Helping High School Students Deal with Stress in Tough Academic Subjects (by Jerry Brodkey)

Jerry Brodkey teaches at Menlo-Atherton High School in Menlo Park, California. He has been a public secondary school teacher since 1975, and has taught most of the subjects in Social Studies and Mathematics. This year he is currently teaching ninth grade Algebra and Advanced Placement Calculus. He continues to find teaching to be challenging, enjoyable, and always intense. His undergraduate degree was from Rice University (BA 1974), and with graduate work at Stanford (MA 1976, Ph.D. 1987). This posting will be in two parts.

The summer months play an important role for teachers to reflect on their teaching and make plans for improvement as the next year looms on the horizon. Even though I have been teaching for thirty years, I still like to take a deep breath and prepare myself for the upcoming year. What worked and didn’t work last year? How can new ideas and methods be incorporated into my teaching? How can I make my classroom a better place for student learning and for each student as an individual?

At the end of last school year the newspapers were filled with the tragedies of student loss and reports of the great stress we are placing on our children. As a teacher, I have seen this grow over the years. For a certain group of students – those high-achieving, college-bound, Advanced Placement students –the junior and senior years are a time of tremendous pressure and strain. I see this daily in the Advanced Placement Calculus classes I teach. Many students are taking two, three, or even four AP classes. This course load is basically equivalent to being a freshman in college. They are working harder than I ever did at the two colleges I attended – Rice and Stanford. There are high expectations and high demands with additional pressure to be deeply involved in extra-curricular sports or other activities. The college application process is a nightmarish part-time job filled with anxiety and pressure.

When I look out at my students in my two Calculus classes, I often see tired young people who are at times overwhelmed. There are the school pressures but also the social pressures of making it through adolescence. Some students come from families undergoing ferocious economic problems. I worry about my students and worry about my own children as they approach middle school and high school. How will they navigate these treacherous waters?

As an individual teacher in one single classroom, I believe there are some things I can do to help. Over the last several years, I have consciously made an effort to set up my classroom to try and minimize student anxiety and stress while at the same time promoting excellent achievement and a deep understanding of the curriculum. I tell students the atmosphere I am trying to create is intense but relaxed, serious but comfortable.

It seems to be working. Three times a year I have my students write major reflection papers. Their comments reinforce for me the goals I am trying to achieve. A sample of student comments from this year are:

A. “Calculus was an island of tranquility in the middle of my stressful year, and literally in the middle of every day.”
B. “My stress level literally decreased the moment I walked in the door.”
C. “I enjoyed going to class, I enjoyed learning, and I enjoyed struggling.”
D. “This class, although very relaxed, pushed me to think a lot”
E. “The class was more fun than I thought it would be.”
F. “I really felt that you simply wanted us to learn, and you didn’t have to put us through torture to do that.”

The academic results seem strong, too. In 2008 48 of the 51 students I had who took the Advanced Placement test passed with grades of 3, 4, or 5. In 2009, 46 of the 50 had passing scores, with a predominance of 4’s and 5’s. I don’t take credit for these high scores – these are wonderful students who have been exceptionally well prepared along the way. Their success in Calculus is due to many factors – involved parents, excellent academic preparation, solid elementary and middle schools, and many other factors. Their success does show me, importantly, that learning can take place in an atmosphere that is designed to reduce anxiety and stress.

Part 2 of this post will appear in a few days.


Filed under dilemmas of teaching

7 responses to “Helping High School Students Deal with Stress in Tough Academic Subjects (by Jerry Brodkey)

  1. Jerry,

    Thanks for this post. Both of my parents are psychologists who are experts in anxiety disorders. As an educator they have been an immense resource to me in understanding the role that anxiety plays in the learning process. Anyone who is familiar with research on anxiety knows that when anxiety goes up, cognitive functioning goes down.

    Unfortunately, many teachers are still working under the false assumption that in order to provide “challenging and rigorous” coursework, students should be stressed out. Many parents reinforce this assumption by demanding more homework, thinking that it will better prepare their children for college.

    I will share your posts with other parents and educators. Hopefully, we can get the word out to more folks that when curriculum content is embedded in fun and enjoyable learning environment, student motivation and learning are at their best.

  2. Ivy

    I am a new teacher, this year will be my first year of teaching. I am teaching in a mission school run by nuns in the Philippines and the methods of teaching are somewhat similar to how students are taught in the old times, with fear and a lot of stress, but I think differently, I would like to change how things are in my school. I have been searching about how to help my students deal with academic stress and I found your article..thank you very much, I will be waiting for your next article.

  3. Noli

    I’m on my way of writing my thesis, and i decided to study stress level of First Year High school students in the Philippines. I am glad that I read your article discussing stress for high school.

  4. Pingback: Teen Stress: A Parent’s Concern « Parents’ Universal Resource Experts

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