Note: My thanks to Will Richardson and the team at change leaders.community for the inspiration for this post. If you’re interested in exploring and collaborating with like-minded educators about the why and how of school change, I strongly recommend checking out the change leaders community. Their work has added considerable richness to the reflections during my self-imposed retreat and leads me to a further exploration of a couple of themes that have occupied my thinking and writing, leadership, and change.
“Dylan Bueno is buried. Did pressure from school contribute to his apparent suicide?”
This the headline from a blog post on March 14th by Bob Braun, a retired education editor/writer for a major NJ newspaper. Mr. Braun continued:
Dylan Bueno–at 14, not quite a child and still not yet a young man–was buried Wednesday by his family. Five days earlier, he apparently committed suicide not long after he learned he would not be able to participate in his eighth-grade graduation from Newark’s Ann Street School
Just hours before I read this story, I had finished listening to a podcast/interview which featured a conversation between Will Richardson and David Gleason. Gleason is a psychologist whose book, At What Cost on the growing problem of student stress, anxiety, depression, and suicide is generating significant questions about the role of school in this alarming trend.
It was no accident that I found my way to this podcast. A few days ago, I revisited a piece written by (here’s that name again) Will Richardson, entitled “Our Moral Imperative”. In this article Will shared his experience meeting David Gleason and encountering his notion of “immunity to change”. More about that in a bit. As I read and listened I heard two distinct threads. They represent what Gleason refers to as the “current bind”… the dissonance between our public and open commitments and what our behaviors reveal about less public commitments.
The first thread involves the evolution of our culture. From a cultural perspective the school children of this generation are living at a time when their parents have lost considerable faith in the likelihood that their children will have a better life than they did. Furthermore, they have accepted (and contributed to) a conventional wisdom that defines what path is most likely to present their children with the best chances for “beating the odds” – study hard, do well in school, get above average SAT, ACT scores, submit great college applications, get into the best possible college, be the first in our family to attend college, etc.
In his book, Gleason describes the bind that we find ourselves grappling with
Behold the bind. For years and years, we have been encouraging parents to send their young adolescent children to rigorous and high-achieving secondary schools. Once they’re admitted, we instill our students with hope, and we promise them challenging academics, close student-teacher relationships, and a nurturing and supportive environment—and we mean it. Further, with their admission, we extend a seemingly equitable opportunity for a diploma, itself an implied “passport to a better life.” This is the parents’ and students’ aspiration, and it’s the aspiration for which we, as overseers of these schools, have pledged our support and have dedicated our careers. However, when our young students actually enroll, against our best intentions but driven by our own fears, we overschedule, overwork, and sometimes overwhelm them. We set them up for frustration and failure when we expect them to think and act like adults long before they have actually developed those capacities. We reward high achievement over effort, and most of all, we overfocus on the college process almost from the moment they arrive (38-39).
Schools are seen as the primary means by which the fears of parents (transmitted very effectively to their kids) can be addressed. We, as educators, in responding to these expectations and to the pressures imposed by state and federal requirements have been complicit in the creation of a culture of high expectations, imposed at increasingly earlier grades, with the promise of dire consequences for both students and educators when expectations are not/cannot be met.
The second thread that I found in my explorations of the Richardson/Gleason resource is a part of Gleason’s work identifying why we find change so hard. Gleason’s explanation for our reluctance to change makes a comparison between the body’s systems for rejecting threats to our health (our immune systems) and the idea that we also possess an emotional defense mechanism which he terms our “immunity to change”. The system helps us reject change that might threaten our sense of self or our personal comfort. You can read about his study and the details of his interview protocol here
The thread that Gleason highlights in describing the current bind we are facing is not surprising… it is fear. As educators, while we recognize that our focus on trying to insure a successful future for our students has resulted in unhealthy pressures and is contributing to the historically high anxiety levels of students, we have done little to address this.
In October of last year, the NY Times reported on this problem as follows:
In 1985, the Higher Education Research Institute at U.C.L.A. began asking incoming college freshmen if they “felt overwhelmed by all I had to do” during the previous year. In 1985, 18 percent said they did. By 2010, that number had increased to 29 percent. Last year, it surged to 41 percent.
“Why Are More American Teenagers Than Ever Suffering from Severe Anxiety”, NY Times, October 11, 2017
Here is Richardson’s description of what Gleason has learned:
“…we say without hesitation that we want authentic engagement with our students, that we want to promote a healthy school culture, and we want to produce happy learners (and much more).
But when you ask teachers and leaders what they are doing (or not doing) that actually gets in the way of achieving those goals, they readily respond that they over schedule kids, they focus too much on college admissions, that they emphasize grades too much, and that they assign too much homework (and much more). Nor surprisingly these admissions make us feel uncomfortable.”
In their conversation Gleason (in the podcast) and Richardson (in the article) point out it is the next step in the protocol that gets interesting. Participants are asked to identify what fears they would have if they did the opposite of their negative practices. Here are a few of the fears that Gleason got when conducting the protocol around the issues of excessive focus on college, over-emphasis on grades, homework assignments, etc. I’ve paraphrased a few of his findings from his interviews.
If the teachers didn’t continue with the current practices…
- They would be perceived as intellectually ‘soft.’
- Their students wouldn’t get in to good colleges, and they would eventually lose our jobs.
- We might find out that ‘maybe we’ve been wrong all along.’
- If they actually tried to implement developmentally appropriate practices, they fear that they might try and fail … They do what they’re comfortable doing.
- If they did commit to a more developmentally healthy culture… they’d have to face making adjustments in their program, which could have an impact on their jobs.
As the convergence of events and ideas continued, it struck me that my exposure to these resources during my time of “retreat” was no accident. Rounding out this I’d like to offer the following for consideration.
What Gleason has described is a real and complex bind… a combination of forces have conspired to create a condition which has significantly increased the levels of stress, anxiety, and depression in our young people. Our current solution to this situation is to get better at identifying young people who are exhibiting signs of such distress and to provide support resources to heal or “fix” them. Once again, relying on the wisdom of Russell Ackoff, this is a classic example of trying to do the wrong thing better. We know what the right thing to do is… it is to fix the system that is causing the stress, the anxiety, the depression and placing the lives of too many children at risk. It is to stop over-scheduling our kids. It is to stop the overemphasis on grades and college admission. It is to stop the madness of hours of time devoted to test –prep and high stakes assessments. It is time to stop transferring our fears about the future of kids to our kids. It is our fear that allows the bind to continue. The cost of this fear is too high. Just ask Dylan Bueno’s mom.