Today on Perfect Whole we have a guest post by my colleague, Richard Smith. A longer version of this essay was published in our school newspaper.
Rich and I work in an extremely high-achieving school district in which nearly all the students go on to four-year colleges. We have seen many of our students and graduates achieve extraordinary success, but we have also seen the terrible toll competition and pressure take on some students. While no one can say for certain why anyone commits suicide, this year we lost two Class of 2013 graduates to suicide, and we have lost several graduates to drug addiction over the past few years.
All of us are engaged in a conversation now about how to reduce stress on our students and help them cope with the stress they experience. We don’t all agree about how best to proceed, and we know that the admissions process for the most exclusive colleges is not going to get easier or kinder, nor is the job market. But we all sense that a line has been crossed–there is a difference between encouraging students to do their best and requiring students to do the impossible.
Here is Rich’s wise, thoughtful take on the problem.
What Are We Preparing Our Students For?
“Every kid starts out as a natural-born scientist, and then we beat it out of them. A few trickle through the system with their wonder and enthusiasm for science intact.”― Carl Sagan
I consider myself incredibly lucky. I teach math in a school with great colleagues, hardworking students, and a community that supports what I do wholeheartedly. My school creates successful people, no matter how one defines success, including some very influential and prosperous citizens. But often over the past few years, I’ve wondered about the costs of this success. I read the quotation above from Carl Sagan recently, and it reminded me how much our shared values about education are producing students with an unrealistic view of how the world works.
Over the nineteen years I’ve taught high school, I’ve seen competition in all areas of student life intensify, and I’m increasingly angry about it lately because it isn’t fair to our kids. Competition raises the bar for success, and the hurdles students are expected to jump become more and more unrealistic by the year. The adolescent mind is not equipped to deal with the stress of having to succeed on so many fronts.
I have seen students over-enrolling in AP and honors classes, hoping to make a positive impression on the colleges they are applying to. In athletics, many kids play on club teams or get private lessons so that they can be the best in their sport. In the performing arts, students work for hours and hours on their musical prowess or their acting ability. All of these pursuits come at the expense of socializing with friends, family time, or the exploration of a hobby. Very little time is given for the brain (or the child) to relax. The mantra of work, work, work is rewarded and heeded as if its payoff were unquestionable.
Many adults perpetuate the idea that extreme competition and pressure are beneficial. The implicit message is that by outworking everyone ad absurdum, you can achieve your goals. When that becomes the unspoken mission for a school of 1350 students, it creates a huge bottleneck for competition at the top. Kids try to do more and more to stand out to prospective colleges. The enormous effort of these endeavors makes living a normal life nearly impossible. And the scope of this competition is getting wider by the year.
I routinely see students in my class who have been up until 2 AM studying, or even all night. They can barely keep their eyes open or their heads up. I have seen stacks upon stacks of index cards, lined with terms, facts, dates, and definitions, all made in the hope of retaining information. It makes me anxious. While I’m trying to teach math, my students are often poring over PowerPoint slides, notes, or essay questions for other classes. It takes them completely out of the discussion, out of whatever is going on in the present. I observe students coming into my classroom on the day of a quiz buzzing with nervousness, a fever pitch overcoming the room at the prospect that the students haven’t memorized everything that they were supposed to for the day. The hours of homework, the summer assignments, the AP packets given over the vacation break—how much information can we expect to cram into the teenage brain? It’s turning our kids into zombies. They learn to absorb facts in the short term, but they don’t develop enough reasoning or knowledge to be educated for the long term.
This unprecedented level of stress is becoming the norm, and overloading is perceived as desirable. Students are led to believe that the more they do, the better chance they will have to get into their dream college, which will inevitably lead to the best possible career and life. It is all done with the best of intentions, but look at our economy–a college degree is no longer a guarantee of skilled work after graduation. Of course, a college education is valuable, but students should not need to go to such extreme lengths to get one. There is a college for everyone. We may just have to adjust our sights a bit to determine what is realistic for each student.
As educators, counselors, administrators, and coaches, we should not be standing idly by and witnessing what is happening to our kids. We are not preparing them for the life that they will eventually lead. And we are certainly not educating them to love learning.
Life is not about constant pressure. Other than for the few who want enter professional sports or entertainment, or those aiming for a career that will pay tens of millions of dollars over a lifetime, life is not a competition in which the stakes get higher and higher. We don’t need to expose all kids to so much pressure so early in their lives, leaving them no time to be teenagers anymore. Adults who care about kids should not rob them of their youth.
Of course, it is rewarding to compete to be the best at something. But it is a fool’s errand to try to be the best at everything. The insane competition is causing many students in high-achieving schools to believe that they must be experts not only in the finer points of integral calculus, but also in the underlying causes of the Peloponnesian War, the gross domestic product of Zaire, the conjugation of irregular verbs, the atomic weight of Cesium, Erikson’s seventh stage of development, and what Hamlet was thinking in Act II, Scene ii. All are noble pursuits on their own, but I submit that it is impossible to develop mastery of all of these subjects in the 1000 or so instructional hours of a school year. Yet, unbelievably, excellence in every pursuit is becoming the basic expectation for all our students.
I believe that two changes are necessary: first, curricula must be weeded to promote greater depth and less breadth; and second, students need to be realistic about what courses they want to take. Are they choosing classes that interest them, or are they just trying to impress a college? A cultural shift in the way we approach education and success needs to happen, and it needs to happen soon.
If you are an adult reading this, think about the people you know who are successful and well-balanced. Chances are that they are hard workers who set and achieve goals, and that they are experts at one thing, not everything. They have good people skills. They have hobbies, or interests in the arts, athletics, other pursuits. Our kids need reassurance that life will be accommodative for the vast majority of them. They are not growing up into a world in which only the strong survive. Few positions that our kids will endeavor to pursue will ever involve the type of cutthroat competition that is presently encouraged by many of the adults in their lives.
As parents, teachers, and coaches, we need to get our priorities in order. Kids are not equipped to deal with so much pressure on their young brains. The constant need to do better than they did last time, outwork everyone else, or, worst of all, struggle to be perfect, creates an impossible situation. Kids stoically cast aside their mental anguish to deal with the challenge at hand. Many don’t know how to cope with failure, or even the prospect of not doing as well as they hoped. But failure is one of our best teachers, and many of our kids are terrified of the very idea of it, leaving them ill-prepared for the life we believe we are preparing them to lead.
We need to understand that kids are kids. They need time to be social. We should not be inundating them with copious work outside of school. Give kids less to do outside the classroom and they will give you more inside the classroom. High school is meant to give kids a sampling of all of the subjects that are available for study and pursuit once they reach college, should they decide to go. As adults charged with their care, we should encourage an appropriate balance of competition and appreciation of the pursuits that make life worth living.
Richard Smith is a mathematics teacher at Northern Highlands Regional High School in Allendale, NJ, where has has taught since 2002. Mr. Smith began his career in 1995 at Westwood Regional High School. He has also been a successful coach of high school athletes in multiple sports. He received his Master of Education in Instruction at The College of New Jersey and is presently a graduate student as Montclair State University pursuing a Master’s Degree in Mathematics Education. An avid technologist and information junkie, Mr. Smith loves to read when time allows. You can follow him on Twitter @SmithNHRHS.