The Difference Between Challenge and Stress

by Joan Flora, in honor of Pattie Sloan’s retirement

teens-and-stressAccording to a recent survey in USA Today, 27% high school students report “extreme stress” during the school year, as opposed to  13% in the summer.  34% predict their stress levels will rise with the new school year.

Check out the specifics from Sharon Jayson’s report:

  • 59% high school students report that managing their time to balance all activities is a somewhat or very significant stressor
  • 40% say they neglected responsibilities at home because of stress; 21% say they neglected work or school because of stress
  • 32% say they experience headaches because of stress; 26% report changes in sleeping habits
  • 26% report snapping at or being short with classmates or teammates when under stress

High school students are stressed.  And they are not handling it well. But neither are their parents who want to protect their children from stress.  Managed stress is actually a good thing, but it’s easy to lose sight of the appropriate stress that helps us reach challenging goals.  It’s even easier to resort to ineffective means for releasing stress.  If we’re worried about our children not knowing how to manage stress, maybe they’re learning helplessness from us:

Among survey findings on U.S. adults:

  • 37% report exercising less than once a week or not at all
  • 27% say they eat to manage stress
  • 62% manage stress with screen time: 42% go online; 42% watch two or more hours of TV or movies a day; 21% play video games.
  • 43% exercise or walk and 9% play sports to manage stress

How much stress can you take?  Take this quiz to find out.

We became high school teachers because we love watching teenagers learn and grow. That hasn’t changed in our 55 years of combined experience with teenagers.  But we are concerned with the stress levels that our students face, and we’re alarmed at our students’ parental response in confusing stress with academic challenge in an effort to protect their children.   We believe protecting our students from stress is exactly the wrong move and actually diminishes our students as thinkers and problem-solves.

Cognitive neuroscience has proved that the stressed brain (the amygdala) hijacks the learning brain (neocortex).  That’s not conducive for learning, but we also know that appropriate levels of stress enhance learning–the tricky part here is “appropriate,” which is a variable we adjust to as we read the emotional levels of our students on a daily basis.  Expert teachers–facilitators of deep learning–balance challenge with support to create pressure that heightens authentic learning and problem solving:

Challenge + Support = Learning

We strive to create intense classrooms to help students brave the world.  We think softening academic challenge creates dependency, which is not the world we want to retire into.

Screen Shot 2014-07-13 at 6.05.44 AM

Pattie writes: My 6th period calls themselves Sloan Survivors. Love them all. This is Alex, who actually loves reading now. So happy!

Does that mean we don’t have parents complaining that we’re stressing out their children in our intense classrooms?  Of course not, but we also have supportive administrators who are right to trust our work with students, and we’re articulate about our stance and how the process nourishes students, prepares them for college, career, and the problem-solving this blog is dedicated toward. It also helps to keep artifacts of student notes and reflections as evidence for doubting parents: “Mrs. Sloan, you taught me how to think.  Thank you,” or “Ms. Flora, I’m proud to write that I’m a reader!”

Pattie’s sixth period English class called themselves “Sloan Survivors” as a badge of courage and accomplishment.  Pattie challenged and supported them, demanding their best thinking and work.  Sometimes students were stressed; they certainly felt pressure. Sometimes they were caught in the uneasy disequilibrium that authentic learning demands.  But Pattie is a master teacher; she eased the way for her students without removing the worthy struggle of learning hard concepts and processes.  Her students and their parents grew to trust her.  That’s partly why we get so emotional when we see our students succeed and grow.  That’s why we cry at graduation and goodbyes.  And that’s why it’s hard to see an expert teacher like Pattie Sloan retire.

Screen Shot 2014-07-13 at 6.04.30 AMPattie writes, “Today I cleaned out my classroom, and after 33 years of teaching, I am retired–until my new adventure begins! How hard to say good-by to such wonderful people! I love West Salem High School and will miss the staff and the students so very much. Our English department was the best in the district!  My heart broke a little today. But it was time. And it is good to leave on a high note. So what is next? Surprise me, God!”

The good news?  Pattie will continue to co-author this blog without relying on caffeine and sacrificing sleep, which means she’ll be doing beautiful work in a rested state (think neocortex).  She will continue to read, stretch herself, and contribute as a volunteer and as a consultant.  And she will help us understand the value of worthy struggle of on-going learning and contribution.

Screen Shot 2014-07-13 at 6.06.41 AM

A student celebrates the end of the school year with flowers for her teacher, Pattie Sloan.

About Teaching it Forward

We are high school language arts teachers in Oregon.
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3 Responses to The Difference Between Challenge and Stress

  1. Pattie, my dear friend, you have given your heart, your knowledge, and your effort. I know your retirement will not stop that from continueing. For as long as I have known you, teaching has been a part of who you are. You have touched many lives and guided many young people as they go down the road to life. I am proud to call you my friend. God bless you on the next phase of your life!

  2. Thanks, Michelle. It takes courage to tackle hard learning, but the process is so powerful. Appreciate your comment!

  3. Michelle says:

    Joan, what a nice tribute to your friend! And so true. We all need to experience the joy that comes from working through a challenge. That’s why puzzles are so popular, and what can make learning an intrinsically motivating endeavor.

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