Like many teachers anxious about returning to school after a relaxing vacation, we were a bit worried about whether classes would go well this week. However, we have been gratified to find our students engaged and thoroughly excited to see us again and be back to work. At all of our schools, we’ve been greeted by big smiles and happy New Year wishes from students and staff alike. At Lycee Molyko, there was an audible moan of frustration when we told students that they had only 5 minutes of class left; and in Buea Town, when we held an optional class session on Friday afternoon to give students time to work on their websites, 20 of our students came and worked for 2 hours straight. Sadly, slow Internet continues to be prevalent in all of our classes, but none so much as at the Lycee, where we teach Wednesdays. This week, for some reason, the Internet seemed to be the least reliable for our students struggling the most with logging into their e-mail accounts and catching up with website design. Even worse, Yahoo, the popular e-mail host, seemed to decide that our students were entering invalid passwords, even when we knew them to be correct (hence Clara’s astute observation that I’ve nabbed as the title of this post).

One thing we’ve been struck by during this first week back in Buea has been how uniformly kind and sweet our students are. Even the students who make us crazy by asking millions of questions or clicking away at random links on websites are respectful, well behaved, and sweet. As much as I loved my 8th graders in Boston last year, I don’t know that I could have said that about them, particularly in January! (One story worth telling along these lines was from our Tuesday Buea Town class: Edmond was having trouble creating a Facebook page. Karl, who had just created his own page moments before, leaned over, helped Edmond finish the process, and then “Friended” Edmond and sent him a Facebook message: “Hi Edmond, I am happy to be your only friend. You are my only friend, too”).

Another thing that has struck us this first week back has been how invested our students are in their YAN work. Apart from our somewhat-flaky class in Limbe, our students are consistently on-time to class, with completed homework and an eagerness to learn that rivals anything I have seen in the US. When I was a Teach For America Corps Member, we talked endlessly about what it takes to invest students in their own learning and in their own success. The building blocks to doing so, I learned, are in creating meaningful lessons, developing strong relationships with students, and showing all students that they can be successful. These are all elements that play a part in our YAN classes. Sure, we do have things like Facebook as an enticement; but when a group of 25 high schoolers moan with frustration that class is ending on Friday afternoon at 5 pm, and that they will have to wait until next week to continue improving their websites about malaria and deforestation and cholera and education, it is clear that they are thoroughly and truly invested in their work.

Another concept that I recall discussing at length when I taught 8th grade last year centered around a phenomenon known as the “marshmallow test.” (N.B. I have tried to reconstruct this experiment from memory, and may have gotten some of the details wrong. To read more about this famous experiment, check out or just google “Marshmallow Experiment”). Apparently, a number of years ago a group of social scientists became interested in whether a child’s ability to prolong gratification correlated with future academic success. To evaluate this, the scientists set up a simple test. They gathered hundreds of 4 year old children to act as research subjects, and they placed them alone in a room with a marshmallow, instructing them that they could eat the marshmallow immediately, or wait 5 minutes and then be given several extra marshmallows to eat. The results, evidently, were quite interesting. Some children gobbled the marshmallow up immediately, while others waited out the agonizing 5 minutes using myriad strategies to distract themselves from temptation (I have read that there are video recordings of this experiment showing children distracting themselves from the marshmallows by singing loudly to themselves, playing games on the other side of the room, or literally closing their eyes for 5 minutes). The scientists then followed their research subjects over the course of many years, and met with them again when these children were in their 20s. Interestingly, a strong correlation emerged: children who had been able to delay gratification frequently grew up into adults who were successful academically and in their careers, and more able to cope with stress and resist drugs. Children who had gobbled the marshmallow up immediately were by and large less successful with these things.

Of course, it is controversial to link child behaviors at age 4 with life outcomes at age 20; but this article did receive a lot of attention in the field of education. I remember discussing with my colleagues in Boston how to teach students skills to allow them to delay gratification; I also recall discussing how relevant it is to delay gratification in life in general. Did this experiment measure a meaningful ability? Is it worth teaching students to emulate those 4 year olds who waited to eat the marshmallow? One of my mentors in Boston was convinced that delayed gratification is indeed relevant for students—specifically in a concept she called “grit.” Grit, according to this mentor teacher, is the ability to stick with a challenging problem and see it through to a conclusion. Grit is not at all the same as intelligence, nor is it the same as independence (although it is connected with independence). In my class last year, when I scheduled days where students sat and wrote compositions independently, some students called me over every few minutes with a small problem they felt they could not solve—they didn’t know how to use a particular adjective effectively, or needed help structuring their writing better—while others worked silently without calling me over. Now, some of these latter students may have been confused by their work, but too sheepish to call me over for help; but some of these latter students had all of the skills they needed to be successful, and felt confident enough in their own writing skills to know that they could be successful if they worked hard and answered their own questions. It is these latter students who are truly “gritty.”

How does all of this matter to my students in Cameroon? Well, I think that after just one week of classes here, I am beginning to notice some real signs of “grit” in some of my students, and a real lack of it in others. For some of YAN students, logging into their e-mail addresses is a challenging process, and if something goes wrong—their password doesn’t work, or the host’s homepage looks different from what they expect—they immediately call me over for help. Teaching these students requires slow, methodical instruction with lots of check-ins and reminders about what they are supposed to be doing. But for others, new tasks like these present a challenge that they are excited to try. Rather than calling me over when their password doesn’t work, or when (for some of our more advanced students) a photo doesn’t seem to want to upload onto their website properly, they troubleshoot their own problem, and persevere until it is solved. This is grit, and it is exciting to see my gritty students in action answering their own questions, solving their own problems, and learning independently. The big question remains how to get all of my students to a place where they are confident enough and gritty enough to work hard even when a problem seems insurmountable. After all, in just 6 months, I wont be here for them to ask for help!