What’s a Teacher to Do? Paul Tough’s How Children Succeed

When Paul Tough’s new book, How Children Succeed, arrived in my mailbox, I opened it with great anticipation.  I love Tough’s writing; his pieces on This American Life and in The New York Times have always impressed me with their warm, clear prose.  What’s more, last year, an excerpt from this book, published in the New York Times Magazine, inspired me to turn around my approach to some serious classroom problems.

In that excerpt (taken from Chapter 2), Tough describes children from difficult backgrounds who nevertheless succeed in school and other endeavours because, he posits, they have developed certain character traits.  I chronicled my thoughts on that piece in a post called “Fail Better,” and I then took his ideas to my students, some of whom were having a lot of difficulty.  I asked them to analyze some of the fictional characters we were reading about in terms of the important qualities Tough describes.  I then asked them to think about which of these qualities they possess themselves.  And I asked them to discuss his main assertion: that character, notably the trait he calls “grit,” is more important than intelligence when it comes to children’s success.

My students seemed convinced by this assertion.  So am I.  It forms the foundation of this book, in which Tough examines current research, as well as a few inspiring case studies, in order to support it.  He supports it very well, and puts together a powerful argument.  The upshot: character is more or less destiny, but character can be taught, or at least influenced.

Tough tells stories of students who have met with terrible adversity but have still managed to achieve impressive things: chess titles, admissions to competitive universities, or just a good GPA and graduation from high school.  He also speaks to people, particularly educators, who have made a difference along the way: curriculum designers, coaches, principals, teachers.  He outlines the qualities that researchers suggest divide children who succeed from children who don’t: curiosity, zest, optimism, gratitude, social intelligence, self-control, and grit, or a passionate desire to stick with a task until it is accomplished.

These characteristics are rooted in brain chemistry, Tough discovers, but they are not entirely innate – they are directly affected by a child’s environment, particularly a child’s exposure to stress and, on the other side, nurturance and support.  A child who lives in a stressful environment may have difficulty developing these qualities.  However, such a child, from such an environment, who is given the tools and confidence to face challenges may develop a stronger character than a child who faces little adversity.   A child who grows up in poverty but has a nurturing, supportive parent – one who encourages the child to tackle difficulties, praises success, and promotes the learning potential inherent in failure – may have more character tools than a middle-class or wealthy child whose parents protect him or her from every bump in the road.

I loved this book, and the stories it told about children who succeed against big odds and the people who help them.  The greatest satisfaction it offers is the knowledge that such children CAN be helped.  In the end, though, it left me feeling a bit sad.

Character can be nurtured.  Children are not doomed by their social circumstances or their genes.  Nevertheless, I’m not sure what my role is.  How much can teachers help, especially teachers who don’t meet children until they are no longer children at all?  The book left me with one lingering, powerful desire: to do some research of my own.

This research would involve examining sixteen-to-twenty-year-olds who have made it through high school, who have been admitted to CEGEP – granted, a CEGEP with famously forgiving standards – but who are still floundering.  That is to say, my students.  Is it too late?  Have their characters been formed?  Is it possible for them to now learn grit, curiosity, self-control etc.?  If so, am I in any position to inspire it in them?  According to some of the authorities Tough cites, “variations in teacher quality probably [account] for less than 10 percent of the gap between high- and low-performing students.” (191)  However, he also tells us that “transformative help” (196) can come from myriad sources – not just parents, but anyone with whom the child comes in contact.  His book gives us stories about people, mostly teachers, who have offered that kind of transformative help.  These stories are moving, but they also highlight the intensive energy and the depth of inner and outer resources teachers need in order to help these kids, preferably at early stages in the kids’ education.

I would encourage any educator, community worker, parent, or person who cares about children and/or the state of our social world as a whole to read this book.  It is well-researched, wonderfully written and thought-provoking.  It also raises a powerful question that it does not answer.  It tells us that children, no matter what their background and innate capabilities, can succeed in school and the professional world.  It tells us that they cannot do it alone, but that we – the people who surround them – can help them.  It doesn’t give us, as individual teachers, a blueprint for how to do that, especially when we come along later in the game.  But it gives us some examples.  With a little grit and curiosity of our own, maybe we’ll be able to figure it out.

