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  • Writer's picture The Vindicator

The Straight-A Culture

We need to curb high schoolers' stress before they enter the world of college.

Written by Emma Smallwood

If you’re not too far removed from high school or college, this scene may be familiar to you: staying up until midnight, 1 a.m., 2 a.m. to finish your assignments before the school day begins. Even then, you may not be completely caught up, but you’re willing to sacrifice your sleep for your grades — anything to get that A. The mentality of high school and college students is one focused on obtaining the grade by any means necessary, to the point where mental health and sleep habits take a serious hit.

But hey, everyone is doing it, right?

"An emphasis should be placed on what the students are learning that they can apply in the real world, not just how well they can recite vocabulary or memorize definitions."

According to Harvard, 83% of high school students cite school as a major stressor. When taking into account that students spend the largest amount of time anywhere other than their homes at school, this should be a serious, urgent concern for any parent or anybody in the education industry. Students spend at least seven hours a day in school — and that’s not even counting the extracurriculars that usually keep students at school for two to four extra hours. If a large majority of high school students view school as one of the major stressors in their life, does that not tell us that something needs to change?

The epidemic of school-related stress doesn’t end in high school — if anything, it worsens in college. Suicide is the second leading cause of death for college students across the country, with over a thousand college students dying from suicide every year. The National Institute of Health categorizes academic stress as the most “dominant stress factor that affects the mental well-being of college students.”

With the context of the insane stress young adults are under at the hands of academics, I can only be led to one conclusion: something’s gotta give. I’m currently a college senior and student-teaching full-time at a high school, meaning that I have a stake in both sides of this issue: the student’s and the teacher’s. I take my classes at night, and find myself falling farther and farther behind as I deal with the stress of working a full-time job. When I’m teaching at my high school, I see my students coming in with dark circles under their eyes from a lack of sleep, expressing genuine concerns over getting a B or a C on a test, and equating their self-worth with their grades and test scores. 

I am inundated with the stress of college, where, as an English major, I’m used to writing around 6-8 pages worth of essays and dissertations per week. It’s easy to forget that high school students, who many college students brush off as “not understanding what’s coming in college,” are taking considerably more classes, even if they don’t have as much work in each. Until I was working full-time in a high school again, I forgot how much getting any grade lower than an A affects high school students, especially those in honors or AP classes. The stress that high school students face over getting straight A’s will only worsen when they get to college, leading them down a dangerous path. It is vital to support student’s mental health in high school to curb the pressure they will face as soon as they enter college. 

The mentality of American culture, of being busy and productive and never slowing down, isn’t conducive to students. We’re creating a vicious cycle in which students are so used to being inundated with work, stressed to the point of tears and willing to sacrifice their mental health that these patterns continue into college and into the workforce. Seeing students turn in assignments at 3 a.m. breaks my heart, only for me to realize that I do the same exact things in my college classes. 

A vicious cycle. 

We need to make a change so that students aren’t counting down the days until their next break, waiting for the minute the bell rings. We need to support students beyond their academic performance, ensuring that they understand that they are more than just a test score and a grade. They are a full, valuable person that brings good to this world outside of the classroom. 

We need to have classrooms that effectively teach students real work, applicable skills. Students should come to school excited to hone a talent of theirs, collaborate with their classmates and communicate with their teachers. An emphasis should be placed on what the students are learning that they can apply in the real world, not just how well they can recite vocabulary or memorize definitions. If we emphasize these skills over grades, we can help both students and teachers to break out of the monotonous rut of school.

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