The New York Times article “Suicide and the Pressure of Perfection’ discusses the enormous stresses placed on high academic achievers to compete with each other to reach even higher, as they move on to college and graduate school. It can be disconcerting for the valedictorian of a small high school to move to a place where everyone is valedictorian and his/her prior straight-A’s become “below average’ based on the intensity of new curriculum (it was disconcerting for me); but this effect has existed for as long as the concept of college. Two additional recent factors, however, have exacerbated this effect: helicopter parents constantly explaining to their children how to solve their problems (or “lawnmower parents’ clearing away administrative obstacles) and the artificial public displays of social media, where posts and images only show other students at their best.
My current teaching position is a college-like environment already, as students move away from their parents and are suddenly self-responsible. Moreover, the schools throughout Alaska have such wide variation in curriculum that many of the high achievers in each town suddenly find themselves completely in over their head. I’ve learned techniques to disguise the different paces of learning, and to enable students to compete with themselves rather than noticing how fast anyone else is doing: worksheets and quizzes too hard for anyone to turn in within the allotted time (but graded on a curve); fill-in study guides with the answers on the back so students are memorizing as they flip back and forth; Password-style trivia where the students pair up and quiz each other so the class is not competing as a whole. Hopefully these methods can show that learning is an unending process, and give the high achievers a sense of the pace of college without demoralizing them.
The start of next year, I’ll need to teach the meaning of responsibility and how to manage tasks without adult supervision. (The fact that I will have a better classroom management plan of my own should help with organization, and show students the nature of responsibility by example.)