For students, summer often signifies a time of freedom. Freedom from the early morning, sleepy-eyed commute to school. Freedom from the narrow confines of a standard issue student desk. Freedom from the often tedious nature of nightly homework. Perhaps the most notable of these freedoms, however, is the freedom from countless unspoken, hidden pressures, which are a byproduct of the high stakes nature of our current education landscape.
In the next few weeks (at least in the state of Arizona), students will embark on a familiar journey; the transition from summer to school. While most are intellectually prepared for a new set of academic challenges, I can’t help but wonder about their mental and emotional preparation. Just as summer signifies freedom in a student’s mind, the beginning of a school year is often ripe with another “f” word – fear. Fear of what others may think about them. Fear of being good enough. Fear of fitting in.
In an effort to prepare students mentally and emotionally for some of the most common hidden pressures that may be lurking in their minds, I’ve written an open letter to anyone who’s willing to read. I invite you to share it with any student(s) you know.
Dear spectacular student,
As you prepare for another school year, I want to share with you a few mental tools that you may find helpful. Even though school is designed to help you grow and learn, I’m well aware of certain pressures you may feel throughout the year that can sometimes cause stress or anxiety.
You may feel pressure to be perfect and that mistakes are not acceptable.
Guess what? You’re going to make mistakes. You’re human. The fact is that no one is perfect. While I’m not encouraging you to intentionally make mistakes, I want you to recognize the fact that mistakes are a part of the learning process. The key to being a successful student is not about avoiding mistakes, but rather your ability to own them and learn from each mistake you make. From now on, I want you to think of your mistakes as missed-takes. Actors get multiple “takes” when they’re shooting a scene for a movie. The mistakes you make in school are just a part of a bigger movie (or story). It’s called the story of your life. I’m much older than you and I can’t begin to tell you how many missed-takes I’ve had. However, I’m still excited about continuing to write my story, because the mistakes are in the past and don’t define me.
You may feel pressure to be better than someone else.
Competition was designed for sports, not school. Unfortunately, school has become a competitive environment. In fact, you might feel that other students are constantly competing to be better than you. Go ahead and let them compete because the only person you need to be better than is the person you were yesterday. I know from experience that when you compare your success with that of others, you’re almost certainly going to take a ride on the emotional roller coaster. In other words, when your emotions are always tied to the outcome (i.e. better grades), your level of happiness becomes more about what you do (your accomplishments), and less about who you are (your character). When you learn to step off of the roller coaster and set your sights on being a better you, true happiness will be follow.
You may feel pressure to know all of the answers and that confusion is a bad thing.
Imagine that the learning process is like hiking up a mountain. With regard to school, it’s often a mental mountain that you’re climbing. Below are the four stages of each hike. I invite you to move through each stage, even if you feel it’s impossible to do so.
Stage 1 – You’re introduced to a new concept, which serves as the beginning of your hike. Unfortunately, some students choose to check out at this point, even without taking a single step up the mountain. They say things like “I don’t get it” or “Why do we even have to learn this?” Not surprisingly, the majority of these excuses are used as a means of avoiding confusion, as if something’s wrong with it. Keep hiking.
Stage 2 – You reach a certain level of confusion. Usually this occurs about halfway up the mountain. This is the most critical stage of your journey as you are forced with a choice of whether or not to work through the confusion. Those who believe confusion is a bad thing will often descend to the base of the mountain and use confusion as a way of justifying their actions. They might say things like “This is just too hard.” However, those who’ve learned to embrace confusion simply reach into their hiker’s toolkit and pull out the three most powerful tools in their arsenal; patience, curiosity, and creativity. Armed with these tools, they seek to find a solution, rather than highlighting the difficulty of the problem(s).
Stage 3 – You eventually reach the peak of the mountain and often experience that aha moment when you fully grasp a concept. This stage serves as a huge confidence builder and helps immensely with future learning opportunities. The reward you get from reaching the peak is the satisfaction of knowing that you persevered and conquered what used to be confusion, but is now clarity.
Stage 4 – When presented with similar learning challenges in the future, you’ll see confusion as a part of the journey, not the destination. Due to an increased level of confidence, you’ll realize that the peak of the mountain is always closer than you think.
Here’s to a fabulous school year. I believe in you and your greatness.