March of the Juniors

03/23/2015 11:17 am ET | Updated May 23, 2015

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Every year around this time I have a talk about stress and anxiety with my junior year A.P. students. Most of these students are your typical high achievers. They have been working toward college for as long as they can remember. Many of them know where they will apply, and have known the grades they need and the test scores they need to achieve, since middle school. Many of them are taking 4 or 5 Advanced Placement classes, are involved in clubs and sports and have a part time job. They generally have ridden out the storm until now. It is in March when I begin to see the changes.

In March, 2nd semester is in full swing. We are halfway through quarter 3 and progress reports have gone out. While most of us are eagerly awaiting spring and warmer weather, my students are fully aware that with the spring comes testing. They are gearing up to take S.A.T.s, to take or re-take A.C.T.s (most now take both), the Smarter Balance Assessment (S.B.A.C), which is the new junior year test/graduation requirement in Connecticut, and A.P. exams. They have been told by guidance counselors that if they don't get a certain score on their S.A.T.s, the top colleges won't even look at their applications. They have been told that they need to go to graduate school to get a good job. College is no longer good enough. They have been told that if they don't get into a "good" college, then they won't get into a "good" graduate school. They are terrified.

One student said to me that he has never been as stressed out as he is right now. He said he is working harder than he has ever worked, and yet his grades have not changed. He feels he understands the material he is learning and has proved it, yet he only has Bs. He can't wrap his brain around this fact. I can. I have known it all year. He is an incredibly bright young man, who is spread way too thin. He is currently taking 5 A.P. classes. Each of these classes is equivalent to a college course. In college, each of these classes would meet every other day, and he would have time in between classes to work. In high school, each of these classes meets every day. He may have an hour of homework from each of these classes a night. He also has one or two other classes. He is in the music program, performing in concerts throughout the year, and often practicing after school. He is involved in a club which travels to different schools, in order to hear panels of fantastic speakers. This club meets once a month and the trips often take hours. He does not "take" a lunch, so that he can include another class in his schedule instead. This may sound extreme, but I have many students following similar schedules.

In another class, my students talk about how they feel like their parents are more anxious than they are. They hear mixed messages. One student says that Mom says, "Don't worry, just do your best!" and then the next day asks why she only received a B on her test and doesn't she care about her future? She works hard. She is doing her best, but she can see that Mom is worried. Others told her it was because she was the oldest, and I tried my best to explain how as parents we want so much for our children to have everything, to have every option under the sun. We want to be in that classroom, taking the tests, controlling for every possible situation, so that there is no further obstacle. It drives us crazy that we can't help more, and that turns into anxiety.

The problem, of course, is that that anxiety sits squarely on the shoulders of our teens. So, they shoulder their own anxiety, and they shoulder their parents' anxiety. And to make matters worse, they are feeling the anxiety from their teachers as well. One student told me that the first day of 2nd semester, even his most "laid back" teachers amped up the pressure. I remembered that day. I did it too. They walked in and I reminded them that the A.P. exam was in May. We would start taking two multiple choice practices in one day, instead of one. We would be holding more firm with timed essays. No rewrites. No more messing around. I think those were my words. Today, I apologized.

What I find so interesting about this is that when I asked if they were planning on taking it easy next year, they looked at me like I was crazy. Many of them are planning on taking just as many A.P. classes their senior year. They will not see relief until they leave high school. Ironically, for many of them, college will be easier than their junior and senior years of high school.

This all feels like madness to me.

So, what can we do? I try to do my part. My class, though it is an A.P. is not heavy on homework. They will often have reading and annotating to do, but all of their writing is done in class. They sometimes re-write essays for me on their own time, but I have a policy of only giving homework when it is absolutely necessary. For some, mine might be the only class that does not pile it on. I think we, as teachers, sometimes forget how much they have to do, and how little time they actually have. We forget that they have other classes as well, and that the pressure and anxiety they feel is very real and immediate.

We need to remember that the score they get on the exam is less important than the experience they have in the class. I am lucky to work in a school where the class is not taken away from me, if my scores aren't perfect. This should be the culture at every school. Pressure trickles down. If my department head makes sure that I feel it, you can be sure my students will feel it too.

As parents, we need to remember that almost any school can be the "best" school for a kid. Unless the student has specific needs, if he has been raised to be strong and confident, he will make his way no matter where he goes. Support him, work with him if he needs it, but let him lead you. If you see a change in his behavior, ask about it. And give yourself days off too. Maybe Thursday and Fridays are "no college talk days," or some such variation. Mostly, as hard as it may be to do, trust him. He wants this just as much as you do.

So, around this time of year, as they trudge into my class, I try to keep it light. I give them time to talk, as a class, about their stresses. We still write essays and discuss texts, but we also look inward, and laugh and breathe. I say as often as I can that what they do in college is more important than where they go, and hope that they hear my voice.

I wish I had better answers.