67 responses

  1. hi! I will be a teacher a year from now, i like your blog and i hope, I can get some ideas wherein i can improve my skills and talents as a teacher. looking forward to read your other entries. keep it up!

  2. Agreed! Thanks for sharing this book and fostering the curiosity of teachers wanting to improve. Yes, we can help, yes, they can be successful and YES, we all play a part. Congrats on FP and good luck in your teaching! We need more like you! 🙂

  3. There are dozens of factors that affect resilience, ranging from having a pet to having at least one trusted adult in the child’s life. One important factor that affects a certain type of success is attribution–whether a person believes success is the result of innate ability (which is static) or of effort (which can be changed). People who attribute success to effort are naturally more likely to try and to persist in difficult tasks.

    Let us know how your research goes!

  4. I agree with much of what you say, as a student from a mixed background currently attending a good university the influence of those around me and my varying experiences in education certainly helped determine where I am today. Though my experiences were unfortunately varied, with some of my teachers even chastising me for trying to achieve better, several really did push me to try harder and led me to having the ‘grit’ and determination I have today to do as well as I can.
    Thank you for this article and for bringing Tough’s book to my attention, I may check it out if I get the chance.

    • Scolasticus: your comment that some of your teachers “pushed you to try harder” resonates w/ me. It sometimes seems that “caring” is seen to equal “praising and bolstering.” As Tough points out, some of the most effective teachers are the ones who may seem like bullies on the surface, because they refuse to accept laziness and carelessness and push students in ways that might look harsh.

    • Indeed, the two memories that have always stayed with me are how one teacher told me off in front of an entire class because I asked for help to get the few more marks I needed for an A*, and a second where another teacher handed me an essay in which I got something like 92%. Though I was satisfied with the mark beneath it were the words “Not bad, could have done better”. The first occasion occurred in a standard state comprehensive, the second in one of the top grammar schools in the country, and I think it highlights what I is a serious issue in much of education, especially in the UK where some teachers seem more interested with the target requirements of ensuring their students achieve a pass (C or above), whereas others seem to actually want their students to realise their full potential.

      • In defence of those UK teachers–being one myself–students are completely sheltered from the pressure placed on teacher to ensure their students achieve that magical A to C range. We work in bondage to often farcical stats (predicted grades based on KS2/KS3/KS4 results, ALIS, etc) and ever-changing initiatives and government policy. It’s highly unfair to suggest your first teacher, however, shouted at you because he or she worked in a state school; that teacher simply wasn’t very good, or was having a bad day, or was trying to help other, weaker pupils achieve their potential when you asked. The majority of teachers I work with want all their pupils to realize their full potential, and we’re all sweating away at a comp.

        • My apologies about that perceived suggestion. It wasn’t my intention to belittle or insult comprehensive teachers as a whole, especially as many of them helped or inspired me during my time at school. Looking back I can see I should have been far more careful with my use of language. I only wished to convey the disparity I experienced in the treatment of more academic pupils both within certain schools and between them, as opposed to making a universal condemnation of certain teachers.
          As a matter of interest (if you don’t mind) what would you do as an insider within such a system to help counter some of the issues you’re facing?

          • I was being overly sensitive; I apologize. The truth is, public school can offer a level of service state school rarely can. I’ve worked in both: in a non-selective, fee-charging school, my class size ranged from 7(!) to 14; in my current state school this year, it’s 18 (middle set) to 30 (top). Numbers alone make such a difference. As for what I do–increasingly, it feels as though “not much”. What’s the point? Morale’s pretty low right now following the examination board/government fiasco. There’s a lot of anger as well.

        • Weloi Avala,

          Well said and what you say about the UK could pretty much be said about the US too. Changing initiatives (often driven by political correct educational fads) and government policy dictate the subjects teachers teach and sometimes many of the methods teachers use. It starts at the top and falls down on the heads of teachers that have very little say in how the system has been engineered.

