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Teaching Grit: To Succeed Sometimes You Need To Experience Failure, Educator Says

Thomas Hoerr.
Head of New City School Thomas Hoerr, PhD.

If school is a preparation for life, then school should prepare students to succeed in life, not just in school. And in life sometimes you have to overcome failure in order to succeed.

That’s the premise behind Thomas Hoerr’s philosophy of teaching grit. He is the Head of School at New City School in the Central West End, a private school that teaches preschool through sixth grade. He’s written a handbook on the topic called “Fostering Grit: How Do I Prepare My Students for the Real World?”

“Grit in some ways…runs so much against what we tend to think of in schools,” Hoerr said. “Teachers judge themselves on their kids’ success, on kids smiling. We all want kids to do well. And what I’m suggesting is hold on a second. That needs to happen, but we also need to teach children grit. We need to teach them how to respond to failure and frustration and that doesn’t happen if they can’t experience frustration and failure.”

According to Hoerr, teaching grit requires everyone from teachers to parents to students to get out of their comfort zone. It also requires a lot of dialogue. Parents need to understand why their children are being challenged and students need to be prepared to be challenged.

“You say to kids, okay next Tuesday is going to be a hard day. We’re going to be doing things differently. I’m going to make it hard for you. …You’re going to be frustrated.  You’re not going to like what we’re doing. You’re going to be mad at me. But we’re going to get through it,” Hoerr said. “It’s not something you do all the time but it’s part of kids learning…so that they feel confident that they can encounter situations with which they are not familiar and they can succeed.”

There are two groups of students in school: the “high flyers” who mostly experience success and those who experience too much failure, said Hoerr. And both need to be taught grit. That’s why his school emphasizes multiple intelligences – by identifying different areas of strengths and weaknesses, students with different capabilities can experience both success and failure.  

For example, the arts teacher at New City School taught students plate spinning. (With plastic plates, not ceramic or glass!) Some kids tried for 30 seconds and quit. Others kept at it. By encouraging them to keep trying even though it was new and difficult, and then discussing the experience, the teacher was able to help the students experience frustration in a safe environment, said Hoerr.

Also important is setting an environment and expectations that focus on effort. The key, said Hoerr, is praising the verb rather than the noun.

“Congratulate them on their effort, their tenacity, their hanging in, rather than the product,” Hoerr said.

How much grit do you have? Take Angela Duckworth’s 12 question quiz to find out. Thomas Hoerr credits her research as a foundation for his book, and referenced the survey on air during the show.

St. Louis on the Air provides discussion about issues and concerns facing the St. Louis area. The show is produced by Mary Edwards and Alex Heuer and hosted by veteran journalist Don Marsh.

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