Best-selling author is featured speaker at GPA McMillan lecture tonight

Discussion to focus on ways to motivate young students to own their education and develop resilience.


Research has shown that the key to a successful academic strategy is intrinsic motivation — or motivation that comes from within. Educator, writer, and speaker Jessica Lahey will discuss the current research on autonomy-supportive parenting and teaching as well as student competence, rewards, praise — and most importantly, failure — when she visits The Grosse Pointe Academy tonight.

Lahey is the speaker for the latest edition of the William Charles McMillan III Lecture Series, and she plans to address those issues and more on tonight at 7 p.m. at the school’s Grosse Pointe Farms campus. Lahey originally was scheduled to speak at GPA in November, but her appearance was postponed due to an area power failure.

In this unique event for parents of school-age children, Lahey, who is the author of the New York Times bestselling book, The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed, will offer parents, teachers, administrators, and guidance counselors practical advice for fostering intrinsic motivation and weaning kids off of extrinsic motivators such as short-term rewards, bribes, honors, coercion, and yes, even grades, while giving kids the support and encouragement they need in order to succeed.

When Lahey is not out on the speaking circuit, she is an English and writing teacher, correspondent for The Atlantic, commentator for Vermont Public Radio, and writes the “Parent-Teacher Conference” column for the New York Times. She earned a B.A. in comparative literature from the University of Massachusetts and a J.D. with a concentration in juvenile and education law from the University of North Carolina School of Law. She lives in New Hampshire with her husband and two sons.

In an interview with The Grosse Pointe Academy, Lahey answered a few questions and discussed what led to her best-selling book.

The Grosse Pointe Academy: To which constituency do you most enjoy speaking? Parents, teachers or students?

Jessica Lahey: That’s a tough one, as they are so different. I love talking to the students, of course. I would not be a teacher if I did not. They are challenging in their own special way, and it’s more tiring to talk to kids because my energy has to be so high, and I have to be ready to turn on a dime if I begin to lose them. On the other hand, their energy can be amazing when they are engaged, and when they get talking, I remember why I’m doing all of this. I want kids to feel heard, and safe, and supported, and if I can be a part of that, I’m about as happy as I can be.

Speaking to teachers is tough because I know from personal experience what a drag professional development sessions can be, and how resentful I can get when I’m required to go to pointless or stupid workshops. I live in fear of boring teachers or wasting their precious time, so I tend to tailor my content to meet their specific needs and interests. Consequently, I think my sessions with teachers make me more nervous than any other sessions!

I spend most of my time in front of parents, and frankly, that’s really fun. I’m a parent, and I wrote The Gift of Failure because I needed that book to answer the questions I had as a parent. I’m simply sharing what I learned over a couple of years of research, then framing it in terms of education. That’s fun for me.

GPA: Obviously, “failure” and how it is addressed are important for a young person’s ultimate success in your latest book. How do you tie this failure in the learning environment to a student’s success?

Lahey: The Gift of Failure is my first book, but I’ve been writing about education and parenting for The Atlantic, The New York Times and Vermont Public Radio for years. The book arose out of a realization that my students – and my own kids – were afraid of failure and certainly did not view it as a part of learning. That was short-circuiting their ability to learn and their very enjoyment of the process. I wanted to understand how failure and resilience and learning intersect, and it turns out that deep mastery simply doesn’t happen unless kids are engaged on an intellectual and emotional level with what they are learning.

GPA: Any new books in the works?

Lahey: Yes, but not that I’m ready to talk about right now. It really takes a while for books to percolate, and I’m knee-deep in research for this next one.

About the William Charles McMillan III Lecture Series
William Charles McMillan III was a student at The Grosse Pointe Academy from 1973 until 1981 where, receiving love and encouragement, he learned to reach beyond his limitations. Although weak physically, McMillan was intellectually gifted and his passion for life, his love and concern for all living things, and his enthusiastic use of verbal skills changed the lives of those who were closest to him and left a lasting impression on all with whom he came in contact. Never at a loss for words, McMillan was bursting with impressions, questions and insights which came pouring out in a dazzling, dizzying torrent. It was rare to have a brief, superficial conversation with McMillan. A friend commented, “I sometimes felt like I needed a seat belt when William was talking to me, because he would take us into outer space, back into primeval history, and then into a universe of his own imagining.

“McMillan believed that anyone could make a significant and lasting impact on the world no matter what one’s age, size or circumstance.”

The William Charles McMillan III Lecture Series focuses on elementary education and is dedicated to the proposition that every child can reach beyond his or her own limitation, that each child makes the world a better place. It is the goal of these lectures to take your mind where it has never been before.

More about The Grosse Pointe Academy and its academic offerings is here.

About The Grosse Pointe Academy
The Grosse Pointe Academy is an independent, coeducational day school serving children age 2-1/2 through Grade 8. We foster an inclusive environment that respects all cultures and religious beliefs. We seek to remain faithful to our heritage as a former Academy of the Sacred Heart and to those who through their Catholic faith and perseverance sought to preserve and enhance the legacy of this past for generations. Incorporated as a non-profit institution,  The Grosse Pointe Academy is directed by a Board of Trustees working together to serve the Southeastern Michigan community.