          However, I’ve read that in Finland, the teachers have an important role in how the educational system there is organized and run. The result: Finland’s educational system is considered the best in Europe and one of the top three in the world. In addition, parents in Finland are very much involved in the child’s education and Finland has the highest or one of the highest literate rates in the world (I mean very few functionally illiterate people live in Finland) while about 20% of the populations of the UK and the US are functionally illiterate and Canada is more than 40% functionally illiterate. Teachers are respected and given more responsibility than most teachers in the US or UK probably receive. Instead, it was my experience that policy in the US often turned a deaf ear to teachers who are told what they have to teach and focus on.

  5. Very great points. I specifically liked “Character can be nurtured. Children are not doomed by their social circumstances or their genes.” I saw first hand at my high school and college, all sorts of people from different circumstances. Some people ignored their past and thrived regardless, while others said (paraphrased) “I come from nothing, I’ll always be nothing”. It is all about how we take what we get, and twist it in our favor.

    A good quote I like (so much I have tattoo’d on my back) comes from the underground cult movie, REPO: The Genetic Opera. Alexa Vega’s character, Shilo, sings, “How much of it’s genetics? How much of it is fate? How much of it depends on the choices that we make?” And I have taken that to heart.

    I never had a teacher or mentor in school who looked out for me and made sure I succeed and reached my goals, or filled my potential. I wish I had, so I commend your efforts to make a positive impact in the lives of students!

    • Katherine: good quote! I agree that it’s about what we do with what we have; on the other hand, our ability to do something may be influenced by our experiences. It seems to be complicated and sometimes circular.

  6. In my experience, those late in the game respond just as favorably as the example of a younger child given tools, encouragement and confidence but there is one additional factor that must be present. The student has to want the help.

    I have seen many cases in which the support team was there with their sleeves rolled up trying to help someone unwilling to be helped. Those same students, once they decided they needed to change their life, did so with zest. What triggers them to make this decision is a personal thing which varies from individual to individual. External influence is key. I would be interested in finding out what influences affected those in the research that was done and whether there was any commonality that could be applied to this type of student in a broader sense.

    • Mrs. P.: I have definitely seen students who are “not available for learning.” I would posit that there are innate triggers for this but that outside influences also have a huge impact. One of the most difficult realities for teachers is that it’s often not possible to know which of your efforts might turn a child around. We’re often just stabbing in the dark…

  7. Well, look who’s all freshly pressed to start the school year off? Congrats!
    I read earlier and ‘liked’ you, (now that I can do these things).
    Came home from last minute chores at school and found you on the home page. Well done 🙂

    As a fellow teacher (HS), may we have a great school year. Amen.

  8. As a teacher, I have always believed that the work we have our students do is far less important than the fact that they are learning how to work. We need to prepare them to enter their careers as responsible, contributing members of society, and I love the term “grit” to describe the dedication and perseverance needed to be successful. Excellent post and book review!

  9. Such an interesting area to study. The “nature or nurture” argument comes into play. Surely developing “grit” is a bit of both. How to help people develop those attributes is a fantastic area of study. Most people would remember one or two teachers in their school life who stood out as inspirational and made a difference.

  10. After completing a BA degree in Education Studies, I felt confident that I wasn’t ready to become a teacher and the mainstream system terrified me. It appeared to be entirely driven by targets and deadlines. And I felt sure that didn’t want to become a part of that seemingly complex and chaotic madness. Surely, I thought to myself, it should be driven by learners’ needs? Is the problem with this that it would be difficult to measure?

    This book looks really interesting and I will try and get a copy of it. You never know, perhaps it’ll inspire me to become a teacher…?

    • Greenfield: I hope it does. There are definitely challenges to navigating the education system, but changes do happen, albeit slowly, and there ARE things an individual teacher can accomplish.

  11. I taught in the public schools for thirty years (1975 – 2005). Teachers help students cross to success by never giving up. Even if only one failing student in a school year crosses over and works harder to learn, that is success. All a teacher does is teach. It is up to the student to learn and the parents to support the teacher and student. Far to0 many parents do not support education.

    There’s a lot of truth to the old saying that we can lead a horse to water but we cannot make it drink.

    There is no magic that will motivate a student to become successful in school and life.

    For example: my older brother died at age 64 a broken man. He was illiterate and worked a hard live spending about 15 years of it in jail. Five of his seven children turned out illiterate too and some have spent time in jail already.

