In returning to completely in-person learning this year, workloads in each class have shifted back to their usual levels. Some students feel that this is the hardest school has ever been. The sudden difficulty students are experiencing reflects a stark change from the previous school year where, due to the pandemic, deadlines were more relaxed.
Many student’s workload has become all-consuming in their lives, and the culture in the hallways, the library, and the overflow spaces seems to indicate increasingly that the high school is overworking students. As assignments pile into the ever-waning hours of free time – within which they also juggle extracurricular activities, sleep and a social life – windows of relaxation become non-existent, stress accumulates and each task adds to a creeping exhaustion that makes the work feel unmanageable. Sleep levels wither, further damaging mental health and endurance to the rigor and everyday demands of classes at the high school.
The culture among students reflects an evident sense of urgency surrounding this crisis. It is unclear, however, whether administrators see these struggles as an effect of the transition back to normalcy, and to what extent they are willing to prioritize mental health concerns over the high school’s value for hard work.
Meyer said he has noticed differences in student behavior and sentiment this year and is trying to respond to the problems that are arising.
“I’m worried about the amount of workload,” Meyer said. “We have way more grade grubbing and grade fixation than usual this year; we’ve got more physical conflict between students than I’ve seen in years. Little things are bubbling up and more students are stressed out and anxious. I think some of that is pandemic-related, but it doesn’t really matter. What matters is that we’re responsive. If you imagine the high school as a big ship, we’re trying to make that turn.”
Despite his concern, Meyer expressed uncertainty about how much he would step in to make changes to ease stress. He said the administrative council, which includes all the deans and program coordinators, constantly discusses solutions to better support students. However, Meyer didn’t point to school-wide homework guidelines or any other all-encompassing executive instruction as the right answer.
“We’re talking together about supporting kids who are struggling and making the bigger changes around curriculum workload structure,” Meyer said. “We’re in that work. It’s not as fast as I would like it to be, frankly, but I don’t think there is a clear ask or directive from me about the overall workload students should have because different departments have different needs.”
Assistant Headmaster Hal Mason doesn’t believe the administration needs to treat this school year any differently than usual. Mason said students struggling with a heavy homework load is normal and there is not much the administration can do to fix stress.
“These are the same issues that we were hearing about 10, 11, 12 years ago about students having too much work, and it all goes back to the same reason,” Mason said. “The same work that one student might take fifteen minutes to do might take another student two hours to do. People read at different rates and people process things at different rates. People have different levels of attentiveness to homework and distraction from homework. I don’t know what the administration can do in cases where students are spending too much time on homework. I’ve never subscribed to the notion that you can say that homework should take exactly this much time.”
Interim Dean of Students Summer Williams acknowledged the accumulation of homework each day was a result of the number of classes in students’ schedules. She said the whole school, including the administration, should be responsible for reflecting on the current workload for students.
“I want to be clear that it’s not like, ‘we’ as in just administrators, but thinking about it as a school-wide approach to homework has to be mindful that if students are having five classes a day and homework is assigned for each one of those classes and that homework is maybe 40, 45, 60 minutes worth of homework then that gets to be a lot. I think all of that needs to be carefully considered,” Williams said.
Williams said because there is a difference in the way students are taught from last year, the administration is having ongoing discussions about how to best support them.
“We’re having lots of conversations about what we are actually seeing and hearing from students now that we’re sort of back into a rhythm for school, and it sounds like there’s more desire to have one-on-one help and support with teachers,” Williams said. “We’ve changed from last years’ model where there weren’t a lot of assessments given to a regular schedule of assessments. We’re still in the process of managing those pieces because we’re still in the process of defining what the school year needs to look like and feel like in order for everyone to be successful and healthy.”