Anxiety and the jitters are winning the Back-to-School internal tug-of-war with excitement and exhilaration. Today’s schoolkids are full of worries, feeling threatened by cyberbullying and being diagnosed with new forms of childhood and teen anxiety and depression. “Typical” Parents are hovering in helicopter formations waiting for schools to open, and a few are fretting about, and envious of, Finnish education. Pencil, pen and paper teachers wedded to chalkboards are quietly derided as throwbacks for resisting mobile learning devices and shunning the latest Apps. While all of this is a gross distortion of reality, it does reflect the impressions and perceptions conveyed in Back-to-school media reports, including the recent series of articles featured in Canada’s national newspaper, The Globe and Mail.
High anxiety clearly consumed Canadian news columnist Elizabeth Renzetti. In “Back-to School Stress,” The Globe and Mail, 31 August 2013, she grabs our attention with this lead: “The week before school begins is often filled with a special anxiety. Every night is dominated by the hour of the wolf, the sleepless time of dread: What will class be like this year? Pass or fail? How to keep up? When it’s all over will there be any jobs left that don’t require a polyester uniform?” That’s just the pretext for apiece about Amanda Ripley’s new book, The Smartest Kids in the World. Reading it will only generate more worries about why our kids are falling behind those in Finland in the international race to the top.
One Back-to School news story produced by CTV News, aired on September 4, 2012, is back and posted on “Back-to-School” section of The Globe and Mail website. The news clip, “Nerves and Excitement on the First Day of School,” is enough to rattle even the most seasoned parent and educator. It focused on the first anxious day for kIndergarten kids at Carlton Village School in Toronto and was followed by a Metro Toronto Police news story warning parents about the child safety dangers of dropping-off their kids at school.
Letting your kids walk to school is now a practice that can produce deep parental angst. “Just as exciting as your kid going to first grade is your kid walking to first grade,” advises Lenore Skenazy, author of Free Range Kids, a daring mother who achieved infamy by allowing her 9-year-old son ride the New York subway on his own. She recently told The Globe and Mail that “letting go of the leash” can be liberating for today’s helicopter parents. “It’s only in this moment in time that we are paralyzed with fear about what’s normally a lovely part of childhood.”
Today’s parents are bombarded and innundated by professional experts and well-intentioned elementary school educators dispensing advice. THe videos posted on The Globe and Mail website tell the story. The titles speak for themselves: “Why jittery kids feel stressed this time of year.” “Getting gadget ready for school.” “Is your kid a picky eater? Try packing these lunches.” My favourite recent advice piece, Kate Carraway’s “A letter for your locker,” is an aunt’s idea of what it takes to survive and thrive in the veritable jungle of the Middle School. It ends with this honey-coated line: “I want you to have an incredible life, but more than that, I know you will.”
Even today’s teachers are feeling the pressure. For educators, trying to keep pace with technology is daunting. After all iPads have only been on the market since April 2010, and now they are the all-in-one device that is insinuating itself into every corner of daily life, including the schools. Social media inspired educators like Thomas Whitby, founder of #edchat, are a constant reminder of how much more teachers could be doing to integrate technology into teaching and professional learning. Shutting the classroom door and carrying on the usual “chalktalk” routine are getting harder when your SMART Phone Twitter feed contains a stream of links to pieces like those aggregated on Edutopia.
Few education observers or policy analysts dig a little deeper trying to fathom and explain why going back to school has become such a source of ‘over-the-top’ anxieties for kids, parents, and teachers. Buried in those Back-to-School stories is one that does, a September 2012 interview with Zander Sherman, author of The Curiosity of School. In that interview with Chris Berube, Sherman argues the changes in the nature of The School are the source of the problem.
School is something you dread when it’s associated with unpleasant experiences. In Sherman’s words: “Schools have historically turned out citizens and voters, today, though, you could say we’re focused on human resources – schools have become standardized, and that’s because it makes for a good labour pool, it’s convenient for the economy.”
What’s gone wrong? “Education should be about instilling a sense of wonder and a love of learning,” Without the capacity to instill that curiosity, Sherman points out that schools can have a deadening effect on children and teachers. Going to school should be like going to the gym for personal fitness — an experience people actually look forward to.
What’s the real cause of Back-to-School stress for students, parents and teachers? To what extent do professional experts and well-intentioned educators contribute to the hype and apprehensions? Do schoolchildren today dread school anymore than their parents — or grandparents? How legitimate is Zander Sherman’s claim that changes in The School itself are heightening the natural anxieties?