Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Killing them Softly IV: Unnecessarily Stressed to the Max

In April of 2007, MIT Dean of Admissions, Marilee Jones, resigned after evidence came forward that she had lied on her resume 28 years prior. This Sunday, I listened as Ms. Jones discussed her experience, examined the act of lying and the pressures she feels led to it, and lamented about how the college admissions process is setting our students up to either crush themselves while adolescents or lie to achieve admission.

I teach high school. I taught middle school for seven years. At the middle school level, we taught students that responsibility was very important when they got to high school and that they needed to practice that responsibility while they had the support of the middle school model. Now that I am teaching high school, that message seems like a lie. The students I work with in high school need that support more than ever, but are left to contend with their own survival in an environment that pretends to have all of the answers about a world separated from them by large brick walls.

There is a systematic problem with what we communicate about the real world to our students and our children. I do not know where it originates, but this is an attempt to find some line of reasoning that pressures us into destroying the psyches of our youth. Yes, some thrive in the environment I am about to present, much like some bacteria thrive in the harshest of places. The real question lies in whether we want to create educational environments and philosophies focused on the success of extremophiles while crushing our other students.

Whether it is reality or not, students I have taught both as eighth-graders and juniors paint an interesting picture of what they think is required of them to get to college. Some might argue that their perception doesn't always meet reality, but please remember that it is their reality based upon information they receive from teachers, administrators, and parents.

They feel that they need the following to be accepted into college:
-Stacked AP courses with high scores on AP tests
-Higher than 4.0 GPA
-Multiple extra-curricular athletic activities
-Multiple extra-curricular non-athletic activities
-Participation in leadership roles in the school
-Multiple community service experiences
-Occupational experiences
-High scores on high stakes tests
-Others to include portfolios and evidence for all above

We as adults can look at this on paper and believe that all of these are great opportunities to create a well-rounded individual who will succeed in a globally competitive market. We also ignore what it is doing to them and instead focus on teaching them to deal with the stress involved. At some point, we have to look at the cause of the problem instead of which bandage we use to cover it.

Consider, for example, all of the time spent to meet the criteria laid out above. If a student is taking four or even five AP courses, it is likely that each of those classes come with at least an hour of homework. That doesn't seem like a lot on the surface, but based on yesterday's post, how many people reading now are willing to add another five hours of work related to what you did at a desk for seven or eight hours? Now, add that to the time spent at swimming practice or basketball practice, debate, volunteer tutoring, time in churches, working a coffee stand, online classes, ACT/SAT prep, and the added responsibilities of chores from parents and family obligations. It seems so easy to assign an hour of homework as a single teacher, but rarely are all of these areas considered when thinking of the small pool of time available to these students. It again forces us to question the true purpose of education.

The act of writing the paragraph above spiked my adrenaline and heart rate; I cannot imagine living it while negotiating the unavoidable social expectations that adolescents must deal with simply due to the natural activity in their bodies and brains.

This is the part where parents and teachers (adults nostalgic about their own experiences) point out that this is merely a path certain students choose and that they should be ready for the stress. I would argue that the very students who choose this path would do just as well in their careers and lives if they dropped the AP courses, forgot about the added criteria, and played outside for three or four hours a day. However, as people who have reinforced our dominance upon children for their entire lives, we tell them daily that their futures matter more than their present. Most believe us, and we harshly punish those who don't.

I hate to be redundant, so I will link a different story from a different perspective which restates a message from yesterday. Our children don't have to attend top schools to be successful! In fact, the stress related to getting there could do more damage than the education they would receive is worth.

That was just the stress side of this evil coin. Let's move onto what we are teaching our children, and what they learn from this environment.

Meeting the list above does not teach our children how to learn, give back, belong, or fulfill their basic and advanced needs. The criteria, the lack of time to meet it, and the stress it creates do nothing more than train our children how to anxiously accomplish simple tasks. That is the only way to manage all of the data and all of the experiences needed for what we call high school success. We are teaching them how to go through the motions. We are teaching them to submit to a system that will work them to the very break of their emotional core in order to fulfill a false mythology of success being measured by where one went to school and how large their wallet is.

It cuts even deeper when we look at the reality of our nation at this time in history and truly deal with the fact that we are putting our children through this stress so they may fight each other and their own health to grab at the copper coins falling from the purses of the incredibly wealthy. It doesn't matter what political ideology we prescribe to, the numbers are undeniable.

Our nation has an ever-increasing acceptance of anxiety and depression in our lives. Through our current perspective on education, higher education, and career decisions, we are passing this legacy onto our children at even higher rates.

What I do not understand is our willingness to ignore the data. The information is here. It is not hidden. We know what is good and bad for the organism. We know that the best situation for our nation's economy is to be a powerhouse of creative ideas, yet we continue to perpetuate a system that trains our children not to think through problems and understand concepts with deep, abstract understanding supported by concrete experiences. We instead force mountains of time-consuming busy work upon them which teaches that education and learning is hard, mundane, and about three decades behind what they want to be doing in their garage, like building and programing robots.

Is it any wonder they would rather check out and play a game? Is it any wonder they would look for meaning in social media? What do we have to offer them? Is it any wonder half of them spite us, a quarter of them fear us, and the rest play the game perfectly because they realize it's a game? They are smart, in their own way.

We are, in essence, telling our adolescents that all of their activities as teens are only as valuable as they look on a resume. This discounts the very benefits we tell them they have as teenagers with no real responsibilities. I cannot imagine living with that confusion.

Check back in tomorrow. I will discuss the actions we take and the money we spend to simply counter a problem we have created by adding this stress on our students. Feel free to comment, email me at, or friend/follow me on Facebook or Twitter or google+.

1 comment:

  1. Much easier to read now :-) but that doesn't mean I think we should see Ms. Jones as a victim, lol. Yes, she is an elite product of our system (though a tad bit tarnished) , but that system is focused on producing possessive narcissists, not on producing critical thinkers, and if you have any doubts just ask their parents...

    Ms. Jones is the cheerleader for "me, mine, more" and the ultimate gatekeeper - the person to whom your students must sell themselves with your assistance, and Ms Jones' position?

    "As Dean of Admissions, Jones was very vocal in the college admissions realm, advocating for less emphasis on applicants with perfect scores, warning about parental over-involvement in the admissions process, and encouraging students to enjoy life. Jones spent the last few months promoting the book Less Stress, More Success, which describes how to reduce the stress of college admissions. It also mentions the importance of integrity and honesty in applications."

    Indeed, why worry? You can lie and cheat your way through by just submitting fraudulent documents and not worry about a thing. Thank you for your advice, Ms. Jones. And now, skip down through the rhetoric, and read the actual qualifications of MIT admittees....

    Am I about to suddenly become a Lani Guinier devotee screaming about the tyranny of, well, Ms. Jones? I don't think so. Nor do I think that UAA is going to offer you the instruction you can get at MIT, and certainly the the opportunities. To most, venturing off to college is thinking about a pig in a poke, undiscovered country, even more so for those without any experience with college. And to go one step further, consider the high school student who has been awarded a diploma that means nothing because the school attended did little more than print and distribute the diploma.

    Where's the beef? Well.... it could be with a competent instructional cadre, but that does not exist in the US. Teachers are regarded with disrespect (often times earned disrespect) while teacher unions are regarded as thugs. Post-secondary programs are rocked by academic scandals regularly, coaches earn top salaries, and more and more "colleges" are little more than privately funded propaganda fronts.

    What we are telling our teens is that we are selfish, self-involved, greedy, vicious pigs (apologies to pigs) and that we can't wait until they take their places in their harnesses. Just ask Alice....