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are very much on my mind this Saturday morning.   I was supposed to be in Chicago for an educational conference this weekend, but because of an adolescent's personal crisis I could not go.  I am not for reasons of privacy going to go into the details.  I was in my classroom with little to do the past two days -  I had left lesson plans that did not require my presence.  That gave me time to observe and listen in a way I am not normally able to do.   Earlier in the week we had begun the process of registration for next year, which connected me with the fears, anxieties, and aspirations of a number of students.  I also thought of adolescents in our extended families, some I know through our religious communities, a few I have encountered around our neighborhood.

In the process I thought back to my own adolescence, which was perhaps the most unhappy time I have ever experienced.  

I had a student "lose it" completely in class on Tuesday, a few minutes after the announcements had completed.   As it happens, this student's parents had had a nasty divorce, and while in counseling, the student had not really shared with classmates, nor had any of the teachers been informed.  When later in the day I caught up with student and with custodial parent (please note I am trying to keep as much confidentiality as I can while discussion the incident) the parent apologized for not having informed me when I called at the beginning of the school year as I do for all my students, in part because I want to know of any issues that might affect the child in my class.

That is what started the process of this reflection, which continues below the squiggle.

When the student "lost it" and ran out of the room sobbing, two students immediately went out as well, to offer comfort and support.  That was important, and something I often see - the willingness of students to stand up for a classmate, to take personal risks to help and support.  Neither asked permission, both reacted instinctively and supportively.  The immediate needs of a classmate transcended any concern for their own personal well-being.

I also immediately went out, because a student in crisis outweighs anything else.  An administrator was at the end of the hall, he quickly but calmly came down, and we were able to get the student to the health room.  When I returned to the classroom, I explained to the other students (as I did in each of my five remaining classes) that if anyone was undergoing stressful situations it was important that adults know, even if we did not all have to know the details, so that we could make adjustments to help the student.  

I have had two students hospitalized with stress this year.  Both are taking an academically demanding course of students.  Both have suffered some levels of panic attacks that they cannot do the work, although both are capable.  In one case the parents decided to withdraw the student from Advanced Placement Government.  The same decision might be forthcoming for the other as well.  

I wonder if sometimes we ask too much of our gifted young people.   As my students are preparing to register for next year, I know that some of my AP students will be taking five or even six AP courses next year (out of a normal total of 7 courses, and in few cases 8).  I gently chide them, questioning if they want to have a life outside of classes.  I point out that a full load at most colleges is only 4 classes, and that is for students several years older than they will be.   We cannot refuse to let them sign up for such a demanding load, but I feel responsible to at least raise the question.

Advanced Placement was not so all-consuming when I was in high school, graduating in 1963.  I was exceedingly unusual in taking on Calculus as a 15 year old 11th grader.  I have students who now take Calculus A/B as sophomores, some as young as 13 at the start of the year.   As a teacher I try to balance the demands of coverage for the AP exam with the opportunity to explore topics that interest them in more depth.  That leads to my next observation.

Too many of our young people are obsessed with grades, with not making a mistake, and thus are unwilling to take risks.  I have to work very hard to get them to take intellectual risks, so they can truly understand their strengths and weaknesses, and learn how to learn, rather than depending upon adults always to give them step by step instructions.  It frustrates many of them.

Yet I walk into science fair and see the projects of students reluctant to push limits in my class who when they are impassioned about a subject can do wonderful explorations.  Their projects represent a form of assessment of knowledge that is in my opinion far more meaningful than most of the tests we impose upon them.  I wonder if it might not make more sense to create more such opportunities, perhaps by lessening the number of topics they study at any one time and allowing for greater exploration in depth?  We have a few students who do National History Day, and sometimes I can see a similar result.

I think we are damaging our young people with the way we do schooling, with the demands we put upon them.  I'm not sure it contributes constructively to better learning, even if test scores may improve (even without teaching to the test).  We turn many students off to school, we provide little down time during the day, we control their time and their behavior far too much, and as a result we do not know them well enough.  Even worse, they fully grasp that many of the adults with whom they interact do not really know them, and thus are less likely to let us know when they are having serious problems.   Their counselors are often unable to help until after a crisis has already exploded, because they have too many students, are consumed with paperwork -  scheduling, college applications, parent conferences.  

