Stressful, overbearing and competitive: these words frequently come to students’ minds when they picture South. Walking in the hallways, you don’t have to look hard to overhear a conversation regarding how many AP courses someone is taking or sometimes even a simple, “What did you get on the test?” This culture has been ingrained in South’s atmosphere for years; students constantly compare themselves with their peers to gain academic validation.
When the world shut down and students were forced to grapple with a new reality of virtual learning, they were also able to get away from South’s high-strung environment. In the midst of adjusting to a scary reality, many struggled to stay academically motivated with no structure in place.
Due to a myriad of reasons, grades (defined by a shifted A/B/Pass/Fail system) temporarily served a different purpose during distance learning; much of the work we received was based on completion and effort, translating to less grade-imposed pressure. Further, with an extra barrier of an online screen, the conversations about grades dimmed. In a way, the toxic environment was partially dismantled.
But, as the initial shock of the pandemic faded and teachers became less lenient about deadlines and workloads returned to levels more reminiscent of pre-pandemic times, the normal that many students had gotten used to — joining a Zoom class from home, the ability to keep one’s camera off and a relaxed grading system — quickly changed, yet again. For many, the transition this September felt jarring, like a bucket of cold water to the face.
As school returned fully in-person, the School Committee finally implemented a new schedule that had later start and end times, in some ways a continuation of the online school schedule. One of the new schedule’s goals was to tackle the immense amount of homework and stress so constantly associated with Newton’s high schools. In addition to four academic classes most days, What I Need (WIN) blocks were created in hopes of giving students a built-in time to get help from teachers, make up for missing work and de-stress by engaging in community-building activities with peers and faculty.
Theoretically, this new schedule should directly correlate with lowering student stress levels: even when students take on a challenging course load, the fewer number of blocks per day means less homework due and less potential of having consecutive tests the following school day.
However, the design of the schedule failed to account for the biggest factor in student pressure: the students. There’s only so much that can be fixed with our current circumstances, if we are not willing to change our actions and values when engaging in conversations regarding academic-based achievements. While the new schedule helps students cope with personal grades-related stress, our environment, bombarded with societal values and family-imposed expectations, primes us for a continued cycle of being focused on defining learning and self-worth through grades.
With the abundance of resources and familial support that many Newton students have access to, there is a hidden expectancy to “succeed” in return. Surrounded by parents and peers who collectively define “success” as getting into a prestigious college, students can get trapped in a vicious cycle of conforming their intellectual aspirations with societal ideals. We can all agree on the admirable spirit of a student striving to use their education to better themself and have a positive impact on others, but to desire “education” for an institution’s reputation is a corrupt mindset (see Reinstein’s column, page 14).
This isn’t an issue that can be easily solved by our changed block schedule or by the school administration; regardless of how much we blame it on external factors, the truth is that we are a part of perpetuating this stress: by engaging in a conversation about what you got on your latest paper or “sulking” about how little sleep you received last night, you are aiding the preservation of our school’s sense of competition.
As we head into another season of course registration and college results, it’s important to confront our habits of focusing on what we don’t have instead of avoiding them; whether it be through honest conversations with the mirror, taking well-needed breaks, staying focused on what motivates you or designing a realistic schedule, learning how to cope with this stress is a crucial step in cultivating a healthy lifestyle.