By Vicky Liu ’20, School News and Features Reporter
A comprehensive survey completed by the junior class concludes, “Our academic challenges are leading to burnout. Even when we don’t have pressing work, we know the wave of work is coming and we can’t relax.” According to statistics of the survey, this daunting “wave” is true for 91.9% of the 62 juniors, who were sophomores last year when they filled out the survey. Nowadays, students are surrounded by all types of pressure stemming from athletics, academics, peers, extracurriculars, standardized testing, and more. Though all of these factors can be motivating at times, the amount of work seems to be too much to handle. Yet, it also seems luxurious to expect to live a life in high school completely devoid of stress. As Ms. Novo, the dean of the junior class who spearheaded this survey initiative, suggests, “I don’t think it’s great to feel like it’s never okay just to take a break.”
As one of the 62 sample points in the survey, Julia Dani ‘20, a junior, shares her agreement with the statistical result of the survey: “Most of what the survey was asking was that ‘school stresses me out’. And yeah, it does.” She continues, “It does feel like that we are in this loop of if we are not taking the test, we are studying for a test, or if we are not writing a paper, we have to think about an upcoming paper. I have something every single day...and it feels like if you are not three weeks ahead of something, you are behind, which is super annoying because it feels like you can never fully be ahead.” Like Ms. Novo suggests, “We have an official message that you should take care of yourself, but there’s an unofficial message that you’d better take everything you can to go to college.” As a method of trying to deal with her stress, Julia lists where her stresses come from, which is the first step to being able to relieve any of it. Then, in order to decompress stress outside of school, she also makes full use of her free time in school to complete as much work as possible.
Ms. Novo also notices the on-and-off circles of explosive academic stress, which both the survey and Julia have mentioned. She comments, “The ‘wave’ is challenging. We have talked a lot over the years about how to coordinate assignments, but we haven’t figure out exactly how to make it work.” Next, she explains, “It’s hard to imagine how to create a system that would address this because people take such different classes. Sometimes it’s challenging just because people are in so many different places.” However, Ms. Novo says there are adjustments made for a grade-specific unified project, for instance, the ten-page research paper of the American history course: “We do know when the history rough draft is due. We can work around that.” Moreover, from results of a homework inventory survey, Ms. Novo finds, “Some people do their fast and finite homework first, but for reviewing or working on a paper, they don’t feel comfortable when they stop.” She observes that “an interesting piece of self-regulation” can help reduce stress.
Jay Zhao ‘19, a current senior, brings a different perspective. He experiences academic stress differently and compares the pressures he faces here to what life was like in his native country of China: “The pressure from school, I think it is not too much. Studying here is probably less stressful than in China, but it is not always easy, especially on the eve of paper due dates and the exam days.” He adds a stress-relieving piece of philosophy: “Although I have done a lot of extracurriculars, sometimes I feel bored. When boredom accumulates, there will be an intangible pressure hanging over my head.” In a tense environment, not feeling overwhelmed by pressure even becomes a pressure. The effect of this type of environment is “contagious,” Ms. Novo explains. A consciousness develops when everyone seems to be complaining about the stresses they feel, as they work with and against each other in a competitive environment. Even people who have an acceptable stress level join the chat of this mythology of stress.
For some, the academic stress is particularly destructive. Elise Ingram ‘21, a current sophomore, shares the stress she encounters in after-school life: “Finding out how to map out my day and when to do my work [is where my stress comes from]. Especially because I have ADD, with which it’s really hard to stay concentrated. A lot of the times I avoid stuff to do, and it ends up piling on, so I feel like I can’t catch up.” As an independent school student and as a daughter, she wants her parents to worry less: “There’s a big pressure on me to perform really, really well because I don’t want to let my parents down. But it’s hard to do that when I can’t concentrate on anything. It takes me twice the amount of time it would usually take a person to do the homework.” Elise comes to Friends’ Central in her sophomore year from a public school. She admits that being new to a school raises pressure too. She says, compared to public school, there are “so many classes and homework in one day that it’s hard to keep up”. Although sometimes it might take enormous effort to relieve the anxiety, it will improve the situation by thinking that it is always okay to feel like you need a break.
As academics seem to be a common source of stress, for people who do sports, “required” athletic practices also increase students’ stress load. Fotini Mourelatos ‘22 expresses that balancing school work with athletics is difficult, even as a freshman: “I’m a competitive swimmer. During the varsity seasons, I spend so much time after school focusing on athletics.” Fotini explains that there is an uneasiness of balancing time between athletics and academics, which he believes must have been due to the rise of a grade. Fotini describes how 9th graders try to adjust to workloads: “In eighth grade, there wasn’t that much work to do outside of school. In ninth grade, they just pile it on. It’s a noticeable increase. Last year, it would take me an hour to do the homework. Now it can take me two or three. It’s not that it’s much more difficult but it’s that there is so much. You get really tired, and you can’t really focus. You make little mistakes, and can cause a lot of damage if they add up.” A previous homework inventory initiated by Ms. Novo echoes Fotini's experience that the overwhelming anxiety about performance itself adds difficulty to effectively regulating work.
As for ways to reduce stress levels, the interviewees form two main lines of thought. One is expressed by Fotini: “It would be nice if there are more time during the day to do some of it. I can get a fresh mind when I get home and just be able to do it all efficiently. Then I can have free time to read, or just take a nap.” The second is shared by Ms. Novo: “There are ways to study smarter.”