The crisis that meant I had to cancel my attendance at the conference flows directly from a young person who was not confiding in any adult.  There was behavior that perhaps should have served as a red flag, but no adult in that young person's life saw all the pieces until after a serious crisis.  After the crisis had exploded, the speculation among the adults who knew that child about the possible causes turned out to be wildly off-target.  This was a child who though deeply loved felt isolated and almost lost.   No child should ever feel that way.

I am not that close to that particular child.  Perhaps I should have been more so, perhaps not.  In retrospect some of what I did know could have alerted me and other adults, had we stepped back and taken time to reflect on the entire picture, which none of us as individuals had, but collectively we probably did.

I teach 175 students in six classes.  I have each class for 45 minutes a day, with up to 33 in at a time.  I do call all my parents, I will touch base with other teachers or other adults if I notice a problem, but I am pressed for time - as are the other adults in the school - and thus may be failing some children because there is not enough time to do the kind of followup unless a situation is near or already at a crisis point.

Our schools are not only places of academic learning.  They are places of social learning.  They should be places of emotional support.  Too often what we do in our schools makes them instead emotional stressers.   That bothers me.

As I continue my reflections on whether I will continue in the classroom next year, I now have a new issue to consider:  is what I am doing contributing to the emotional well-being of the student entrusted to my care?  If I cannot take into account their needs as individual persons, I cannot be the teacher I should be, and regardless of test scores or other indicators of academic learning, I am not sure I should be continuing in that role.

On the other hand, because I am aware of this need, and because I have some flexibility in what I do as a teacher, perhaps I feel a responsibility to continue precisely to try to make that difference.  Here I think of a teacher in our department who just turned down an opportunity to be the key person in a pilot program we will apparently be running next year.  I had made clear it could not be me because I could not guarantee that i would be returning next year, nor was I willing to commit to remaining for 3 years.  This teacher looked at what s/he would have to give up, which would have meant teaching fewer 9th graders not in honors classes, and felt a greater responsibility to help them make a successful transition to high school.  I respect that.

And the decision s/he made challenges my own thinking for the future.

In the meantime, with about 1/3 of the school year left, I want to be sure that I provide myself enough time and space to think about my students beyond the mere academics, to be sure that as much as I can I serve as an adult who provides space and support for those students who need it.  

Which might be far more than i realize right now.

An incident in a classroom.

A crisis with another young person with whom I am connected.

My thinking about my teaching, about what I do, gets challenged.

To me, that is a key part of what it means to be a teacher.

First and foremost I must remember, while I may be assigned as a teacher of social studies, what I teach is students, individual young persons, each absolutely unique.


Originally posted to teacherken on Sat Feb 18, 2012 at 04:30 AM PST.

Also republished by Education Alternatives and Teachers Lounge.

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Comment Preferences

  •  I think American culture puts way too much (11+ / 0-)

    emphasis on separating people into "losers" and "winners". Other cultures don't call somebody not doing so well a "loser". For example, in Turkey they would just say, "he's just having a bit of bad luck". I think the hyper-competitive American attitude towards life is really driving up stress levels in children and adults and encourages bad attitudes towards those not as well off.

    We should try to do our best in everything we do. But since a lot of our success or failure is outside of our control, relaxing a bit is a very good idea.

  •  Key phrase (13+ / 0-)
    I wonder if sometimes we ask too much of our gifted young people.
    On a once per year basis I do work with the group the does accreditation of High Schools (and now lower schools as well) for the mid-Atlantic region. I have actually seen one school that went as far as to have a school wide task force to scale down the academic pressure. The students were getting burned out because every last one of them was scared of being the student that didn't get into Harvard, Stanford, or Northwestern. This approach really worked well.

    In my own teaching, I have a complete and total ban on giving assignments over breaks and/or long weekends. I want the students to be able to get away and recharge over that time. I know I want the same of myself.

