Monday, January 14, 2019

Careerism and Anxiety

In our continued investigation of why young Americans are so stressed, I bring you this item from John Thornton Jr., who recently spent a lot of time with teenagers as a youth minister:
As the retreat group started to tell me more about why they felt such a collective sense of stress and pressure, a few major themes emerged. All of them said they voluntarily get their grades pushed to their phones through notifications. It took me a minute to realize just how annoying and agonizing that must feel. It means that at any moment, they could find out they bombed a test or missed an assignment. Instead of having the time to mentally prepare to receive a bad grade when a teacher returns an assignment, they receive a notification as soon as the teacher posts their grade to the online portal they all use. Further, their parents sometimes receive the same notifications.

In addition to grades, they use multiple apps such as Remind through which their teachers can send them updates or reminders about upcoming assignments and tests. Like their grades, these can come through to their phone at any time of day or night. . . .

As we continued to talk over the course of that school year, I also noticed how much their schools force them to think about their careers at increasingly young ages. The kids often used workplace lingo to describe their lives. One sixth-grader talked about a school assignment in which she had to develop a life plan that included her future career, which schools she should attend, and what she ought to major in at her chosen university. . . .

One afternoon, I sat in our church’s common area with a sophomore. “Ugh, I’m so stressed about picking classes for next year,” she said holding up her course registration manual. It looked more extensive than I remembered from my time in high school. I asked to flip through it for a minute — it was 43 pages long.

Significant parts of the manual were organized by “career clusters” that encouraged students to take classes to prepare them for future work in fields like agriculture or finance. These clusters, the manual claimed, are “designed as a tool to assist in streamlining the path through which students meet their educational goals and are ultimately employed in high-skill, high-wage, or high-demand occupations and nontraditional fields.” After doing some research, I learned that these career cluster classes are part of a nationwide movement in states across the country.
At least some young Americans, it seems, are told all the time that 1) finding a decent career is hard, and 2) the only way to do so is to grind hard in school. You need to think all the time about your future or you won't have one.

I asked my sons about this and they agreed. They feel like their peers are being herded through a meaningless educational maze using the prod that if they don't do as they are told they will never amount to anything, which I guess is how my sons have all ended up fantasizing about dropping out and living in a remote cabin.

I don't know if most kids are really being pushed harder about future careers than they used to be, but if they are I can see how that might make some of them anxious.


G. Verloren said...

This was largely true of my own schooling even a couple decades back now, just not to such a startling degree.

School didn't bleed over into private time quite so much through invasive uses of technology, but it was already the age of telephone robots calling him to report things like absences (almost always erroneously, particularly if a teacher asked me to stay after class to talk to me about something, and I didn't show up for the next class precisely by when the robo-clock thought I should and I missed roll-call).

It was also already the age of mountains of homework issued like clockwork, not as a remedial tool to help specific students who were struggling to grasp particular concepts, but simply as a matter of course. Half the time it felt like we were just being given busywork, and the other half of the time it was clear the homework was an attempt to squeeze more instruction into a given day than was proper.

There was always the spectre of the state-mandated syllabus and schedule looming overhead, and every single new educational concept was given the exact same amount of instruction time and homework, regardless of whether it was a simple concept that could be grasped in minutes, or a difficult and complex one that really ought to receive multiple days of instruction.

So some days we'd spend ten minutes learning the proscribed material for the day, and then spend 50 minutes in class and another 60 minutes at home doing busywork, beating ourselves over the head with a concept everyone had already mastered, purely because to meet the arbitrary standard of work to be done each day.

Other days, we'd spend an entire hour in class rushing pell-mell through a complex topic that really needed more time to cover properly, and then our day's homework would try to somehow finish that instruction through a mere printed handout, and if that was insufficient for students and they didn't understand, too bad, they simply had to cope with getting a bad grade, and then the class moved on to the next topic prescribed for the next day of schooling.

In either case, homework for a class always consisted of fifty to a hundred questions on a given topic, and resembled nothing quite so much as a daily standardized test, and constituted a disproportionate amount of one's final grade. And with seven classes per day handing out such homework every single day, there was a constant fight against the clock to get the work done.

I personally spent every spare minute at lunch working on homework, and I would rush from class to class as quickly as possible to squeeze in a few extra minutes of homework before the bell rang. And I was one of the highly gifted kids who could complete an hour's worth of homework in fifteen minutes or less, but I'd still be plugging away at questions on the busride home, and sometimes even on the morning busride to school the next day. If I wanted any free time at all after a full day at school and an hour commute each way (the bus system was a nightmare, trying to serve far too many children spread across far too big of a gerrymandered school district, with far too few drivers and buses), I had to ensure I did as much homework as possible before I got home.

And as for careers, I was constantly bombarded with college prep and career planning nonsense, none of which provided me with any meaningful instruction. Everything people ever told me about college turned out to be totally wrong, and the single biggest relief from stress in my young life was actually going to college and finding out it was actually very relaxed and reasonable, and that my middle and highschool instruction had just been a sort of delusional insanity. To this day, the thought that I will never, ever have to go back to the demented hell that was primary school gives me such satisfaction I can't describe it.

pootrsox said...

A former department colleague who still is teaching just posted a different article about this same subject to Facebook, and added her own commentary that in our upper-middle-class-serving district it was an enormous problem.

I don't remember so much pressure, at least on the English department, but I retired in 2003, before the worst of NCLB etc. And the state testing at the time actually required critical and creative thinking from the students, not just factoid regurgitation. (E.g., the science test might present a drawing of an invented animal and ask that test-takers describe things like diet and likely environment where the animal might be found, based on features of the drawing. And of course explain which features led to which conclusions.)

My own daughter graduated in 1996 from that school. I don't know that she *ever* had a "career-oriented" class, or even lesson. She did get excellent guidance from her counselor, but he had a reasonable load of students and actually could work with them as individuals. In fact, we had no idea how very gifted she was (other than in music) until her counselor told us her class rank. We just knew she worked hard, got good grades, and seemed to enjoy learning. She thought she'd double-major in bio and music; in 12th grade she took psych, loved it, won a state award for her research project, and majored in psych in college. No one ever told her that psych was a field she'd not likely find a job in.

She's in instructional design for technology, using her graphics and tech skills-- and her psych background-- as she prepares multi-media learning tools. None of that, except the interest in psych, came from high school. And the school would have been fine with that.

Now, many of her classmates had parents who pushed and pushed and pushed. In the early '70's I had a student who informed me that he needed straight A's from kindergarten on, and perfect attendance, since he planned to become a surgeon. (He did wind up in medicine, though how satisfied he was/is I haven't a clue!)

It's not new. It *is*, however, becoming worse, I suspect.