A Nation That's Sick?

By Rafe

By Rafe Steinhauer, Tiger Challenge Program Manager

Over this past intersession break, 10 Tiger Challengers and I spent three days in three different schools, gathering qualitative data and inspiration for two urgent projects in education.

One team is designing ways to mitigate academic stress’s impact on adolescent health. The other team is designing ways to increase enrollment in teacher certification programs in New Jersey, thus helping to address shortages in our state. Both projects will run for at least two years; this academic year is all about research.

On the trip, the teams conducted a mix of group conversations with K-12 students, observations of classes and school spaces, and in-depth interviews with students, teachers, counselors, and administrators. This kind of immersive research triggers a barrage of emotional and intellectual sparks.

For example, one such spark struck me during an interview of a high school teacher about student stress:

“I had one student this year – a real good student – who was acting out of character: missing days and being erratic. So I pulled her aside to see if she was alright or wanted to talk about anything. She had been hospitalized for cutting and suicidal tendencies. About 2 [of our school's students] attempt suicide each year, and a number are hospitalized. I know my students pretty well. I stress all the time over what I might be missing.”

Looking back over the three days, I’m still shaken by how a culture of anxiety has become the norm—how students spoke of crying before class; how administrators and teachers ticked off incidents of student self-harm, and anxiety-related hospitalizations; how powerless all these intelligent and earnest students and educators are in the face of a culture that has clearly passed a tipping point.

How might we help create a culture that takes student well-being as seriously as student achievement?