Allowing for a Grief Mindset

If you only know me through this blog, you might not know this about me: I’m an eternal optimist. I’ve never learned how to believe less in people, even when that would have been wise. I assume everyone is trying their best, assign good intentions, and believe we all want to become even better. It’s at the core of my teaching and also my research (which might surprise some of you, given that I study hate, but even here it is true: I think we best counter hate by assuming that most people are temporarily mistaken, not committed to something evil.).

Given that, then, you might be surprised that I strongly resist notions of grit and of growth mindset (at least as I often see it employed in education). Grit is the idea that we can and should teach resilience, and growth mindset is the idea that if we believe we can learn, then we are more likely to learn.

Now, these are simple definitions of terms that have been explored in depth elsewhere, not a literature review. And I’m not evaluating the social science behind them or the evidence (or lack of evidence) that they work or even engaging the racism and classism inherent in grit. As a long-term teacher with experiences in elite as well as underresourced schools, I believe that that “the soft bigotry of low expectations” (probably the only time you’ll hear me quote George W. Bush) really harms students. This is not an academic discussion about how we define, theorize, or measure these concepts. It’s a caution against using them in setting expectations of others right now.

Grit and growth mindset, as they are commonly used (and whether this is fair to their originators) easily become excuses for why we fail to change the material conditions our students and peers face. It’s not “low expectations” to understand that some students don’t have WiFi; it’s a realistic assessment that we have to make before we can figure out how to teach them where they are, with the priorities they have. It’s not a “fixed mindset” to say that students need time now to focus on their health and families because, until those things are stable, figuring out how to login into your unnecessarily synchronous lecture isn’t going to happen.

Let your students have a grief mindset, rather than demanding a growth mindset.

Some of our students–at least some of mine and probably some of yours–are attending to needs that are more pressing that the meetings and assignments we are demanding. Telling them that they need to change their attitudes while what they really need is groceries, healthcare, rent relief, cash on hand, childcare, and time to attend to their dying and ill relatives is discouraging, no how many exclamation points you stuff into your inspirational email. Telling them I believe you can do it! while they wait to find out if their fever is enough to justify the use of one of their county’s few corvid-19 tests isn’t encouraging; it’s insensitive.

Above, a student rests with their head on a pathology textbook, their cell phone and a binder next to them, and their hat blocking the light from above. Recognize that students need time and space to grieve what is happening to them, and that may interfere with their ability to do “their best” in your classroom. By D. Sharon Pruitt, owner of Pink Sherbet PhotographyOfficial Website, http://www.pinksherbet.comContact Email, pink@pinksherbet.comPink Sherbet Photography from Utah, USA – Free College Pathology Student Sleeping, CC BY 2.0,

I propose allow students to have a grief mindset: one that recognizes the scope of what they are facing and the importance of what they are losing right now, from graduation ceremonies to grandparents. Don’t put them in a place of having to trot their grief out before you to be judged as worthy of your compassion. Just know that they are suffering, and any encouragement for them to lean in has to be balanced with the assurance that it’s okay if they lean out, that you’ll still support them if they can’t do the same work they would do otherwise, and that you don’t assume that their performance now is how they would work in other situations. There is no timeline for them to “fix” these feelings, because as long as inequality exists that impacts their learning, grief is appropriate.

Some of your students (and your colleagues and your administrators) will discover that they really do blossom in a time of crisis, but not all will and no one owes it to anyone to be fantastic at what is coming next. This isn’t what they signed up for, and to be resilient for you and your classes may be an inefficient use of their coping skills. 

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