Having it All vs. Doing it all – Student experiences in our schools…

I’ve been immersed in a research article passed on to me from one of my trusted colleagues. This article, entitled “Having It All? A Qualitative Examination of Affluent Adolescent Girls’ Perceptions of Stress and Their Quest for Success” by Spencer, et al, amplifies and deepens my research reading with Quiet, by Susan Cain (see review HERE), and Educating Activist Allies, by Katy Swalwell about the lived experience of our students. These readings highlight key insights into a demographic that is more under study than ever before: affluent, privileged, elite independent school students. This article focuses on those students enrolled in all-girls schools.

Normalised Sea of Stress:

It would be simple to narrow down stress to internal, even noble pursuits of our students. Of course they want to do their best, to be highly engaged in their studies and extra-curriculars because they can be. They are in the position to dedicate themselves to the pursuit of knowledge and experience that will make them great people, leaders and contributors to our world and civilization.

Isn’t this the root of all of our mission statements?

What this article points to are the paradoxes of these pursuits in the context of a changing landscape of parent expectations, economic fluctuations, and a growing uncertainty about what ‘success’ means in the all-to-near future.

“Conveyed across all participant types was an apparent acceptance of the belief that the girls needed to perform at the highest levels academically in order to “make it” in today’s world along with recognition that such achievement comes at a cost, most evident in the high levels of stress girls reported experiencing. Some parents described their own conflict about wanting to tell their daughter to ease up but not wanting them to fall behind their peers.” (12)

What causes this stress:

It highlights four main sources of stress:
(a) pervasive pressure to perform
(b) narrow construction of success
(c) peer competition, and
(d) misalignments in expectations between girls and their parents

What is significant to me were the intersections between how girls reported their stress in relation to their motivations. For example, it was reported that some students felt that stress was normalized and expected by themselves, their peers, their parents and teachers. That this stress to perform and succeed was covertly communicated as the real goals, overriding larger community/school goals:

“The strong undercurrent of unacknowledged competition stood in contrast to the emphasis on community espoused by the larger school cultures. Working hard to outshine their peers felt in conflict with the community emphasis on kindness…inclusion and acceptance.” (pg. 20)

That these four pervasive sources of stress built over time is well understood as Grade 8 students are able to articulate the oncoming, predicted levels of stress to expect over their next 4 years in school. In fact, it was established in this study that stress was not only expected, but was demanded of students in order to succeed: “I feel like if I”m not stressed about something, I should be and so in order to get good grades I have to through the process of being stressed and being upset…” (12)

What Might Counter-Act this Stress?

Spencer et al. do a great job of pulling in other research to deepen their exploration. They outline three orientations that youth take: ‘no orientation to self or others’, ‘self-orientation’ and ‘orientation to other(s)/pro-social aims’.

“Likewise, Damon (2008) has asserted that as important adults in youth’s lives have become more focused on helping you thet ahead in today’s competitive marketplace, youth are placing less value on the search for meaning in their lives than on the more single-minded pursuit of financial gain.” (7)

This quotation above is really very challenging, but highlights a great opportunity: What are the conversations that we are already are having with our students, and can have with our students. This is the power of educators as mentors for our students.

“Moreover, identifying a teacher as a role model was associated with more positive health behaviours…having a sense of purpose has been associated with greater life satisfaction…Purpose has been most simply defined as an ‘intention to accomplish something that is at once meaningful to the self and of consequence to the world beyond the self.” (7)

These are the powerful opportunities that we can, as schools, as educators, present to our students to reorient their conversations that they are having with themselves about what it means to be successful, and to have purpose. What might our schools do to prioritize these conversations to the massive benefit of our students’ health and wellness.

What are our Opportunities:

Many educators understand that their impact resides in and out of the classroom.They understand that their conversations and interests that they share about themselves with students are highly impactful.  In fact, I would argue that many of us believe strongly in the benefits of knowing students in non-academic arenas (like sports, arts, intellectual pursuits/competitions) builds strength and engagement in academic arena. It also adds to the overall enjoyment of our work – it’s why we got in to education!

So, let’s reignite, spotlight and turn our attention to these conversations about life. We can:
– Through experiential learning, we can broaden the understanding and definition of purpose in life
– Through our assessment practices, we can shift attention to the striving for learning and understanding of ourselves as learners
– Through social justice work, bring in new perspectives, conversations and dialogue about the lived experience of others
– Through leadership structures, we can put our students in front of opportunities to serve something greater than themselves
– Through teacher-mentoring programs, we can deliberately address student developmental needs in an authentic way.

Source: Spencer, R., et al. Journal of Adolescent Research 2018, Vol. 33(I) 3 – 33 2016

3 thoughts on “Having it All vs. Doing it all – Student experiences in our schools…

  1. This is on my mind today. If the true evaluation came at the end of our days. Were you happy? Were you kind? Did you enjoy your time here? Even in “mid-life”, we can start to answer those questions. Who are the happiest people you know? I want to look at how we define success for our students and the messages we send them. What makes a good life and what is our role in guiding our students on this path. Thanks for the thoughts @gnichols.

  2. I’d also be curious to see whether there is research on similar feelings and experiences in all-boys schools. At SHS, we really do try to feed into the interests and curiosity of boys and help them find a love of learning, but I still hear a lot of boys talking about the purpose of learning being a means to financial success rather than personal development or satisfaction. Even in French class, if you ask a boy why it’s important to learn French, there’s a good chance he will say “to get a good job” or “to make more money”.

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