    •  I consider this long weekend (6+ / 0-)

      students have assignments that will be do, but they had time in class the past two days (because I expected to be at the conference).

      I do not give work over Thanksgiving, Winter or Spring breaks.  They need down time as well.

      "what the best and wisest parent wants for his child is what we should want for all the children of the community" - John Dewey

      by teacherken on Sat Feb 18, 2012 at 05:15:51 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  I tested Thursday and Friday in GOV (3+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        foresterbob, weck, ER Doc

        We just wrapped up with a unit test on Executive brach, Federalism, and Judicial Branch.  We'll start rights and freedoms fresh on Tuesday.

        My World History students just wrapped up watching Gandhi, but they have a major essay that isn't due until March 5th.

    •  I've attended both a state school as an (8+ / 0-)

      undergrad and an elite Ivy League school as a graduate student, while still taking some undergraduate classes there. The academic pace at the Ivy League school is definitely faster for equivalent courses.

      But if I could relive my life and had the option, I would have still gone to the state school rather than the elite one as an undergrad. At the state school, I was able to secure a really good internship with a  professor and became "teacher's pet" of many of my professors :). I also met my significant other at the state school, too :). Had I been at the Ivy League school as an undergrad, a shy student like me would have been left out in an environment of hyper-competitive and extremely confident students. So even if you end up at your "safety school", you might look back and say that it was the best possible outcome.

      •  I hear you there (4+ / 0-)

        The only thing that bugs me is how many people are flat out snobs in the hiring process. I can't speak to every field, but I know a ton of school districts in suburban Philly won't hire folks directly out of a PA state school.

        •  Mostel - there are many reasons for that (0+ / 0-)

          I write this as someone who was an undergraduate at a not at all notable state college, with a graduate degree from a more prestigious state university. Hiring professionals and managers like everyone else have limited time. If an organization has found an efficient track that produces lots of good candidates they will stick with it until it stops working. The thought is that if you recruit at an Ivy class school the university has done the first several screenings for you.

          At an extreme I know of one firm who hires only magna cum laude, or better, Ivy League grads who were on the varsity crew team, both men and women. What they have found is that kids who are willing to be up at 5am sitting in cold water and will spend hours practicing rowing a shell, and are top Ivy grads, have the following characteristics: They are smart, team players, grasp the idea of goals and objectives, are coachable, work hard, are dedicated, good time managers, and loyal. As someone who is too big to be a coxswain and much too short to row this seems very discriminatory. However, this firm has found that this narrow group of graduates nearly always succeeds in their culture. It also gives them a common experience which creates other bonds. Personally, I have no problem with this, even though I know that no one in my family would ever be a candidate.

          "let's talk about that"

          by VClib on Sat Feb 18, 2012 at 09:29:19 AM PST

          [ Parent ]

    •  It's not just the gifted. It's also sped. (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Mostel26, ER Doc
      •  Whole different isssue (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        ER Doc

        Special Education students present an entire different set of issues with expectations.

        - should they take the same high stakes tests as everybody else?

        - if so, should they be counted against the student / teacher / school in the same way?

        - how does one best balance real expectations for that student as individual with parents who aren't working with reality for that student?

    •  Thank you for this (6+ / 0-)

      I'm the parent of such a kid, in 8th grade. The pressure he puts on himself because of expectations of others that his work will always be "perfect" is crazy. He was dealing with stress, admittedly somewhat self-inflicted, by sixth grade.

      I've taken him out of his school math program because the homework load was crazy. He does self-paced independent study math through an online program offered by Stanford. He's several years ahead of grade level (and his school class), but I'm letting him do math on his schedule. Since he's in parochial school, I can get away with writing notes to excuse him from various other assignments, citing "family reasons". I'm a single mom, and we probably get cut some slack because others perceive that it's "hard" to live our lives.

      We talk a lot about small liberal arts colleges (I went to one), and to some of the UCs or state schools that aren't the huge "name" schools. He knows that many people, even in California, haven't heard of the college I attended, and somehow it's not really mattered.

