In a recent survey of more than 200,000 incoming students, highlighted yesterday in the NY Times, researchers found that college freshman are reporting higher levels of stress than ever before.
Should this really come as a surprise?
I came through the public school system just before standardized testing really started to gain momentum. My parents were wonderful, challenging me to do my best, but never communicating to my brother or I that any particular level of achievement was necessary to attain their love or approval. And yet I remember from a young age how important I felt that my performance on the Iowa Basics were…a test as it was given then that mattered very little compared to the assessments being given today to assess individual student performance, and in some places the performance of a teacher as well. I have memories of putting up my Pee Chee folders so no-one could look at my answers, focusing as intensely as I could, and then waiting for months to find out what percentile I landed in…and these memories are from 2nd grade…when I was just 7 years old…and that was nothing compared to the academic pressure today’s students face.
In my time as an educator I’ve seen elementary school students get physically sick from stress, I’ve seen high school students inconsolably shake and cry with worry that they wouldn’t pass their high-school exit exam (an image I don’t know that I’ll ever forget), and I’ve seen teachers and parents who have reached the point where they don’t know what else they can do–and just want to know what they are supposed to.
Like so many elements of our society and culture today, our students are under pressure. Pressure to perform in school, pressure to look like the people they see on the screen, pressure to say “everything’s fine”, pressure to be the best athlete, performer (even though it uses significant Hollywood flair, the current movie Black Swan brings light to this very frightening issue), or musician, the pressure to get a job when they’re hard to come buy, to choose a college major while simultaneously jobs and careers are rapidly evolving…And this is without even considering the unimaginable strains students shoulder in homes where poverty, substance abuse, or other kinds of abuse and/or neglect are a daily reality.
pressure. Pressure. PRESSURE
Just last week I saw Matt Davidson speak to a group of 40 young adults on “The illusive pursuit of life purpose balance,” during which it became clear that my peers and I are part of a generation whose understanding of the difference between seeking to improve and seeking to be perfect has somehow been obscured, and that the generation coming behind us are in danger of experiencing this to an even more heightened degree.
As it is with any great challenge, there is great opportunity here as well, it is not all gloom and doom. We have a chance to prepare a generation of young people who have the essential skills needed to manage stress, communicate well, serve others, and pursue their passions. We can learn to put these same skills into practice as adults…in our work, in our communities, and in our homes.
As we all work to improve our schools, our teachers, our student performance, and our own personal and professional lives…let’s not forget to help each other develop the skills needed to live a “balanced, purposeful, and healthy life,” remembering that in every dictionary on every shelf, each of those words comes before the word “test.”