Secondary school leaders and their classroom teaching staffs do not need to be Chicagoans to learn a few lessons from the world champion Cubs. The real lesson for school leadership is not in the novelty of the Cubs finally winning a World Series, but in how the team actually achieved that goal.

The Cubs were on the brink of losing the series, trailing the Cleveland Indians three games to one, but then managed to overcome heavy odds by winning the final three games. What caused this sudden reversal? The Cubs simply went back to relying on a characteristic that had been developed and instilled in them by manager Joe Maddon—grit. 

As a former high school baseball coach and, most importantly, as an AP teacher, I was inspired watching Cub players confront each turn “at bat” as an opportunity to wear down and eventually defeat their opponent. I have found that my students—much like Maddon’s players—benefit greatly from the fostering and encouragement of “grittiness” in the classroom. Certainly, to be successful, Maddon’s players must develop the physical skills needed to play professional baseball, much as my students must develop sound critical thinking and essay-writing skills. However, it is the development of grit that University of Pennsylvania professor, researcher, and author Angela Duckworth says is an essential element to student growth.

High Expectations

The first key thing teachers must do to develop a classroom culture of grittiness is to establish high expectations. When Maddon was introduced as the new Cubs manager before the 2015 season, he said, “We’re going to set our marks high. So … I’m going to talk World Series.” 

Why should classroom teachers aim for anything less? When my school, Glenbard West High School in suburban Chicago, launched our AP European History program in 2007, I wanted all involved to understand my expectations as the instructor were high. As I planned to launch this new course, I reflected upon a lesson learned years before as a coach: The more time and effort a team put forth, the more difficult it was for athletes to give up. This same pattern holds true in the classroom. 

Early in the school year, many of the very bright students I teach are surprised to learn that talent alone is not the only attribute needed for success. By demanding a high level of work, I have developed a group of students who don’t easily give in when they encounter the inevitable frustrations and roadblocks. 

Growth Mindset

Another key characteristic of classrooms that foster the development of grit in students is found with teachers who advocate for a “growth mindset.” Stanford University professor and researcher Carol Dweck pioneered this concept. Her research encourages teachers to not accept the age-old notion that a student’s ability to grow mentally is static or fixed. Dweck argues that students who put in the effort can learn more and grow over time. In order to have students adopt a “growth mindset,” teachers must be careful to establish a new tone in conversations with teens in which students are recognized for effort rather than for intelligence. Dweck’s research suggests that students will continue to stretch for teachers who provide feedback that focuses on their effort rather than on their talent. Understanding the importance of this kind of recognition and feedback, I recognize several students with each unit of study as “Students of the Unit.” The award is not given to the student with the highest test score, but instead is given to the student who displays great perseverance. Although this type of recognition has often been categorized as “elementary,” I have found it pays tremendous dividends in pushing my students toward grittiness.

Developing Passion

The third key thing that teachers need to do in order to develop grittiness in their classrooms is to bring a passion for their subject matter. While speaking at the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching recently, Duckworth said, “Grit is not just about perseverance over time, but also passion over time.” I have found that this element comes first and foremost from the teacher. It should be a given that all secondary teachers want to teach teens, but that interest often comes long after the passion and love for their subject material has been cultivated. Once teachers begin to model passion for their subject, it’s far easier to elicit that same passion in students. Impassioned students find it difficult to walk away from roadblocks or challenges. 

Of course, principals need to recruit and hire teachers interested in developing strong relationships with their students. However, I encourage school administrators to also hold in high regard a teacher’s passion for his or her chosen field. Without this clearly on display in the classroom, how can we expect our students to develop their own passion for learning?  

Class Mission 

Another tool teachers can use to promote grittiness in their classrooms is to create some type of class mission. While teachers cannot simulate anything on the scale of the World Series, with a little creativity, the possibilities are endless. As an AP teacher, the mission I want my kids to aim for has been clearly established: I want the group to push toward doing their best on the AP exam in May. I have found that developing this course mission early in the school year helps students understand that working through hardships and frustration will be worth the effort. Teachers can actually enlist student ownership in the creation of the course mission, which will encourage even greater investment from students.

As a history teacher, I am fortunate enough to share some very inspirational stories with my students. These stories help to model the grittiness I am encouraging them to develop. Who could not be moved by the stories of the citizens of London surviving the German Blitz in the early stages of World War II? Students are often just as interested in the stories I share frequently about alumni—the success stories of my former students highlight the accomplishments they can achieve in college or in the working world. These stories are normally shared through a quarterly course newsletter that most often includes several alumni interviews. Although my students may have never met the medical school students answering questions about their busy lives, these stories of determination often provide great energy and enthusiasm for my current students attempting to climb that same mountain. 

Finally, administrators need to understand that the teachers willing to push students to develop grit will at times encounter some initial resistance. That resistance can come from both students and parents alike who can be surprised the first time obstacles are encountered. It is important for administrators to demonstrate support for teachers willing to push kids toward this valuable lifelong attribute. If we are going to ask our students to develop grit by working through roadblocks and obstacles for their betterment, our staff must be willing to do the same. 

Jim Fornaciari teaches AP history at Glenbard West High School in Glen Ellyn, IL. He was named AP Midwestern Teacher of the Year by the College Board in 2015.

Making It Work

To establish “grittiness” at your school:

  • Encourage teachers to develop a course mission. Giving the students a large class goal to strive toward throughout the year will help encourage more student investment. Teachers may even allow the students to be involved in selecting the goal.
  • Encourage and develop a school and course alumni network. By developing an alumni network, you are putting your students in touch with inspirational people they can relate to and connect with. The stories shared and messages given by alumni can inspire even more grit for your students. Consider creating an alumni speakers’ network, which can be used for small groups or entire school sessions. 
  • Encourage your teachers to engage their passion for their chosen fields. By re-energizing teachers with professional growth in their subject areas, your students come out the real winners.