Unwinding the Stress Ball That Is Today's American School

May 20, 2018

I don't miss it. 

I do miss my students. And I miss my teacher-colleagues. But I don't miss my work in the classroom.

Jockeying for my turn in the faculty restroom. Feigning interest in faculty meetings that should have been e-mails. Trying to unhear the parents abuzz in the parking lot brimming with their Pinterest-post plans for their kid's next project.

Talk. Task. Test. 
Lather. Rinse. Repeat. 
And, of course, the Anxiety.

The average eleven-year-old should not even know the word Anxiety. But during my 25 years, more and more often, my students arrived in August with this diagnosis already documented. And it's not only the students' anxiety that increased over my years in the classroom. The teachers and the parents felt it, too. Achievements. Recognition. Ribbons. Awards. Each came with its extra bonus dose of stress to be the best.

I couldn't see it from the inside because it happened so gradually. But now, a year later and metaphorically miles away, I can see what's happening and what we can do about it.

These days, teachers are reporting very high rates of stress. This article explains the multiple impacts of teacher stress. Teacher turn-over is on the rise and our newest teachers are the first to find the door. Nearly half of all new teachers change careers within their first 5 years. But the impacts of their stress go beyond the teachers and their colleagues - their stress impacts their students.

Our kids are feeling pressures at levels I didn't see when I first began teaching. Their stress may affect their ability to view the world as a safe, welcoming place, an understanding place where efforts are encouraged and failure isn't a dirty word. One of my mantras, when I was a teacher, was "failure is an opportunity" - meaning that without failing we don't really learn. Unfortunately, not everyone agreed with that messaging. This report explores teen depression and anxiety in today's youth, identifying social media and school pressures as leading causes of the rise in mental health-related concerns in recent years. 

In extreme cases, student stress may even be killing them. While I am not suggesting that stress and anxiety singularly lead to youth suicide, I am saying it could be a contributing factor. Suicide deaths are complex, not caused by one isolated incident or issue. And we know that 9 out of 10 suicide deaths are due to underlying mental illness. But did you know that anxiety can be a mental illness?

Nearly 3,500 high school age young people attempt suicide every day. Look at the seasonability of suicide in adults versus youth cited in this article. Adults tend to complete suicide in the summer, but for young people, the highest rates of suicide are in the fall - which for a great majority of young people, is the start of a new school year.

And, we mustn't forget the parents. It seems that everyone looks to parents to be the solution. We want to hold them responsible for everything, don't we? This report aptly explains that it takes a balance between school, students, parents, and the community at large to create a healthy atmosphere for today's young people to thrive.

This is a virus that is spreading but we can stop it. Not every school environment is teeming with pressures tied to AP course enrollment or state-test achievement, but our children - and their teachers and parents- feel pressure to be the best at something. Or, worse, they feel like failures if they aren't considered good at anything.

But we can help alleviate the stressors affecting today's students, teachers, and parents.

Tell your child that you are proud of them, not only when they have completed something with "success". But, more importantly, choose a time when they are struggling and let them know that THAT makes you proud of them. Their determination, their curiosity, their tenacity is what makes you proud. NOT their blue ribbon or their "A+". Speaking of grades, STOP looking so closely at them. Instead, focus on what your child LEARNED. A grade, regardless of where it came from, is inherently subjective. Even nationally-standardized tests have some level of bias. And while I am not suggesting you completely ignore the grades your child brings home, since that's not exactly practical today, I am suggesting you discuss with your child what they learned rather than focus on what score they received. With this refocusing of values, you, too, may feel your parent pressures lighten as well.

Convey the message to your students that "Failure is an opportunity" and learning happens when there is a challenge to overcome. Find that "sweet spot" between too easy and too difficult and lead them to it. Recognize their efforts - genuine efforts - rather than just their "achievements". Maybe instead of posting high scores on the bulletin board, post students' responses about WHAT THEY LEARNED in the process. And don't be afraid to challenge your leadership if you think the expectations they have for your students are not developmentally appropriate. You know your students far better than your leadership does. Your students and their parents trust you to look out for them. Seek ways to educate your leadership if they dismiss students' social-emotional needs in lieu of school-level achievement. I know this can be risky, as you may feel you could lose your job, but no job or school achievement is worth a child's life.

Recognize that your value is not determined by a score, or a ranking, or a label. Your value is so much more than any of that. Rather than defining yourself by your achievements define yourself by your character. Be the kid who is always kind and who always tries and who is always curious. THAT will expose your VALUE so much more thoroughly. Seek out others who appreciate you for you. Spend time with those who make you feel like your best self, the person who you know yourself to be. And if you feel pressures or stress, know you are not alone. There are people who can help you and who will listen. You can call them. You can text them. And, I am one of them. I will help. I promise.




  1. This is an excellent article.

    When parents used to contact me and ask "How can my child get a better grade in your class?" I triedy to respond with "Let's talk about how your child can learn this skill/material."

    I recently changed to a school where state testing is not a big deal. There are no pep-rallies to hype them up to do better, no stress-inducing talks about the scores, etc. It is amazing to see the difference in the children and the teachers.

    I also find that these students are not as over-scheduled as at my previous "Blue Ribbon" school. The students are involved in some after-school activities, but I am not hearing about multiple activities in one day and the percentage of students with an "anxiety" diagnoses is significantly less as well.

    Change is possible. I hope more parents, schools, and educators can shift the focus to help our youth to be happy, healthy, balanced children.

    1. Thank you for your comment. I am glad your current school offers a more balanced experience for everyone. We need to keep talking about this. You're right. Change is possible - but we need to talk about it to inspire the change.