Am I Brave Enough to Model Grit?

Growth Mindset. Drive. And of course, grit. These terms and the concepts behind them have become all the rage in education. If our students just have determination, grit, drive, know they can learn, then they can move mountains. It feels uplifting to read those books, hopeful. We have a prescription, so to speak, of what needs to be done for our students to succeed. But it also calls for some serious self-reflection. If I expect my students to demonstrate grit in their learning, what about myself?

I would hazard to guess that most of the people I have come into contact with at my school, if asked, would say I most definitely display grit. I am advancing through the program at a decent rate, I have developed as a researcher and writer, received 2nd place for the Outstanding Graduate Student Teacher award, have presented as a first author at several national conferences, and am a member of committees created to advance the education field. But this semester is calling my ‘grit level’ into serious question.

As part of my science education emphasis, I must take two graduate level science courses. I chose Quantum Mechanics as one of those courses in order to experience what it is like to learn a difficult science subject. It has been about 20 years since I last used Calculus on a daily basis and I have a civil engineer’s understanding of physics, which means not a lot in the way of modern or quantum physics. Part of the plan was to really reflect on what it took to succeed as a science learner, thereby informing my own later research. But what I am learning instead is that grit takes a lot of courage.

Yes, I do recall this is discussed in both books. That fear of failure is something that holds some back from developing a growth mindset or to continue on with a difficult subject. But I did not realize the stress level that could be reached! This blog post follows the day after my first exam in the course – one which I woefully bombed because I misinterpreted the second of two exam questions. And there is this feeling now of insufficiency, of doubt, of – well – being a poser. After all, when we wait as a class outside the door for the professor to grant us access to the classroom, I can hear the Sesame Street song “One of These Things is not Like the Others”. I’m an “ah hem” older woman enrolled in the Education College. With the exception of one younger woman, my peers are 20 – 30 year old males who are majoring in physics. The word ‘poser’ crosses my mind often. Fortunately I am not in this alone. My husband took this course a couple of years ago from the same professor when he was enrolled in the Master’s program in Physics. He now serves as my personal tutor and is doing a very good job given the material he has to work with. We struggled together early in the semester but I have gained some basic knowledge and was beginning to feel confident in my understanding of the content.

Until yesterday. I felt like a complete and utter failure when it was time to demonstrate my understanding. And now fear has set in along with the feeling that “I just can’t do this”. The desire to drop the course and fulfill the requirement with much easier subject matter is overwhelming. “I have a dissertation proposal to work on”, “I have other classes to consider”, “I have a class to teach” all crowd my mind. But what does it say if I give up on myself because something is difficult? What can I say to future students when they hit the wall with that ‘one class’ that could help them grow as a student? Would that not make me a poser as a teacher if I cannot live what I try to instill in my students? So now I must ask myself, am I brave enough to model grit? Can I put aside the feeling of inadequacy and replace it with pride of accomplishment? Can I be the student that I want my students to be?

About Cynthia Clark

I hold a doctorate in curriculum & instruction, with an emphasis in educational technology and science education. I work for the University of Nevada, Las Vegas as the Evaluation and Assessment Specialist for the Center for Research, Evaluation, and Assessment. My current research interests include qualitative responses to course evaluations, both the development of open-ended items and their subsequent analysis.
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