Relaxation in high-achievement high schools

November 03, 2007

Too much stress in high school:
Achieving at a hidden cost

By Allan R. Andrews

I’ve added to my list of people I admire the principal of Needham High School in an affluent suburb of Boston, Mr. Paul Richards.

According to a story in The New York Times last month (“Less Homework, More Yoga, From a Principal Who Hates Stress,” by Sara Rimer, October 29, 2007, www.nytimes.com ), the principal is attempting to change a high-powered high-school culture built on high achievement by advocating–the story’s headline tells us–“less homework, more yoga.”

Mr. Richards wants Needham’s students to be trained in relaxation techniques, and he doesn’t want it done in an extracurricular fashion. Relaxation should be part of the culture and curriculum.

The principal is suggesting regular yoga classes, and he is urging teachers to schedule weekends and holidays when students are totally free from having to do homework! He’s suggesting the school hire relaxation consultants.

The startling revelation of the story, however, is that Richards’ efforts have met strident criticism. As part of his culture-changing approach, he stopped publishing honor rolls in the local newspaper at the end of marking periods, suggesting the lists had been turned into an accountability issue by some parents.

As a result, Richards and Needham High School have been accused by none other than Rush Limbaugh of coddling students in order to be politically correct. Jay Leno, who lives off news-story-induced humor, mocked the school for its stance, and Richards has been the recipient of hate mail from across the country.

Richards argues that he’s not trying to change the elements of high school that encourage achievement but simply wants to get there in a healthier manner. He insists there is an irony in the students’ responses: they say they appreciate the relaxation time because it helps them catch up on schoolwork.

Richards, who holds a doctorate and has made himself something of an expert in research on stress, argues that many students are so stressed about grades, test scores, and getting into prestigious colleges that they can’t engage with life at school. He told The Times such students “are being held hostage to the culture.”

A key point from his stress research that Richards emphasizes is this: while a certain amount of stress is necessary for learning and growth, too much of it interferes with students’ learning and their maturation.

David Smokler, an English teacher at Needham High School, buys into the principal’s call for a change of culture. He told The Times, “The culture has always been about rigor,” but the principal is trying “to make sure it’s not just about rigor for rigor’s sake, but that it’s meaningful throughout the school.”

Since I removed myself from a newsroom about a decade ago and stepped into the classroom of a private high school, I’ve struggled to understand what is amiss in American high schools (and make no mistake, I consider high school teaching to be the most difficult job I’ve ever had–and the most rewarding.)

Paul Richards and thinkers like him have begun to convince me that the problem is not necessarily a “school” problem as much as a “culture” problem.

The sad side of the story, of course, is that so many teachers, administrators, parents, educational planners—as well as Congressmen—have bought into the achievement-at-any-cost culture.

A former colleague of mine, Steve Larson, who spent more than a decade as a private school superintendent before returning to teaching, used to say often, “We’re doing lots of achieving, but we’re not teaching the imagination.”

Steve and I had lots of conversations about maintaining rigor while encouraging relaxation though we may not have used that phraseology. We also agreed such a program was an uphill battle, not because of student resistance, but because of the misunderstandings of colleagues, administrators and parents; indeed, because of a gross misunderstanding of the nature and meaning of educating adolescent minds.

I found it heartwarming and telling that when Steve decided to leave our school after just a few years and move his family south, he was voted by his colleagues as faculty person of the year, an honor traditionally reserved for faculty who were long-term employees of the institution.

Apparently, somewhere, there’s still an appreciation for relaxation.

Be at leisure, my friends.

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