Get eight hours of sleep. Eat healthy. Exercise for at least an hour a day. Get straight A’s. Spend time with friends. All of this is common advice given to high school students about how to be happy and successful during their teenage years. But this is no short list and something has got to give. With the amount of pressure that the average high school student is under in order to achieve “success,” it’s simply not realistic for teenagers to also be able to maintain good mental health and to practice self care.
According to US News, in 2018, high school students report, on average, spending three hours working on homework every night.. This is on top of the seven to eight hours a day students spend in school. Although this number will vary for different students based on their courses and schools, it’s undeniable that the average student will spend a large amount of their day working on schoolwork, whether that’s at school or at home.
“The amount of schoolwork that is normalized is insane,” senior Julia Donahue said. “On a normal day-to-day basis, we sit through seven to eight hours of school with little break and then we go home and are expected to do even more hours of schoolwork.”
But school isn’t the only source of stress facing students. Many teenagers take part in extracurricular activities, which can add hours to their workload. Others may have an after-school job, giving them less time in the day to spend on homework. Although some may argue that you can just quit an extracurricular to free up more time in the day, that isn’t necessarily the case. Some may need to have a job for financial reasons and others may be counting on their activities to bolster a college application on a resume.
Much of this pressure is the result of a school system that prioritizes quantifiable scores above everything else. Since test scores and number of extracurriculars can be some of the defining characteristics of our college applications, it can feel like any mistake will have an impact on the student’s future, creating an environment where stress and perfectionism is normalized.
But our lives shouldn’t be just about our GPA and extracurricular list. As high school students, our education should be a priority, but it shouldn’t be the only thing that we have in our lives. Our teenage years are the time to explore interests, make memories and find passions that we will have long after we graduate. Yet, according to CNN, college acceptance rates are decreasing every year, so more of our focus has to go to perfecting our resume. Students aren’t the only ones facing high standards, a 2018 study from the University of Maryland found that teaching quality decreases when teachers are forced to teach to a standardized test, in comparison to when focusing on other lessons.
This pressure to be prepared for our future doesn’t just take away our time, it has real mental consequences as well. According to Mayo Clinic, stress can lead to physical symptoms, like headaches and trouble sleeping, along with mental symptoms, like depression and anxiety.
“If you’re feeling like you can’t make mistakes, it’s going to create a general anxiety within you about everything,” school psychologist Jennifer Zacharski said. “Maybe that’s a low-simmering anxiety or maybe that gets in the way of your relationship or in the way of your thoughts about yourself. That pressure gets in the way of things for students.”
Ultimately, by placing so much pressure on students, the school system ends up contradicting its main goal: to educate. As the work piles up, students stop focusing on the lessons behind the tasks and only focus on getting everything done. According to the Wall Street Journal, in order to combat this, in 2018 some school districts decided to stop factoring homework into grades so that students can focus on learning instead of racking up points.
“There’s a lot of pressure from the outside and I think sometimes that pressure takes away intellectual curiosity from the student. They’re not trying to learn, they’re trying to get [an] A,” Zacharski said.
To their credit, BG has taken steps to try and make the situation better for students. Three years ago, the school start time was moved back to give students more time to sleep. They also began “no homework weekends” during some holiday weekends- although some students may find some teachers ignore this sentiment or assign extra homework on the days surrounding the weekend. There has also been The Harbor, which aims to create a more positive and understanding atmosphere at BG and to help students take care of themselves and others emotionally.
“If you’re not trying to make the building better, what are you really doing? The kids deserve the effort and we’re trying to go with the culture of the building,” Harbor adviser and AP Psych teacher Jim Farrell said. “If I’m a student and I have to be here anyway, I’d prefer it to be a kinder, gentler place.”
But these small fixes aren’t complete solutions because this isn’t a problem that is just found at BG. Rather, it’s an issue created by the American school system as a whole, where test scores and GPA are prioritized over everything. This gives students little room for error and no chance to pause when they need a break
“One of the biggest answers is to take a step back, take a deep breath, talk to friends, but unfortunately people don’t have time for that,” Donahue said. “The [American] school system isn’t meant for students to take mental health days or sick days because the work will just pile up.”
There are no easy answers about how to fix the current system and to relieve student stress. This requires changing the focus from easily quantifiable data to prioritizing individual growth. But for now, the only thing students can do is reach out when they need help and focus on their own mental wellbeing. This is a lesson that we all need to learn.
“It’s a time when teenagers should ultimately be selfish when it comes to caring for them,” Farrell said. “It’s hard to be everything for everyone. It’s making sure that you’re getting enough time for your studies, you’re getting enough time for your sleep. So often kids put themselves in a bad place because they’re skimping on themselves.”