Inspired by @sarahhollowell’s excellent thread on stress and trauma in school, I’ve thought some thinkings on the topic.
To start off, I am a white, straight, cis-man, and I grew up middle class. I can only speak to my experience, and my observation of others. I apologize if any generalizations I make are incorrect or cause offense.
Okay, disclaimers finished.
First of all, remember that you are a person of worth, you have value, intelligence, beauty, goodness, and a grand destiny. The best thing that you can do with your life is to find what you most love and to flourish in the pursuit of your dreams, because you’re a person, and deserve that. This is our common inheritance and treasury as humans, as persons.
Teaching a young person that they can value themselves and not their achievements is the most radical and effective way to heal and prevent the hurts of academic pressure that Sarah describes.
I had an unusual education. I was homeschooled until the seventh grade, and raised in a community that spent a lot time helping me to be confident, to love myself, and to trust that I was good enough for anything. I went into school as a choice, and all of that meant I was able to get through high school, college applications and four years of college with essentially no stress, no all-nighters, certainly no breakdowns.
I got an easy ride, not because I was smarter, but because I was lucky, and because I was supported.
Most of my friends in high school and in college came from similar spaces. They were white, some flavor of middle class, used to succeeding academically, but it cost. Every test is stress when you can’t trust your memory, every assignment is a referendum on your worth, every failure is a stain that will follow you forever. Maybe that’s a little hyperbolic, but I think it’s a fair assessment of how most of the students in my classes saw school. It was a constant test of whether they were worthy to succeed, to stay on the track that might lead to what they really wanted, somewhere down the line.
I saw breakdowns, tears, stress, people who missed sleep, who missed classes to complete assignments for others. I saw people who were at least as intelligent as I was convinced that they needed to spend every moment of time they had studying or writing for minor assignments. That is the effect of a competitive academic environment, prep-school or college, on young people who have been taught to value their achievements, but not themselves.
The treadmill of academic judgment distorts the teacher/student relationship too, to the detriment of both. I remember a teacher I had loved becoming combative and rude with our Spanish class, as we failed to meet the metrics which would have allowed her to give us high grades. Last year hadn’t prepared us for what we were supposed to know this year, so we were adversarial, and she was pressured from both sides, to compromise somewhere so too many kids wouldn’t fail. No one was allowed focus on whether we were learning, on what we needed in order to learn more easily.
School should not be place of fear or pain for anyone. It should not be a hurdle or gatekeeper. Education is a resource to help each of us on the road to that flourishing, those dreams that we deserve. All of us need some of it. Many of us need a great deal. We all deserve to get it without fear or stress or heartache.
The most radical change we can make to address this problem in education is to teach young people to value themselves first, not their successes, their awards or their grades. Self love is radical, and only self love, independent of any need for validation by grades or authority, allows for full and thoughtful self care. Teach people, when they are still young, that they are unconditionally worthy, and they can choose what is right for them, they can weather failures and persevere to successes and guide their lives on the best course with confidence.
This is a change that has to begin early, and be reinforced by a whole community. The longer a young person grows in an environment that ties their self-worth to achievement or praise, the harder it is to heal. If we don’t want school to be a place for nightmares, we must all learn to love ourselves for ourselves, and teach young people to do the same.