Tar Heel of the Week

Tar Heel of the Week: Celebrating 'grit' in students a passion for retired school counselor

CorrespondentJune 1, 2013 

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Tom Carr, 63, of Hillsborough, just retired from 34 years of public school student counseling. Carr is a local author (14 books) and director of his motivational website, www.gotgrit.org, which helps students find their 'grit' and offers a scholarship for students who demonstrate 'grit.'

HARRY LYNCH — hlynch@newsobserver.com Buy Photo

  • Tom Carr

    Born: Oct. 10, 1949, in Watertown, N.Y.

    Residence: Hillsborough

    Career: Founder and president, Got Grit?; retired counselor, Orange County Schools

    Family: Wife, Carlye; children Aaron and Sarah

    Education: B.A., social studies education, State University of New York at Potsdam; M.A., counseling and guidance, Syracuse University

    Fun fact: Carr says his main hobbies are reading – all nonfiction – and running. He’s run 15 marathons, and keeps a log of every mile he runs. So far, over 32 years, he’s run about 44,000 miles. He and a friend started the Hillsborough Running Club, a group of up to 40 people that runs around town.

— Tom Carr didn’t make the honor roll in high school. In fact, his early years are a blur of failures compounded by the ire of his teachers.

It wasn’t his smarts or talents that propelled him to earn a master’s degree despite his poor start. He says it was grit – that combination of determination and hard work that pushes athletes, and students, to keep striving even when the odds are against them.

A retired school counselor, Carr, 63, has written a book and lectured widely on the topic of grit. And now he’s working to honor local students who exhibit this elusive quality.

Each year, his Got Grit? nonprofit inducts 20 or so Orange County students into its Hall of Fame at an elegant gala, showering medals and adulation on the kind of students who rarely enter the spotlight.

Teachers nominate students for a variety of reasons: a sudden breakthrough in math after years of struggling, a gesture of kindness, completing a grade despite health problems, putting in a serious effort every day at practice, even if the student is not a star athlete.

“In all my years in the schools, I saw so many kids get recognized for their athletic ability or make the honor roll,” he says. “But there are also so many kids that have that grit and determination that will get them there, and I wanted to nurture that.”

The monetary awards aren’t large. Carr gives away about $1,000 every year, split between four of five of the students, who use it for college, camps, or whatever else they need.

But the impact on students can be huge. Hillsborough Elementary School Principal Steven Weber says the award is often the first such recognition a student has ever had.

“It’s one of those mile markers in a kid’s life when they say ‘Yes, I am that kind of person, and I will continue to be that kind of person,’ ” says Weber, whose school had two inductees this year. “He’s really able to build that into students.”

Weber met Carr when his own children attended Cameron Park, where Carr spearheaded his Got Grit? campaign. Weber has been impressed with Carr’s dedication to expanding the program using his own time and money.

“He is investing in our students and our community,” Weber says. “He’s that rare kind of educator that inspires students and other educators.”

‘I had to work harder’

Unfocused and unable to concentrate in school, Carr believes that if he had grown up in the early 21st century instead of the mid-20th, he would likely have been diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

“I really struggled,” says Carr, who grew up in upstate New York. “Everything was tough for me. I couldn’t sit still or pay attention.”

His parents had not finished school themselves and weren’t sure how to help him; his teachers punished him for his inattention. So Carr was left to trudge on largely alone.

He was a strong athlete – captain of the football, wrestling and lacrosse teams – and he says that gave him a niche in the school that helped him get by. But it wasn’t enough to earn him a scholarship.

He went on to a junior college, where he worked hard to scrape by without failing his classes, but earning mostly D’s – only to discover that he needed a 2.0 grade-point average to graduate.

He retook one class and needed to earn an A to bring his GPA high enough. He earned a B and successfully petitioned to graduate with a 1.97.

He worked for a while managing a fast-food restaurant in Canada and decided to return to school. By then, he was married to a fellow student and had assembled some of the life skills he needed to do better in school, such as scheduling his time and communicating with teachers.

“I knew that I had to work harder,” he says. “It just took me longer to read a book, to take a test, and longer to study.”

He was still working full time, and his university was an hour away from his home. At one point, he scheduled 19 hours worth of classes into two days a week to cut down on driving time.

He graduated with honors from the State University of New York at Potsdam, and went on to earn a master’s degree in counseling at Syracuse.

‘You can change yourself’

He worked in Virginia for a few years and started as a counselor in Orange County Schools in the early 1980s. Orange, like many districts, was just starting to use counselors at the elementary school level.

Their goal was, and is, a largely preventive one: to create and implement programs that steer kids toward the kind of behavior and choices that would help them succeed.

In that sense, Carr spent his career honing in his students what are often called “soft skills,” such as getting along with others and being responsible for one’s actions.

“I tell them you can’t change other people,” he says. “But you can change yourself. And when you change, they change.”

He hit on the idea of grit when trying to encapsulate those soft skills in a simple message; he loved the idea of grit on the football field but wanted to expand its use in the classroom.

He turned the word into an acronym: G is for getting along with others, R stands for responsibility, I for integrity, and T for tenacity. And a teaching tool was born.

He started using the GRIT framework with the students at Cameron Park and soon decided to broadcast it more widely.

Author, runner, inspiration

Carr had already written some educational books and published one on the characteristics of grit. Proceeds from the book go into the annual ceremony and grit scholarships.

He also started an annual 5K fundraising event, which drew more than 400 participants last month.

The organization’s symbol is a hard hat, and Carr has been known to pass out trinkets to students after some small accomplishment, or to send Got Grit? post cards to former students.

The Got Grit? website also has a downloadable label to turn a soup can into a can of “Suck it up.”

The Got Grit? Hall of Famers can be third-graders to seniors in high school, and Carr delights in the wide variety of ways they show grit. They all receive medals and get their names published on the Web and in local newspapers.

Carr says such an honor would have meant a lot to him as a youth, but he now looks back on his own problems in school as a blessing.

“It taught me that nothing comes easy, that I had to work for things,” Carr said.

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