my niche and create a successful classroom story. That something else is the value of grit.

A little background on myself for those who don’t know me: I’m a country boy educated in the suburbs with street smarts. I, like many of you reading, received the blessing of a great education from a middle class family and great schools across the board. However, I spent my summers with my dad designing and building irrigation systems, bucking hay, and doing other various farm tasks. When I went to college, I spent my free time working with the poorest of the poor in Spokane, Washington as a legal advocate. In the final two aspects of my life, I learned the importance of grit. When I talk about grit, I mean the toughness and determination that I bring to any job. The competitive fire that burns inside me refuses to admit defeat, and that allows me to cast aside the pretty bow bullshit and do what needs to be done.

When you work on a farm, either you get the hay in the barn before it rains or you don’t and you lose part of your hay crop. Either you bury the dead sheep or you don’t and you attract coyotes towards your other livestock. Working in legal advocacy, I found that either I prevented an eviction or my clients would end up homeless. These types of situations taught me the meaning of grit. To have true grit, you cast aside any obstacle that prevents you from achieving your goal, and take and action within reason to ensure success. The nature grit demands these principles.

In sports, grit makes or breaks a team. Recently, ex-NFL coach Mike Dikta said, “The most important thing for a football team is toughness.” You can have more pretty bow Mickey Mouse talents than anyone, but without toughness you will never become a champion. The great players always play hurt. Kobe Bryant in the Olympics still had an injured finger that required surgery (sure it was his pinky, but that’s beside the point). He did what he needed to do in order to ensure a U.S.A. gold medal. Michael Phelps won a race by the slimmest of margins. At the professional level, everyone trains at peak levels and has elite talent. What Michael Phelps did in that race didn’t rely on his training or talent—it was a simple refusal to lose.

Ask any second year, third year, or more veteran teacher and they’ll explain the value of grit in the classroom to you. Teach for America loves to emphasize data, long term plans, backwards design, unit plans, and five step lesson plans that make the educational policy maker’s panties drop. If called upon, can I rip out those items? Of course, and at times I see the necessity of having those skills. However, everyday I see how toughness impacts my students learning.

Grit allows us to reach our students in a way that they haven’t often seen in their lives. At the beginning of last year, my students thought that I’d quit before the end of the first semester. Because of that perception they did everything in their power to try and make me leave teaching. Being a first year teacher, I struggled mightily, and my classroom didn’t look like a class that would close the achievement gap. Despite that reality I refused to admit defeat and kept trying. I used the training I received, but added pieces of who I am. I stopped paying attention to the requirements of the shiny bow, and started thinking about what I needed to do in order to succeed in getting my students to pass the regents. Students began to notice. They saw that despite their efforts to sabotage my lessons, I’d keep on pushing forward, and the saboteurs would find themselves behind those who wanted to learn and failing. Eventually, the students started following my lead and in the end we all moved forward and the students exceeded my shiny bow big goal for the class results on the regents.

The shiny bow certainly merits consideration in our teaching careers. Without the shiny bow, Teach for America would not experience unprecedented levels of growth and funding. Remember, people with money always love a shiny bow. (Just look at the Yankees organization). At the end of the day, you can keep your shiny bow. I’ll never get down on two knees and polish my resume for the sake of making things look better. I’ll stand on my own two feet and let my life speak for itself. As a result of this, I may not achieve certain things or earn certain degrees of recognition. But as a result of my grit, you get to keep putting your shiny bow on projects to earn the accolades.

–John Harlow



Filed under John Harlow

5 responses to “True Grit

  1. mastap

    Good stuff! I agree

  2. Pingback: True Grit « Teach For America-Debunking the propaganda

  3. Kelli


    I appreciate your honesty. I am thinking about TFA and value your article.


  4. Ben


    I agree that grit is a vital characteristic for any teacher, particularly one working in a blighted neighborhood.

    But you make it sound like TFA doesn’t endorse or want grit in its teachers, especially when you write:

    “Teach for America loves to emphasize data, long term plans, backwards design, unit plans, and five step lesson plan that make the educational policy maker’s panties drop.”

    True, but you’re leaving out that TFA is all about determination and resiliency! One of its core principles is “relentless pursuit of results,” exactly what demonstrated when you “started thinking about what I needed to do in order to succeed in getting my students to pass.”

    Honestly, anyone who made it through TFA’s institute has grit, which is exactly what the organization is going for. It’s why it rejects geniuses from Yale and asks a million questions in interviews about overcoming adversity and challenges.

  5. A. Hostetter


    As a current TFA member in Las Vegas, I appreciate your words. After talking to my fellow corps members and meeting more experienced teachers, I have run the gamut with my opinions on TFA as a whole. I have also, of course, been through the toughest semester of my life, felt completely inadequate, and wondered what the hell happened to all my big ideas from that filmy time at summer called “Institute.”

    Then, despite the tears and disillusionment and fear (“What if I really can’t do this?”), this great realization dawned: I’m not going anywhere. I am going to be here for at least three years (the county is paying for my graduate degree on top of the Americorps award), and I am never absent, and for my students, that fact alone is huge and meaningful.

    I have never felt so comforted just by showing up with anything in life, but we all have those horrible days where we feel like failures–TFA teacher or not–and to realize that sheer willpower plays such a role–that here, it is valuable just to keep persevering–is a powerful encouragement on tougher days.

    Finally, despite the shiny bow, I feel like I’m a testament to Ben’s last statement. I had a somewhat privileged upbringing but went through a normal state school and took a rather unconventional path, which made me very surprised when TFA chose me last year. I think a key part of the interview came when they asked, “What factors would make you quit before your two years were up?” and I just looked at the interviewer, truly dumbfounded.

    “Why would you quit?”

    Even now, tough as it is, I know I couldn’t (though my situation is a walk in the park next to some “TFA schools”).

    A.J. Hostetter
    Las Vegas, NV

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