“So what are you going to do about this situation? Your decision can’t be only about how you feel,” my mother asked me on a sunny morning. I believe she had asked me this question many times because my initial reaction was to roll my eyes even though we were talking on the phone and she couldn’t actually see my response. Despite the bright sunshine outside, my professional world was falling apart. The K-12 school where I taught Language Arts had just received its third F in a row. Even though it was only my second year at the school and my third year teaching, I knew what this meant. It meant tomorrow would be a devastating day for my school community. It meant the state would be sending people in to coach us and meet with us regularly, and explain to us why our students kept failing. It meant a change in administration. I understood this in a vague way but heard enough from my colleagues to know that life would be different as a result.
My mother’s question was in response to all of my excuses why it wasn’t fair that a single test score could impact so many so negatively. It wasn’t fair to me that the context of the community that supported the school wasn’t considered. It wasn’t fair that teachers who not only lived in the community but attended school there themselves and taught their own children there were turned away, and told they weren’t good enough to be teachers there any more. I couldn’t understand why our county office was no longer supportive but were now placing blame on our shoulders. It’s not as if we were quiet about our challenges. It’s not like we didn’t ask for support and seek ways to meet the needs of our unique community. However, the nagging question in the back of my head, that I only dared to ask my mother, was what was my part in my students’ failing? What could I have done differently? After all, I was the only middle school Language Arts teacher. With a total of 44 middle and high school students, I taught four different levels of Language Arts each class period. I knew this before accepting the position. What I didn’t realize before accepting the position was the fact that my students needed to learn how to be kind to one another, how to learn the basics and how to read, when most of their parents were in jail or simply unavailable. What was I going to do? What could I do? I remember feeling hopeless and desperate.
Fast forward a week from that conversation with my mother. My principal was gone. The assistant principal was gone. Half the teachers were sent to teach at other schools in the district. Each week, we met with state instructional coaches for each content area. We had parents storming the school on a regular basis demanding this and that. We had armed police officers positioned outside the building. And we had mosquitoes. Lots and lots of mosquitoes. Those of us that remained understood that grace would allow us to still connect with our students and grit would be required for us to rebound. The answer to my question was to keep showing up and keep teaching. What could I do? I could extend grace and face our reality with grit and gratitude.
Grace as a noun means to live with kindness, to portray calmness and elegance or to be courteousness. Grace conveys peace and joy. It holds a feminine element that at one time meant fragile. I find grace today means more strength than frailty. To live with grace and to embody grace is more than being kind or being quiet. It means extending forgiveness even when it isn’t asked for; it means being patient when irritated; it means relying on faith for confidence. When I think of grace in education, I am reminded that my calling to education grew out of a desire to help children learn how to live. It was not a passion for content; it was a desire to mold and guide students to face challenges, be kind even when scared, and to make decisions that will ultimately create a better world.
Grace itself embodies fear. It is recognizing the fear in our lives and seeking truth anyway. It is knowing that in the quest for truth, we will fail. We will face frustration and doubt. At times we will sacrifice our happiness in order to pursue the right path. Grace cannot be recognized without grit; and grit cannot be appreciated without gratitude. These three qualities, grace, grit and gratitude, when woven together help support a strong leader.
Thanks to Angela Duckworth and her research and book, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, educators have paid more attention to what it means to have grit when students face challenges. Grit defined by Duckworth is “passion and sustained persistence applied toward long-term achievement, with no particular concern for rewards or recognition along the way. It combines resilience, ambition, and self-control in the pursuit of goals that take months, years, or even decades.” Duckworth discusses grit primarily in the context of students.
What is grit in the context of leadership? It is more than perseverance. It is more than grace. I believe it is a mix of both plus gratitude. “Grit is not just a simple elbow-grease term for rugged persistence. It is an often invisible display of endurance that lets you stay in an uncomfortable place, work hard to improve upon a given interest and do it again and again,” said Sarah Lewis, author, and Assistant Professor at Harvard University, and TED speaker. Grit implies stamina of will despite being uncomfortable. It is a willingness to look at all aspects of life, whether professional or personal, which are murky and lack clarity. It is often doing what we don’t want to do. Facing difficult conversations, confrontations, hurt feelings, failures, falling and rising again and again – all are gritty. All provide ways for us to grow in our grace; yet, many times we would simply rather not. Our anticipated fear of these moments allows us to avoid them. Grit is that quality within us which empowers us to embrace these challenges instead of avoiding them.
Grit is a decision we make every day in moments we choose to stay engaged, despite the discomfort. Upon reflection, my experience during my third year of teaching provides many examples of grit, grace, and gratitude. I saw grace and gratitude when the teachers transferred to other schools still lived in the community and participated in a positive way. I saw grit when students eagerly attended school even when the state deemed the school unfit. I saw grit when parents still volunteered their time when support staff went on strike. Students were still able to learn important life skills even when they failed an assignment. In our most defining moments, grace, grit, and gratitude can lead us to become our best selves because they create together a leadership mindset.