Stress, distress, balance

SMUS-Views-Bob

These thoughts were prompted by a conversation with a school parent who came to lunch in Tokyo yesterday. Every March my wife, Joan, and I, visit Tokyo, Hong Kong, Taipei, and Seoul, where we see parents and alumni, spinning the web of SMUS throughout the wider world, trying to strengthen the connecting silk that identifies us as a community. This particular parent has a daughter who graduated last year, and a son now in Grade 8. His son has begun playing rugby. He himself had played university football at University of British Columbia, on a team that had gone to the College Bowl as it was then known, the national championship. He observed how well his team mates had done at university, and afterward. He is glad his son has picked up rugby. His daughter, who had been a very good student, had for her part been very committed to her vocal music. I agreed with the drift of his thoughts: students who are busy with their school work, their sports, their music, their drama acquire the discipline that the successful pursuit of these activities imparts. They face the test of juggling priorities, they wrestle with managing their time, they try not to be tugged in so many directions that they pull their hair out. The pressure comes from themselves, their teachers, their own dreams of what they will one day be, and they learn to figure it out.

We, the staff at the school, do fret about how busy our students’ lives are. We modify the daily timetable, we adjust dates and events, we limit the number of courses a student can cram into a day. We make sure there is recess, chapel and vacations. At the same time we erect the paradox that creates our fretting: for we also insist on hard work, home work, playing sports, learning music, performing service, and other activities. Then we look at each other and get back on the tight rope, having done our best to find balance.

Recently a prospective teacher, flushed with trying to swim through our website, asked if our teachers’ lives weren’t incredibly stressful, expected as they are to teach, to help out after class, and also to contribute to the extra-curricular life of the school. My answer was the same as my answer when I am asked the identical question about our students’ lives: a busy life does not equate to a stressful life. I honestly believe that the lives of our teachers, and of our students, while busy, are also fulfilling. This is the key. No doubt there are periods when things are excessively hectic, and need to be recalibrated. But by and large it gets managed. I have encountered dispirited, demoralized, hopeless teachers, but not at our school.

Two years ago during the CESI visit the inspecting team spent some of its time with groups of students. They check on a variety of issues, one of which is the pace of life. They found us all busy, our lives hectic. In some schools, when CESI visits, these session with the students become cathartic moments; students have burst into tears. Someone has finally asked them and now the concerned question has opened the floodgates. But at SMUS the visitors found not so much calm as the word I have come to prefer: balance – as much balance as can prevail in the life of an energetic, bursting-with-life teenager, anyway. Precarious, but still balance.

March break is here. I find that generally what people mean when they talk about being stressed out at our school is that they don’t have time to pause and breathe before going off to the next thing, that the day comes to an end with a number of tasks left undone. This can be unsatisfying. I find, though, that even on days I have idled away I still have a list of undone things; if our imagination is any good, it always supplies a longer list than inefficient reality can complete.

Lunch in Tokyo, here in this city whose bustling crowds get force fed onto subway cars by uniformed men with paddles designed for the purpose, and where one is continually stumbling across moments of planned calm – a shrine, a formal garden, the curling smoke of an incense stick – this conversation with a parent tied all these thoughts together. So we aren’t going to build in a couple of hours every afternoon to play video games or watch soap operas, although I suppose these can be relievers of stress. We will be encouraging opportunities for students to have some time to reflect, to put their experiences into some kind of order and context. And we will continue to build in recess, Chapel, sports, music – and, of course, March breaks.

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Bob Snowden
Bob Snowden was Head of School at St. Michaels University School for 22 years, from 1995-2017.

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