Stress x Stress = Survival mode : My Middle School Experiment, What I Learned, Part 4

IMG_0970The everyday stress of teaching students in the throes of beginning adolescence adds up over a while.


The everyday stress of living in poverty (which was about 90 percent of my students) adds up over a while.

Put those two situations together . . .  and you get a classroom full of students – and one teacher – all in survival mode.

That means stress squared.

Even though I only taught middle school for one semester, 90 days, that ongoing stress wore me out and put me into survival mode in Week 1.

And most of my students came to school already in survival mode.

That’s a tough formula for teaching and learning, especially in this high-stakes testing era.

Academic (language arts, social studies, math, science) teachers don’t feel they have enough time to attend to their students’ emotional wellbeing, to take care of the diverse needs of students who are in survival mode every day.

That’s because academic teachers always have testing coming up. They are held accountable for these students’ scores – whether these students are in survival mode or not.

I had more leeway in my careers class – and little academic stress – because the spring testing wasn’t looming over my shoulder every day.

But had about 70-75 students one day, then another, different 70-75 the next, then back to the first 75, and so on . . .  an alternating-days schedule.

That didn’t allow me to get to know my approximately 150 students very well.

It took me almost a month to learn all of their names! (When I taught high school English, I knew all of my students’ names in the first week, most within the first three days).

And by the time I felt I knew these 6th, 7th, and 8th graders at least somewhat well – had figured out their personalities and learning styles and challenges – the semester was over.

Students who live in poverty, whose lives are in constant turmoil and unpredictability . . . well, they need extra support.

Support from people who know them.

That support usually comes from their teachers. 

Teachers who themselves are very stressed.

Students who live in stressful situations often act out, cause disruption in the classroom, make teaching more difficult.

Or they may withdraw, not interact, put their heads down, not pay attention. That also makes teaching more difficult.

And if the teacher happens to be under stresses more than the already pretty intense classroom stresses, that’s a recipe for volatility.

And volatility causes even more stress.

With this much daily stress, soon both the teachers and students find themselves in survival mode.

I went into survival mode very quickly. I didn’t have the physical stamina to be on my feet on concrete floors interacting with middle schoolers five days a week.

And even though I was much better prepared emotionally than when I was a younger teacher, the time in the classroom wore me out.

I had the opportunity to feel a little of what it’s like to try to function in survival mode day after day.

Students in poverty have this feeling multiplied by 3 or 4 or 5  . . . . or 10 or 20.

Plus, they’re only 11 or 12 or 13 or 14 years old. And their hormones are wreaking havoc. And their brains aren’t developed yet.

That’s stress upon stress upon stress upon stress! 

As this new school year is beginning (the teachers in my district go back the middle of this week, and the students start on August 3rd), send some good vibes to both teachers and students.

They’re all in difficult, demanding situations.

Day after day.

They need our support.

Both students and teachers!

(And if you’re feeling really generous, contact your local school to find out how you might help students and teachers. High-poverty schools often provide food and clothing for students – you might want to make a donation. Teachers always appreciate any acknowledgement. Drop off a cake or cookies or something to make teachers feel appreciated. You have no idea how far this gesture will go in making the day of teachers who are stressed and perhaps in survival mode!)




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