    Then there was me that came along fourteen years after my brother was born, would learn to read, graduate from high school, join the Marines, go to college on the GI Bill, etc.

    Richard and I had the same parents. What made the difference may have been the fourteen years between our births and my mother learned to raise me differently than she had raised my brother.

    Both my father and mother never finished high school due to the Great Depression.

    • Lloyd: I see this all the time and have experienced it myself – I have several younger siblings who’ve had very different educational experiences than I. That said, I think part of this is “nurture” and part of it is “nature” – we were all very different children from the moment we were born, and parts of this difference seem to be biochemical. Thanks for your thoughts!

  12. For a strange moment, I almost thought “Tough” was the title of the book! (what a very apt name!) Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this, and I hope to lay hands on that book myself soon to get a good read out of it! I’ve been a teacher for about a year, and am desperately to find out about this “grit” that could make our kids succeed. 🙂

  13. I am learning to be a sociology professor, so I might check this book out. I was terrified and simultaneously excited about my first year as a graduate student when I realized how much the undergrad students not only listened to me but also respected me. I assumed I was just a graduate student and would be “mostly” ignored, but some of them still talk to me when I see them on campus (and they aren’t even sociology majors).

  14. This was a very inspiring article. I’m going to have to get a copy of this book. I would also love to see your research when you get it. It’s always refreshing to see educators working to change the educational system to better fit the students, instead of making GPA requirements or deadlines for educational goals. I hope to hear more from you in the future. And congrats on making the FP page.

  15. Love your review. This is a topic very near and dear to my heart. I have very vivid memories of teachers that helped me succeed and teachers who probably didn’t care about me at all. I hope you carry out your research. If you inspire or motivate even one student, you will be a success.

  16. Thank you all so much for your comments! It’s not going to be possible for me to reply to everyone individually, but I really appreciate your thoughts. I hope you’ll all read this book, as it puts forth ideas we should all think about. Welcome to my blog – I hope to hear more from you all in the future!

  17. I read the review of this book in the NYTimes Book Review and added it to my to-read list, but as the daughter, sister, and friend of teachers (and an education-focused person who is going into a related field but outside of the classroom), I was a bit skeptical, because I really don’t need access to any more books that demonize teachers or fail to acknowledge social, political, cultural, and economic barriers to academic success. I’m glad to get a teacher’s seal of approval on this book, and your discussion is well done. Congratulations on the Freshly Pressed distinction!

  18. Thanks for this great review and especially your optimism and hope for your students. As a new school year gets underway, what a wonderful and refreshing attitude. As a former school principal, who has also written about character education, I would say it is never too late to impact the life of a student.

  19. The importance of education is so underrated.

    A countries greatest asset is its children, and these children must be well educated for a country to prosper.
    Teachers are a key element to that process, and should be well trained and supported in their education role.
    The other major key in developing a countries potential prosperity, is to give equal opportunity in education to all kids.
    A system which gives the best education to children of the rich will impede the countries progress. Children of the poorest should have an identical exposure to education, and the system should be rejigged to allow this to happen.



  20. The greatest compliment(s) I ever received (as a Community College professor in Ontario) were from students who told me that the most important thing they learned in my class was that they could succeed at anything if they tried hard enough (it didn’t matter the subject; this was an underlying principle in every single one of my courses: “Result is directionally proportional to effort.”) Some students were ‘reachable’, others were not – but I was profoundly satisfied if I managed to ‘push’ just one student towards greatness by getting them to recognize that success rested in their own hands. Call it ‘grit’, call it determination, call it strength of will … call it whatever you want … a young person who resolves to do their best – regardless of ‘circumstances’ – will always succeed. Sometimes they just need a little help getting there and that is a teacher’s most important task.

    Margo Karolyi

  21. Sold, Siobhan! In fact, my colleagues and I have a professional book club that I will recommend this book to. I’m really enjoying your blog & fb page. Congrats on being freshly pressed!

  22. I think the best a teacher could do is to demonstrate by example…living the example him/herself of the character traits that he/she would like children to cultivate eg. curiousity, kindness, grit (like you said) etc. And the rest is up to the student.

