Monday, January 8, 2018

Percentages of Worry by: Jason Augustowski

So far in the new year (2018) we have missed three of five days of school.  Factors for the closings include excessive wind, subzero temperatures, and freezing rain.  This is already a big change from last year where we didn't get snow until a few minor dustings in late March put us out for the middle of one week.  (And really, I think we only had those days off because both the teachers and students seemed to be going stir crazy).  With that said, and as I have mentioned in previous posts: I am NOT a fan of missing school.  HOWEVER, after seeing the toll last year had on the students (virtually no break from January to April) I can now tolerate days off from school for them.

I am in constant contact with students as many of you know, and find myself always bouncing ideas, listening to their feelings, taking account of their input, hearing their stories - really whatever they are passionate about on that given day.  And the more and more I speak to students this year (boys and girls, freshmen and seniors, all races, all creeds, all backgrounds) the overwhelming word I have been hearing is "STRESS."  And nobody is talking about Eustress (which is a word students don't believe exists - but I try to teach them every year because this is the way I - and I know many of you - live our lives) but Distress.

In fact, stress is so prevalent, when I asked the #bowtieboys what they would like to submit to NCTE for our Houston roundtable and the answer was resounding.  "Now that there are 14 of us, let's break into groups of 2 and have 7 roundtables focusing on the key stressors felt by students in elementary, middle, and high school, and teach teachers how to manage and alleviate some of this from their students."  It certainly is an interesting shift from what they discussed in St. Louis: creating authentic assessment alongside your students.  Or maybe it is not.  Because listening to them as they worked on the proposal, I kept hearing phrases like "busy work," "grading for completion, not accuracy," "memorization," and "work load."  I know that the common mindset is that "school should come first" but at what cost and for what benefit?

School should come before family?  Before friends?  I know so many adults who put work behind their family and friends.  School before sports?  Before art?  Perhaps I am mistaken, but I thought school and healthy activities were on the same team: the team of shaping a well rounded, engaged, happy, energetic, and contributing child.  And if school should come first, what is "school?"  Is it packets of hundreds of questions when ten would suffice?  Is it memorization only to regurgitate... only to forget?  Is it a rush to get another formative in the gradebook or another box checked?  Is it stupidity disguised as rigor: "read this entire novel tonight, muhahaha welcome to honors/AP class!"?  Because all of the above is burning out our students and CERTAINLY is not instilling any kind of love of learning or passion for our contents.

It's also not creating any passion for each other.  When we live this way, we are irritable, negative, cynical - and not just with our colleagues, but the kids, their parents, our community - and half the time we bring it home with us.  Maybe more than half.  And the result is something of a trickle-down phenomena.  The kids become cynical, negative, angry - and the vicious cycle has begun of student vs teacher rather than student and teacher/teacher and student.  Let us as English teachers be the coordinating conjunctions, not the subordinating.  I would much rather be an "AND" than a "BECAUSE."  And although some may hide behind supposed rigor as the standard of a quality class, I will always use the metric of acquisition of skills by a student.  When they leave my class: how much better can they read, write, present, and more importantly: be a friend, a family member, an artist, an athlete?  How often were they engaged?  Laughing?  Working as a team, rather than in competition?  Have they discovered the talent buried inside of them?  Has their passion been awaken to use that talent to serve the world?  It's high school, we don't really have much time left.  I tell this to my seniors all the time.  I know they have one foot out the door, but that other foot is still very much 17 years old, and has some growing to do.  And this is why missing school days makes me sad.

But as I mentioned above, I understand that students need a break.  We all do, I suppose, in order to hit it again the next day as our best selves.  As long as we are listening to our Longfellow and making sure each day finds us farther than the day before, we will be okay.  And so will the kids.  Because their stress stresses me out.  It is so active, so much on the forefront of their minds that it reminds ME of some vague statistic I once heard.  Something like "40% of what you worry about will never happen, 30% is already in the past, 12% is legitimate concerns over your health, 10% is what other people are actively thinking about you right now, and 8% are the actual problems at hand."  Now who knows the veracity of these numbers, especially when I can't even put my finger on the source, but regardless I think they have something here.

We spend approximately 70% of our worrisome energy on elements over which we have no control - 80% if you include other people's opinions (over which we have minimal control).  Some people just won't like us.  And who cares?  Who are they?  And by the same token, who are we?  But anyway, I think there is a lesson about stress for our kids somewhere up there in the numbers, and somewhere in Henry Longfellow's "What the Heart of the Young Man Said."  Do yourself a favor and just refresh yourself on that poem - and teach it to your kids.  It's really going to be okay.  Let's lead by example and put the past behind us.  Let's spend our waking energy controlling our NOW and being the best person we can be instead of worrying what may happen if we put ourselves out there - if we dare show our true selves.  And with that positivity, let's instill it in our students and give them the tools to handle the other 20-30% of real concerns that can manifest over the course of any given day.  I think if we can do this for ourselves, for each other, and for them.  Maybe this word "stress" will not continue to be the buzzword (and maybe, just maybe, you'll find a kid and a teacher somewhere going "darn, I can't believe they cancelled school today).  ;-)

1 comment:

  1. Jason,
    Weather . . . uncontrollable.
    Our response to the weather . . . when severe is also uncontrollable. I loved hearing about your #NCTE18 plans and yet I keep returning to this line.

    "Let's spend our waking energy controlling our NOW and being the best person we can be instead of worrying what may happen if we put ourselves out there - if we dare show our true selves." NOW is our focus. Let's skip the worry! (Easier said than done!)
    Thanks for this timely post!