Contributed by Rowan Roudebush

Head of school Anthony Meyer, and assistant head of school Hal Mason discuss in Mason’s office.

Administration attempts to respond to increased student stress

January 7, 2022

The summer before each school year is always an unnerving time for students. There are many unknowns: What will their schedule look like? What teachers will they get? Will they have any classes with friends? Normally, as the school year begins, some of these worries go away. This year marks a distinct switch from previous ones, where many questions remain unanswered.

The 2019-20 and 2020-21 school years were shaped by the COVID-19 pandemic. Starting in the second half of 2019, learning was completely remote. In November of the 2020-21 school year, students were given a decision to join hybrid learning. In late March, students returned to full in-person classes.

Even the beginning of the 2021-22 school year was marked by uncertainty. Before August, no one knew whether masks and similar protocols, like social distancing, would be required. The Public Schools of Brookline only announced the new rules several days before school started.

This year, the high school is quickly trending back towards the learning pace and work expectations of pre-COVID times, and many students are raising concerns about overwhelming amounts of work and the subsequent stress that is emerging. Students have expressed these criticisms to teachers and deans, and in response Head of School Anthony Meyer announced a homework-free weekend on Oct. 15. In Meyer’s email he wrote, “I see and hear about many students feeling the stress and anxiety of adjusting to a new normal.”The summer before each school year is always an unnerving time for students. There are many unknowns: What will their schedule look like? What teachers will they get? Will they have any classes with friends? Normally, as the school year begins, some of these worries go away. This year marks a distinct switch from previous ones, where many questions remain unanswered.

Transitioning back to normalcy

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.”

Curriculum expectations and teacher autonomy

One possible response to student stress is to eliminate some of their workload by decreasing the difficulty and length of assignments and curriculum content. Teachers are able to choose, for the most part, how much work to give students.

According to Meyer, teachers at the high school have a unique amount of control over the curriculum they teach for their subject.

“There is a long history of faculty autonomy. We trust teachers to make good decisions. I don’t explicitly say to faculty, ‘You need to limit your homework,’ because each department is different. There are different levels of courses and expectations,” Meyer said.

Mason said that the administration chooses not to interfere with teachers’ decisions. According to Mason, the staff have always had freedom to individually assign any work that they see needed. Mason said he isn’t worried about the difficult homework levels that this policy might unintentionally create.

“Teachers should give homework when it’s necessary and it’s going to add to the learning,” Mason said. “That guidance is not new to this year, although perhaps people have a higher sensitivity to it.”

Dean of Student Support Systems and social studies teacher Brian Poon said he has to balance his own expectations for how far his classes get in the curriculum and the significance of giving students enough time so that they can truly learn the material.

“Part of the question is: what are our values around preparation? What is lost if I give kids work that they can’t really appreciate? I have both content and skill goals. If I just put pressure on them for those goals, will they be prepared to demonstrate those goals in other circumstances? My hope is, yes. If I crush them with my work expectation, what’s the cost of that?” Poon said.

Poon said grades are an important part of the conversation around student stress. If a teacher were to make their class easier by removing some of the required work, then they might help some students’ immediate mental health needs. However, it could also hurt them later on in terms of standardized tests and other parts of the college application process.

Poon acknowledged that some students would benefit from learning in an environment that doesn’t assert grades as the ultimate motivation to work hard. But he argued that the system that only gives an A to the highest-performing students strengthens the skills that will be necessary in college and many careers.

“If I said to you, ‘just show up and I’ll give everybody an A,’ some people would be happy. But the nerdy people are like, ‘I’m gonna be an engineer. I need this stuff,’” Poon said. “So there’s a grander philosophical conversation around all of our values: what are we willing to give up and what do we deem as essential?”

To address student stress, Poon said there are benefits and losses to making school work easier. According to Poon, material taught in school is part of the preparation students do before taking the SAT or ACT. But he wonders whether the teaching work assigned is hurting students more than helping them. Poon said he, as a teacher, struggles to balance students’ mental health and educational needs.

“The question that I’m thinking about is: what do we value in our education? At what cost? I’m feeling that the cost might be too high right now because I don’t think that students are prepared to do what we’re asking them to do. And if that’s the case, how do we need to adjust? But there’s an overcorrection that fails to give our students the education that we want for them,” Poon said.

Schedule tweaks as a potential solution

Ultimately, the administration has decided teachers have the power to determine work levels for their own classes. Still, many administrators, like Meyer, are sympathetic to the struggles that students are facing this year and are looking for alternate solutions to alleviate anxiety that don’t require interfering with teachers’ freedom and plans.

Because the administration entrusts teachers to make their own decisions regarding student workload, Meyer said he sees his role in supporting students and easing stress mostly by way of the schedule.

“We can do little things like a homework free weekend, but there are other tools we can use within the two week schedule, like making one of the seven blocks for each class a check in for slowing down,” Meyer said. “The bigger work is in what we want our schedule to look like in the long haul. What sort of minor changes or refinements could we make? How do we make sure we’re building in the right number of advisory and hub blocks? What sort of help or flex blocks do we put in place? And in the bigger picture, how many blocks do we want students to take?”

Mason said minimizing the number of blocks per day makes a huge impact in easing students’ homework loads because it decreases the amount of assignments that can be due on any given day and stretches out the time allotted for homework. This reasoning was a major factor in the decision to shift to the ten day schedule in 2019.

“That change was made because we said, okay, let’s spread this out a little bit.” Mason said. “The idea is that it’s easing some of that homework burden for kids.”

Examining stress through the lens of a larger culture

Whether changes to the schedule will ever be enough to truly ease student stress levels is unclear. In a larger sense, the pressures that students face to take on more classes than they can manage stem from a school culture that emphasizes grades, difficult classes and test scores. Meyer acknowledged these ambitious mindsets may be damaging to mental health at times.

“Part of me wants to honor challenging course loads and say students should have whatever challenge they want,” Meyer said. “But there’s this other caring part of me that wants to put more limits on what students are taking on. I worry that students, including my own kids, look at each hard course and say, ‘that’s manageable,’ and they make all these decisions individually and not collectively. And then all of a sudden you’re in October and you’re drowning in homework.”

Mason said the high school’s value for hard work leads to academic success and achievement that draws attention from colleges. But still, he acknowledged this culture ropes many students into classes that they’re not interested in but still feel obligated to take.

“The culture at BHS honors and respects academic work, and that promotes the high level of achievement you see from BHS students. It’s why BHS is so well-respected in the college admission game; colleges understand the level of preparation and the level of work that goes into doing well in a school like this,” Mason said. “That said, it can also come at a price. You can force people into feeling like they have to take certain classes and they have to work too hard to keep up, even if it’s not the class that they’re really interested in. You have kids that take AP Bio because they love biology, but you also have kids that take AP Bio because they think they ‘have to,’ and they get sucked along. How do you create a school that celebrates these students that have this real passion for something and yet also recognize that’s not the only way to succeed?”

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