This is a reprint of an article I wrote back in 2018. Lately, with the anxieties emerging from continuing COVID lock downs and the return of virtual teaching, it has been getting a lot of rereads. While we struggle to redesign our instruction in this new normal, we have to remember to keep student stress top-of-mind.
I was talking to my middle school students about their busy lives. Many of my students have a full day of classes, followed by hours of homework, and capped off with hours of extracurricular activities, such as soccer, golf, tennis, or community service work. One particular student of mine, for instance, has golf practice four days a week.
A statement that made me pause and think was something a 7th grade boy said: “It really bugs me when my teachers complain that they’re having a busy day because they are teaching three blocks. I have four blocks a day – every day!”
The comment provoked an enlightening discussion about workload in the middle school. I listened, with horror, as the students rhymed off all the responsibilities they shouldered in a given week. I never really paid attention to such talk in the past, assuming it was typical teen whining. But, I just started an online masters program and I feel like I am drowning juggling two courses at once. As that student above pointed out, our kids handle an eight-block cycle, with four classes a day.
That’s 8 different teachers.
That’s 8 different sets of expectations and routines to follow.
That’s 8 different batches of homework.
That’s 8 different tests/projects/quizzes throughout a ten-day cycle – and the expectation is that students are assessed twice per cycle, so that bumps up to 16 assessments.
It occurred to me that if middle school students had only one teacher all day, that teacher would balance the school day such that a rigorous lesson would be followed by something a little less rigorous. And, they would put a nice transition in between – an energizer, a stretch, a water break, etc.
But, in a system where students travel between different teachers per day, are transitions and workload balance being considered?
To get more insight on balancing the school day, I thought I would talk to an educator who actually practiced such balance – an elementary teacher. I fired off emails to a variety of my elementary colleagues. One of the best quotes I received in response was from my school’s former elementary principal, Laura Tolone. Laura, serendipitously, had just completed a webinar webinar from Dr. James Stronge that spoke to optimizing instructional time.
Laura had this to say about the important of balance: “If students do rigorous activities/events all day, their brains never have time to rest in preparation for learning.”
Laura shared this slide from Dr. Stronge’s presentation to illustrate the concept of optimizing instructional time:
In other words, the ideal is a situation with multiple peaks, but with built in valleys of down time to provide a change/rest. How much work peaks is too much? How many valleys are too many? “It’s about finding the “Goldilocks” (just right) balance between more rigor and less rigor,” Laura added.
This news was fascinating, but It saddened me also. I do my best to create balance in my own instruction. I have a warm-up activity, lecture time, discussion time, and then an activity. Having the students sit still and write notes for 90 minutes would be torturous! But, as a school, not much thought has been given to balancing student workload among all of our middle school classes. Sure, we have shared calendars to minimize scheduling tests on the same day. But, that kind of tool won’t prevent multiple teachers from planning high stakes/highly rigorous lectures or classroom activities all on the same day. Imagine having a Socratic seminar in Language Arts, taking notes all block long in Science, a Social Studies DBQ, and a mile run in PE, all in the same day.
Then, pile on homework, online math practice, sports practice, and you have yourself a typical middle school day.
What is the impact of stress on adolescents?
According to the article The Impact of Mindfulness Training on Middle Grades Students’ Office Discipline Referrals, by Tonnie Martinez and Yuanyuan Zhao, “students’ stress levels may manifest in anger, poor behavior, violent behavior, and poor classroom conduct particularly at the secondary level.”
The article Early-Life Stress and Cognitive Outcome, by Dawson W. Hedges and Fu Lye Woon states that the brain development of adults who underwent significant forms of stress in their childhood, revealed “cognitive deficits, including short-term verbal memory, intelligence, memory and response inhibition, working memory, and verbal declarative memory.”
The impact of stress is real. We could really be harming our students.
So, what can we do about it?
- Common planning sessions for teachers would be a start. Then, while planning units, we could quickly check with our colleagues to see how each day will look for students.
- Another solution – created by a student – involved dividing up the academic cycles such that Math can only have homework on day 1, Science on day 2, etc. The schedule could also be divided such that large assessments or activities were also limited to particular days in the cycle.
- Some schools encourage teachers to be a student for a day – to follow a student from class to class for a day to experience the day as students do. This is a great way to gain insight into what is collectively happening to students. And, it is a great jumping off point for some discussions at your next team or department meeting.
- Although it doesn’t actually affect the amount of stress in a student’s life, mindfulness training could certainly help students better manage their stress. Perhaps invite your school counselor to participate in your planning meetings to suggest relaxation and coping activities.
If your school has a system for balancing student workloads, please share. Let’s try to alleviate some of the growing stress students are struggling with!