  23. Very insightful. Kids do perform different based on their characteristics, personality, and all other learned facets. Characteristics are, after all, learned. They do obtain them from relatives and through vicarious learning, or just imitating the media. So, in effect, good or bad students, they are all a result of their environment.

  24. The saddest thing I see is young people not even out of their teens who have already given up. But I have also seen some remarkable work being done with some of these kids. It sounds corny, but the key is to get them believing in themselves again. One of the reasons I dislike national standards is that they teach kids that they are dumb and failures long before they really need to know that. My colleague was telling me how the other day a young lad stood staring at a basin he and his group had just installed with a look of shock on his face. He turned to my colleague and said, “I did that. I put that in.” “Yeah, mate you did. It’s bloody good too.” “So?”, the kid ventured, like he was almost afraid to ask, “Do you think I could be a plumber?”. “Sure mate, you’re a natural,” “Okay,” says the kid exhaling with relief, “that’s was it is then. I’m goinna be somebody.”

  25. Dear Siobhan,

    First of all, I wish you all the best with your wonderful and extremely fruitful blog as it is truly one that deserves everybody’s gratitude. This is the first post I’ve read in your blog and after reading it I instantly decided to read all of your posts in the upcoming days.

    Thanks a million for introducing us to the book ‘How children succeed’ and for briefing us on it and it has already stolen my attention. I’ll definitely pick up this book the next time I enter a book shop. I’m really excited to read this book at this moment of time, but because currently I’m pretty hooked up with 2 books that I need to finish before moving to something else.

    Speaking of the book I’m currently reading, it is called THE WORLD IS FLAT by Thomas L. Friedman. I’m pretty sure you have already heard of this book or probably read it also, Thomas is one of those writers that completely steals your attention on the spot. In this book he mostly focuses on globalization but in between that discussion he also focuses thoroughly on education (american education to be precise).

    I wasn’t a person who likes reading and reading a 300 to 500 page book would be the last activity on my list of activities. But all that changed after reading Thomas’s latest book named THAT USED TO BE US (it speaks of america in the past and the present) which again this time around he focuses even more on education in one of the chapters. Both THAT USED TO BE US and THE WORLD IS FLAT are books that you should include in your list of MUST read books.

  26. Very interesting. As a Mum currently struggling with the ‘system’ and teachers who are well meaning but have no real clue how to educate a child like mine, I was so glad to read your post and know that there are still teachers out there who are constantly learning new ways, especially for the ever increasing ‘difficult’ children in their classes! Good on you.

  27. Well, im 17 and i think that as long as the student knows, and understands what he wants to change in himself, and especially if he WANTS to do it, then he will try. I think the teacher’s position in all of this is helping him understand that he needs to change something, but without making him feel uncomfortable and not desirable the way he is, because the main propblem in teens and young adults, is self esteem. If you are able to do this, then the student can continue alone, or if he needs help, he’ll ask you for it. If he’s shy, you’ll have to ask him yourself, but i dont think it’ll be a big deal…
    All of this is my opinion, but i thought it could be useful to you 🙂

  28. With your approach and willingness to look into different methods to reach your students you will at least plant some seeds! Perhaps you won’t witness results immediately, but it’s bound to pay off.

  29. Thanks for your post! I’ve been teaching for 11 years, and teachers need to be students first. Meaning we must always be open to new ideas, new ways to foster our students, new ways to see through the eyes of a child…Congrats on being Freshly Pressed!

  30. Pingback: Book Review: How Children Succeed « Gold Arrow Camp's Blog

  31. I came across a poem a few days ago that prompted a post on my blog. The poem goes something like…

    No written word, no spoken plea
    Can teach the young how they should be
    Nor all the books on all the shelves
    Its what the teachers are themselves.

    We could replace teachers with “parents”, “politicians”, “footballers”, “stars”…

    The teacher who had the greatest impact on me was Mr Matz. I was 14. He taught biology. He asked us to write a journal. 5 minutes every day in class we had to have our pens touching the page. I thought it was stupid for the first few weeks, but he kept up the habit. After a month I quite liked the process. Now, 26 years later… I love that he created this habit in me.

    I don’t remember much biology, but I know I did get an A.

    I do remember Mr Matz, and everything about how he was as a person, and how he influenced me to be a better version of myself.

    Happy 2013.

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