The Key to Resilience: Pencil, Not Pen

Social and emotional learning (SEL) is a hot topic in education these days. In particular, we want to build resilience, perseverance, and grit among our students and also among our teachers and administrators. But as much as we celebrate the pursuit of those virtues, I have noticed that many educational systems undermine them with evaluative systems that systematically punish students, teachers, and administrators for the mistakes of the past and fail to reward those people for bouncing back from mistakes – that is, showing evidence of the resilience, perseverance, and grit we claim to value.


Here is one key to showing that we really value resilience: pencil, not pen. That means that when students make mistakes early in the semester, we are honest about it, but the evaluation early in the semester is not held as a hammer over their head at the end of the semester. In his wonderful new book, The Years That Matter Most, Paul Tough describes the calculus class at the University of Texas, Austin, that welcomes students who traditionally have struggled in college – low income, immigrant, ethnic and linguistic minorities – and yet produces remarkable results. These students, who are often channeled into less demanding classes, not only thrive in calculus, but remain in advanced classes and go on to become mathematicians, engineers, physicians, and scientists. This is not because of a lack of rigor at one of the nation’s most exclusive universities. Rather, it is because the professor, a 50-year classroom veteran, promises students that their last score – the score on the comprehensive final – will replace all their early failures. That’s one reason UTA has more diversity in advanced math than other colleges and universities that rely on pre-selecting wealthy and Anglo students who waltzed into class ready to succeed in advanced mathematics. College should add value, not confirm pre-existing prejudices. Read Tough’s book to get more details on how they do it.


The “pencil, not pen” ethic also applies to teachers and administrators. One of the most frustrating experiences for teachers and administrators is to be evaluated at the end of the year based on observations and mistakes they made six months earlier. If evaluators see something wrong, they need to deal with it – ideally within 24 hours of the observation – and address it forthrightly. Nobody ever was evaluated into better performance at the end of the year, but we can be coached and supported into better performance with feedback that is specific and immediate. And then, when the end-of-year evaluation does take place, we can erase all those errors that were entered in pencil and focus on how we bounced back from failure. We can enter the successes – the resilience, perseverance, and grit – in pen.


Let us be enlightened by the wisdom of toddlers. If their self-evaluations of walking were based on permanent marks in their record for every calamitous fall, our species would remain wandering about on all fours. But toddlers are smart enough to erase those many mistakes and enter in pen only their successes when they walk. We can do the same with students and colleagues. I’m not suggesting we ignore mistakes – toddlers know that falling on their rear ends and smashing into walls constitute mistakes from which they must learn. But they are able to erase those mistakes and focus on their ambulatory successes. We can all do the same with our students, our colleagues, and ourselves.

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