Teach Houston

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Jan 25 2014

How does grit predict teacher retention?

A few days ago, I had the privilege of hearing Angela Duckworth give an hourlong lecture as part of her visit to Houston. A full auditorium’s worth of people braved Snowpocalypse 2014  (yes, Northerners, feel free to judge away) to hear Duckworth’s presentation on the psychology of grit and self-control.

Numerous school districts, newspapers, blogs, etc. have already picked up on her work; in addition to being a MacArthur Fellow, she’s incredibly down-to-earth and just a damn interesting speaker.

Her lecture touched on a wide scope of topics: grit, self-control, optimism, fulfillment through engagement vs. meaning vs. pleasure, soldiers at West Point, low-income students, and – my favorite – teachers.

Duckworth has studied first-year teachers in an effort to predict teacher retention. Her findings resonated deeply with me; I see them played out in my life “real-time” as I head into the February of Year One.


Essentially, Duckworth examined the many factors that lead to teachers deciding to quit in their first year. Some are what we’d expect. Issues with administrators. Issues with parents. Burnout. Some are a little less obvious. Pessimism. Heavily-external locus of control (as in, being hyperaware of things one cannot control). She found that optimistic teachers tend to focus more on what they can control. They report higher levels of workplace satisfaction/engagement, their students perform better, and are more likely to stay beyond their first year.

Even more fascinating was her study of West Point cadets. She asked dozens of them, “Think of what you’d be doing right now if you weren’t at the Academy.” Cadets who reported they couldn’t think of anything else they’d rather be doing – despite hard days – were most likely to report high levels of engagement and have the grit to get through a pretty horrific first year. Cadets who could think of things they’d be doing, but were less excited about those things than they were about their West Point lives were also likely to stick it out. Cadets who thought of numerous things they would rather be doing – and were more excited about doing – were the most likely to quit.

Some of this seems obvious, I suppose, but its implications are far-reaching. I received a rough email that passive-aggressively questioned my effectiveness as a teacher/judge of student character the other day and even then – even when my stomach dropped and I teared up and wondered if this person who called me out actually was telling the truth – even then, I knew deep down there was nothing I’d rather have been doing. I think of all the possibilities for me after college. Med school – which I actually got into, and walked away from. Consulting – I withdrew from the final interview process. PhD programs – which I was sure I was going to pursue, then went to a pre-PhD “boot camp” in summer 2012 and quickly reconsidered, or at least reconsidered for this point in my life. Of all the things I could be doing after college this is by far the best and most meaningful. Even on my hardest days I deeply believe that. And that’s why I’m in this for a while.

The optimism part, too, is interesting. I will be the first to say that my teaching situation is 4950824543 x easier than some of the other corps members’ I’m friends with, so my optimism is a bit easier to come by at a school where discipline is almost completely taken care of for me, at least on a systemic level. But I think I intentionally try to be optimistic. I try to be patient with myself and recognize little victories for what they are. I try to have a growth mindset. and above all, I try to be humble, to do God’s work patiently and compassionately and with gratitude.

Life is good these days. My gentle prodding towards high-level discussion has been going well. My kids have risen to the occasion extraordinarily. We talked about gender roles – what does it mean when Aunt Alexandra tells Scout to act more like a girl? – and family vs. community – is Atticus correct in defending Tom Robinson, even if it puts his own children in harm’s way? My favorite quote came from one of my most struggling kiddos who really pushed himself to participate. “I think the mockingbird represents someone innocent who dies. And that’s sad. I mean, I don’t know what death feels like. But I wouldn’t want to die.”


Students are writing persuasive letters to the Tom Robinson lynch mob on Monday. Several other teachers have adopted my anti-guided-notes stance and report increased engagement & achievement in their classrooms. I got to have dinner with college friends last night. WE HAD A SNOW DAY ON FRIDAY. Life is good.

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