      I'm really, really trying to get a lot of this ingrained in him before high school, because I know the pressure will ratchet up like crazy then. He's having fun now, and I'd like that to continue.

      We're both about to walk to a nearby coffeehouse to get a lot of our respective schoolwork done. My goal is to have tomorrow and Monday off.  We'll see how it goes.

      "I like to go into Marshall Field's in Chicago just to see all the things there are in the world that I do not want." M. Madeleva, C.S.C.

      by paxpdx on Sat Feb 18, 2012 at 08:39:32 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  well done (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:

        I know, first-hand, single parenting is tough but you seem to be doing it well.  Keep it up.  

        That homework "thing" is a bear.  My son had no interest in school whatsoever so getting him to do his homework was a royal pain.  I told him once, "we spend two hours arguing about ten minutes of work!"  I wish I'd had ideas like yours of making it a social, coffeehouse affair.  Good idea!  

        Trying to make sense of the world and failing miserably.

        by DevonTexas on Sat Feb 18, 2012 at 10:26:02 AM PST

        [ Parent ]

        •  Well, it helps... (0+ / 0-)

          ... that I'm in grad school now, too. (And working.) I have homework, and have to get it done around everything else. So today we walked just under a mile to a little place in San Jose, and we're camped out here. Not the most efficient, especially since they're roasting coffee beans not ten feet away (oooh! cool! :) ), but it's good quality time together.

          On Sundays, we often study in the library of the local small(-ish) university that's a campus of where I'm enrolled. He wanders around on breaks, gets snacks in the student center, and generally is very comfortable with the place. He also sees the college students (he looks older than 14, so can sort of wander unnoticed), what they're doing, what they're NOT doing (24/7 studying) - and he's getting a real picture of what comes next.

          But I'm very lucky. He's not thrilled with 8th grade - incredibly bored - but he loves learning and reading. He knows I hated school - I barely survived 7th grade, skipped 8th, and dropped out of HS just before finishing 11th grade. My AP English & AP History teachers probably saved my life and future by helping me get into college anyway. I just want his experience to be better than mine.

          Glad you survived the single parenting thing, too! No picnic, but some unexpected goodness, too.

          "I like to go into Marshall Field's in Chicago just to see all the things there are in the world that I do not want." M. Madeleva, C.S.C.

          by paxpdx on Sat Feb 18, 2012 at 11:42:24 AM PST

          [ Parent ]

  •  Having a student in crisis was a daily expectation (6+ / 0-)

    in my Alternative High School setting.  The pressure was rarely academic, GED was a challenge for some but not most of my students. The real challenge was to keep the others from going off task while the student(s) who weren't able to continue with lessons went to the nurse, counselor, principal or home.

    As a teacher I could usually see events developing and would send the student on an errand to the place I thought they needed to be.

    One of the most unpredictable was a young man with known anger issues who would check his messages when he was done with his work.  Sometimes he would smile, setting up plans for later, but for a while, when he checked his phone, he might stand up, throw the table and chair and storm out of the room to the outside, where he would try to settle down, usually by sneaking a cigarette, crying and talking with a friend until the bell rang.  It was a relief to many of us when he graduated without taking the anger out on another person.

    In my final year I had two half-day classes of 20 students, and every single one was either classified or had been through anger management based on past events. For the first time I had students (three!) whose primary language was not English.

    As much as I loved helping those Alternative kids get back on track with a diploma, retiring from that kind of setting probably saved me from a lifetime of stress-related illness.

  •  Excellent diary, Ken. (6+ / 0-)

    I'm planning to boost signal to my Facebook as well.

    I see the other side of the spectrum, and what we're doing with current high-stakes testing and the so-called "education reform" is not helpful to the special ed kids with mild to moderate learning disabilities, ADHD, and emotional disturbance (all categories that make up my caseload as a special education learning specialist).  These kids often feel as if school is continually telling them they are stupid and worthless.  

    It's my job to convince them otherwise and extract that excellent thinking ability many of these kiddos have.

