Grit, Chutzpah, Sisu and other Things my Nana Knew About








There is a cluster of books, all soundly based on scientific research that seems to support those pearls of wisdom our grandparents knew long before social science research had been invented.  “You can’t beat someone who never gives up.”

Grit, by Angela Duckworth, Mindset, by Carol Dweck, and How Children Succeed, by Paul Tough all feel, at least in part, directly targeted at those of us in education, and speak specifically to the development of tenacity.

As a teacher, it seems impossible to read very far into these texts without offering up a silent “well, duh…”. Or “I’ve been saying that for years, the harder you work the luckier you get.” But stopping at that point is not only presumptuous it is also, well, less than gritty. These titles all have something to offer teachers.

The latest thinking shared by those that study these ambiguous traits is that while natural talent and great teaching are common characteristics of “the best of the best” in any given field, the most prominent trait, and therefore the strongest indicator of success is what the Finnish people call sisu, what my latin colleague calls chispa or what John Wayne called Grit. It is a learned skill or at least a trait that can be fostered.

All of this tenacious research builds on those ancient bits of grandparently wisdom and explains them; why developing grit is important, what can happen to those that fail to acquire a stubborn streak, and perhaps most importantly how can this powerful life skill be developed.  This is handy knowledge for those of us that needed a bit more from Grandma than: “Success is just getting up more often than you fall down.” I can only imagine the impact it would have had on me if my Nana and said “People who view failure as temporary, rather than a value judgment are more likely score well on a grit scale, which is an indicator of both professional achievement and personal happiness, so stop pouting and try again.”

Students that participate in extracurricular activities develop a more dogged mindset and are 3 times more likely to go to and succeed in college.

In the elementary school extra-curricular, has a different look than it does for our secondary peers.  They are, however, no less important.  Along with nurturing that chutzpah in our young charges, extra-curricular activities of every kind also increase a sense of belonging, connection between student and school, which is also a contributor to student success.

As a byproduct of our own success, it is now quite possible to skate through life with little or no failure. Decent grades and a willingness to take on debt, will get you into college and set you on the path to a middle America only slightly less impressive, but every bit as comfortable, as what our parents found. It turns out that this is a less than ideal plan for personal growth and meaningful learning. My literacy teachers’ are right a story without a problem is not a story at all.


There is also a very clear link between passion and learned persistence.

My grandmother didn’t get the memo on this one. Grit is not blind obsessive determination. It is rather the relentless and thoughtful pursuit of a personal goal.  If what I am teaching is not important to my learners than it’s not a pathway to grit. (sorry Nana.)

As an educator, these studies and the statistics they generate serve to both justify and propel action in my lessons. I want my students to be as gritty and resilient as a Rocky Balboa- Indiana Jones love child because, in ways that are both selfish and noble, their success is a measure of mine.

I am reluctant to add another item to the litany of things a teacher is responsible for developing in our youth. As a result, my work with classroom teachers will explore ways to; seed our lessons with moxie and temerity, help our students explore and find their passions, and encourage them to try so hard that they stumble.


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