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    A blog by John Warner, author of The Funny Man, on teaching, writing and never knowing when you're going to be asked to leave.

The Anxiety Crisis
April 18, 2014 - 9:58am

We have an anxiety problem. It may even be a crisis.

Directors of counseling centers report increases in students seeking mental health counseling services, with anxiety leading the way.

Students’ self-reported levels of emotional health are at record lows. A full one-third of students say they were “overwhelmed by all they had to do” as high school seniors. This appears to only get worse in college.

And anecdotally, I’m seeing an unprecedented amount of face crumbles.

Do you know the face crumble?

I feel as though anyone who has spent time working with students has experienced the face crumble, that moment where some bit of news – sometimes a grade, but often just a reminder of some forgotten bit of work – causes a student’s face to crumble, their features collapsing into a mask of distress and vulnerability and helplessness.

In my experience, the best response to a face crumble is to just let it happen. If a student’s stress and anxiety is at a level where a simple reminder that there is only a week left in class causes such an emotional disturbance, a momentary breakdown may be at least temporarily cathartic.

My students are almost always embarrassed when they crumble in front of me. When the moment passes, they smile and say something like “I don’t know why this is such a big deal.”

I feel something different when I see my students crumble: despair, and increasingly, rage.

I would like to tell them to suck it up, that they’re being melodramatic, that college has always been tough and that they’ll survive, just like other generations have survived before them, but I don’t say that anymore because I’ve come to believe that I am part of a system that seeks to destroy them.

Thanks to a generation of massive amounts of standardized testing, our students conceive education primarily as a tool for determining a ranking. The Obama administration’s policy is even called Race to the Top. We have the most read columnist in the country telling us how important it is to raise “standards” so our students don’t fall behind.

For our students' entire lives we have communicated that the reason to learn things is not to fulfill curiosities, but to see where you stack up relative to others. Grades are no longer a proxy for learning, but a lap time determining how well they’re doing at achieving a secure financial future. Under this system, a “B” is genuine cause for distress. A “C” is a disaster that points towards a ruined life.

At the same time, we have made it increasingly difficult to pay for a genuine education. The burden of loans threatens to strangle adult lives before they really begin. It is now impossible to work your way through collegeConcerns over even paying for college are also at an all-time high. We communicate that a college degree is more important than ever and then make it more difficult to achieve.

Students look at the larger culture and see not a ladder of opportunity, but a treadmill of obligation. No wonder they’re distressed.

The face crumbles are moments where feelings of helplessness suddenly overwhelm and they see the ground rushing towards them.

As an individual instructor, I feel mostly powerless in the face of these realities. I have only one voice to push back at a culture that now treats education as a private benefit rather than a public good. I cannot raise the minimum wage so they can work five fewer hours per week so they can play five more. I cannot get their parents who are in the midst of their own anxieties to stop hovering.

I cannot decrease the rigor of my course just because I feel sorry for them. I cannot absolve them of the work that I feel is necessary and, if done well, reflects authentic achievement and is a vehicle for self-discovery.

The things I can do seem very small. I can remind them to get enough sleep. I can tell them about the program that brings puppies to campus during finals week. I can encourage them to play, to relax in ways other than drinking themselves into oblivion.

And when their faces crumble, I can let mine crumble a little too. I can express empathy and understanding and tell them that I too despair about these things, but that we seem to be able to survive.

But survival is a small comfort. Unfortunately, I don’t have much else to offer them these days.

What do you tell your students when they crumble?

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You see lots of emotional distress on Twitter.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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