    I'm one of those specialists for whom it's the job to try to put together those pieces and prevent blowouts like the one you describe, at least for kids on my caseload.  It's getting to be difficult because non-special ed administration looks at what I do and only sees a licensed warm body who can take on more classroom teaching work to balance loads, and doesn't necessarily value the preventative and intervention work I do (which requires one-on-one work or small group work and more flexibility).

    Building administration learns to value that skill but above them?  Not so much.

  •  I see it as well... (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Mostel26, teacherken, Justus, paxpdx

    I spent the greater portion of my life teaching math...first in high school...most recently in middle school. I retired last June for a variety of reasons but I see the same stress among middle school kids. I have had many students be depressed, anxious, sad, and stressed. I have had parents tell me that their child will not get into Harvard if they earn a B...certainly not the majority but the underlying pressure is there. I see students who will not take academic risks because they fear failure so sad. I live just North of Chicago and would love to share stories and connect. I have read and been a fan of your diaries for a while now....take care!

    •  $ for college / cost of college issues as well (0+ / 0-)

      On top of the "never getting to Harvard with a middle school B grade" crowd is the "your job is to get my kid a scholarship" gang. This comes up in academics and athletics as well. On one level, these type of parents bug me. On the other hand, the cost of college is criminal; so I feel their pain.

  •  "Social studies" (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    teacherken, Ms Citizen, Justus, DevonTexas

    Ken, you may teach the academic discipline of "social studies", but it's so obvious from your writing that you also teach the human dimensions of social studies - of how we relate to, with, and among one another. Your kids are lucky to have you.

    Perhaps the young person who had a serious crisis wasn't close enough to you for you to have been aware of anything or to have done anything. But of course, any sort of crisis that one child experiences, no matter how lost or alone they think they are, affects all of the other kids in the school, including the students whom you teach. They couldn't control the crisis, but perhaps you've helped equip them to handle the challenge that it is in their own lives. And the students who left to comfort the student who lost it in class on Tuesday - yes, it's a sign of their compassion, but perhaps it's also a sign of the values that they know that you have - that caring for their friend would be a priority for you, and they'd not be punished for doing it.

    In a month my son will learn which of the four college prep schools has accepted him for the next four years. He may have a choice to make, then, which would affect our lives, where we live, but most important, what his high school experience will be like. I'm frankly least concerned about the school or its programs, and most interested in the school's values and support of all of its students as human beings.

    I'm friends with my HS AP English teacher (1983-4) on Facebook. I remember absolutely nothing whatsoever from that class, but I remember her kindness and compassion. It's been a rough week, but your kids may well remember that about you years from now, too.

    "I like to go into Marshall Field's in Chicago just to see all the things there are in the world that I do not want." M. Madeleva, C.S.C.

    by paxpdx on Sat Feb 18, 2012 at 08:54:36 AM PST

    •  funny thing... (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      "I remember absolutely nothing whatsoever from that class, but I remember her kindness and compassion."
      I most most students can look back on school in this way and, it wasn't what we learned about engligh, history, math, or science, but kindness and compassion.  

      I got an email recently about a valued and respected teacher who'd passed away.  I recall a few things he taught (high school philosophy) but mostly I remember his igniting a fire of passion in me about listening, observing, and learning.  He truly "taught".  We could argue with him and be open about anything we thought and he never passed judgement, except as grades which he detested but had to assign.   I've thought of him many times over the past 40 years... even now.

      Trying to make sense of the world and failing miserably.

      by DevonTexas on Sat Feb 18, 2012 at 10:35:44 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  Very nice discussion (0+ / 0-)

    We cannot help but get involved with the lives of our students.  It is part of the job, even if it isn't the part that the funding people (i.e. the leg.) thinks we do.  

  •  Grades are not that important (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    "Too many of our young people are obsessed with grades"

    In the FWIW department, I obsessed over my GPA from high school and into college.  In HS, I graduated second in my class with a 4.0 out of 4.  (The valedictorian took a higher place because he'd been at the same school longer.) In college, I figured having a high GPA meant I could get into the better colleges.  I was accepted by several Ivy League schools but chose a state university close to home.  So, in fact, my high school GPA was for naught.  

