This is my first year as a full time teacher, after working for many years in education as a part-time teacher, researcher, and coach with Challenge Success. Throughout the year I’ve seen the complexities and nuances of how student stress works up close. Stress doesn’t just come from one place. It’s not only teachers assigning too much homework, or a hectic school schedule, or one too many extracurricular activities. It’s deeper than any one of those things. It’s cultural, and it’s something we not only feel, but also go in search of.
In an odd way, I feel like we take a certain pride in being busy. Hard work, it goes without saying, is admirable, and it’s far better to work too hard than not work hard enough. For example, as a teacher I rarely feel compelled to say to a student, “Hey Hector, you worked too hard on this. Try taking it easier next time.” The implication of this would be, “this assignment is too well done, too thorough, too neat.” On the other hand it’s not uncommon to say, “Jacob, this feels rushed. Did you put in enough effort? Did you save it for the last minute?”
Students pick up on this distinction, which comes not only from feedback on turned-in work, but from their parents, their peers, television shows they watch, books they read, and even video games they play (populated as they are with tireless heroes and villains who are sometimes evil, sometimes admirable, but never lazy). Stress itself is not admirable, per se, but busy-ness is, and busy-ness turns into stress easily.
So there is no simple origin for stress, and hence there is no one panacea, one thing I can do, as a teacher, to reduce the stress of my students when they secretly want to be able to say how busy they are, when their parents want them to do well in school, and when students themselves make choices – like saving work for the last minute – which unduly increase stress. What’s more, 8th graders live intensely dramatic social lives, where friendships rise and fall in days, crushes are not-always-closely-guarded secrets, and the adolescent germs of independence-seeking youthful rebellion are starting to grow. In short, it’s hard being 14 even without school.
This year my 8th graders have taught me how complicated their stress is, and they’ve also shown me that there are little things I can do to improve their experience. The following are three big ideas that I had considered in the abstract before – as a coach with Challenge Success, and as a student and researcher – but which now carry the weight of experience. They’re not panaceas or solutions, in themselves. Rather, they are all important ideas to keep in mind when thinking about how to tackle the difficult issue of student stress.
1) Some stress can be good. Students want rigor and want to feel motivated.
My students do best when they feel challenged. Reading the difference between paralyzed and overwhelmedand intimidated but up for it is not always easy, but it’s worth it to figure out the markers for each and every student. A challenged student is a motivated student, and reducing stress cannot mean reducing rigor, because that leads to disengagement and boredom, which in turn makes school more stressful. It is no accident that my students feel most stressed not when they have the most or most difficult work to do, but rather when they are not convinced that the work they have to do is worthwhile.
2) It’s not easy to tell how much homework students actually do. Make sure you find out the whole story.
Anyone who has taught middle school knows that some students complain about everything, and especially how much homework they have. At one point this year I asked one of my more grumpy students how much homework she has on a typical night, worried that maybe me and my fellow 8th grade teachers were overdoing it. “Oh,” she said, “About 45 minutes.” I thought about this for a minute. Not only do we have an hour-long ‘homework period’ – a quiet time for students to work independently – at the end of our school day, but this student also spends the next hour in study hall after school. I responded, “So, basically you have enough time to finish it in homework period and study hall every day, so you’re done before you go home at 4.” She said, “Yeah, that’s right,” and left it at that. “So much homework” didn’t mean “more than I can do,” or, “so much that it takes away from family time.” I was relieved. I also realized that, for a student who has been at a school where we make a point of limiting homework load and craft assignments that are never busywork and always requires thinking this was a lot of work, but totally doable.
On the flip side, some students will quietly spend hours and hours on assignments that were meant to be finished in a fraction of that time. I have another student who routinely turns in work to me, digitally, well after midnight. In speaking to him, I’ve learned that he spends hours and hours in sports practices, and is such a perfectionist about his school work that he’ll easily put in double or triple the time his classmates do on each assignment. Add in his serial procrastination and you have a recipe for a classic over-stressed student: too much to do, too little sleep. Add in, in his case, the added complication that he never offers a word of complaint. Indeed, if you ask him, he’ll say that he wants to work so hard. There’s no easy solution here, as this student is a classic example of broader cultural values at work, but fact finding and recognizing that the problem exists is a key first step.
3) Giving students time to get work done is not enough; you have to teach them to use that time effectively.
My school’s hour long homework period is, I think, a particularly brilliant idea, but it only works if it’s implemented properly. What does “properly” mean? Middle school students, no matter how engaged they are by their curriculum and class projects, need structure and support from teachers to work effectively. I’ve come to understand that running homework period is possibly the most important part of my job, because it’s a time when I can teach, on an individual basis, skills that go way beyond my Language Arts curriculum. I can teach resilience, when to ask for help (and when to figure it out yourself), how to stay organized, and how to prioritize tasks. Being firm and consistent with expectations for student use of homework period – and following through on those expectations – makes student experience effective. Improperly implemented, homework period could simply be an hour-long socialization and decompression time for students. That would have some merits, but perhaps the best way to reduce stress is to get the stressful work done (and how much smaller does it usually seem when it’s done!). Homework period allows students to do that, as long as the atmosphere the teacher establishes is a productive one.
Reducing stress and improving the student experience isn’t about making school easy. It’s about setting high expectations, providing meaningful learning opportunities, and ensuring that students can succeed at meeting real challenges. It’s about finding out the truth from students, knowing what they want, what they need, and when those things are either in concert or in contradiction. It’s about teaching students to be positive and productive, teaching them to prioritize and make effective use of their time, and teaching them to be reflective and self-aware. It’s not easy, but it’s worth the effort.