    More out of habit than anything else, I maintained a near 4.0 in college.  I figured it would help in getting into post-graduate schools or a better job.  Generally, no one has asked for my GPA in the many, many years since graduation.  A couple times, it was a question on a job application but no one seemed to notice.  

    My point is simple.  Enjoy learning.  A GPA is not really relevant outside academia.  Struggling and stressing over it is worthless and counter-productive.  If you're planning on graduate school, maintain a reasonablly good GPA but, more importantly, be in an area of study you enjoy.  You'll never fail at doing something you love to do.  Anything else is hardly worth the effort.

    Trying to make sense of the world and failing miserably.

    by DevonTexas on Sat Feb 18, 2012 at 10:19:40 AM PST

    •  Kudos on loving to learn, but I must take (0+ / 0-)

      exception to:

      A GPA is not really relevant outside academia.
         I was given that advice when I was in college by people not in my position. They had good grades and a solid GPA.  They told me not to stress, just "get your degree, that's what matters. No one cares about your GPA out in the 'real world'".
         I graduated in 1986 with a 2.45. I had some issues there at the end of my college career that made the last semesters dicey. I could have done more,  been more focused and left with a better GPA; probably more like a 3.0. It hinged on a couple of classes etc, but, "it didn't matter".
         I never could have predicted then the path my life has since taken. Graduating from college, the future ahead, the world was my oyster.  Back in the eighties I never imagined how desperately I might need a job, in what discipline or what the economy would hold.
         I have had numerous occasions when it did matter. Several times when it limited my employment options; was taken as a lack of learning or ability to excel. Even much later in my career, certain positions and fields, when you indicate college degree, the next question is GPA.
         When the economy buckled, I decided to investigate teaching. This was before all the cuts and the state was looking to hire and desperate for teachers. I was told because of the GPA, I would need to take some classes to raise my GPA to qualify for certain opportunities.
         With a family and bills, I didn't have the resources or the flexibility to go back to UT, and take classes and the classes I needed were not available online.
         So, it did matter what my GPA was and it mattered a lot and it was a door that had, for all practical purposes, closed.  
         What I learned from this episode, with regard to GPA, it's an old life lesson saying, that generally applies to everything else in this life.

      It's better to have it and not need it, than to need it and not have it.

      I would never again ever purposely choose to limit my options, nor would I ever advise anyone else to take that route. Not a good life choice.


      Occupy- Your Mind. - No better friend, no worse enemy. -8.75, -6.21

      by Thousandwatts on Mon Feb 20, 2012 at 02:40:33 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  US policies make us obsessed with GPA, (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    much to what should be all our dismay. Oodles of research in educational psychology, much of it flowing from the lab of Dr. Carol Dweck at Stanford, shows the dangers of this too. I wish more folks knew about it. Undue emphasis on grades and outcomes puts the wrong kind of stress on students and shapes their mindsets into just what you note: it makes students insecure and afraid of risk. I've recently started writing about this in a different forum* because there just aren't enough hours in a term to discuss with my students (I teach a variety of psychology classes at a small liberal arts college in the NW), but I want to spread the word as widely as I can. The research is stuck in journals rather than in the hands and minds of those who can use it -- teachers! Everyone should spend more time worrying about our students psycho-social adjustment. In the end, it's motivation and mindset, and small steps taken towards distant goals that matter most. I believe it was Einstein who said that "the search for truth is more valuable than its possession." In our current high-stakes-testing environment, the point of this sentiment is lost. Students are memorizing and worrying, not searching.

    *I started a wordpress blog ( to share my views, but may work on cross-posting here if folks are interested. In the posts I've got so far, I discuss many of the concerns you raise here, and offer suggestions on how to avoid them.  Anyway, I'm new to DK, so I hope this kind of reply is appropriate.

    •  perfectly fine - & do crosspost eom (0+ / 0-)

      "what the best and wisest parent wants for his child is what we should want for all the children of the community" - John Dewey

      by teacherken on Sat Feb 25, 2012 at 10:35:20 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

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