Performance Anxiety: A Personal Story

This is a cross-post of a piece that I published on the Canadian Education Association site earlier this week. With all of the important talk about mental health and our young people, should we be looking at ways that schools might be contributing to a feeling of unease among our students?

 

I clearly recall beginning to feel very uneasy at school soon after starting Grade Seven. A year earlier, in 1969, our school district had decided that it would be a good idea to congregate all of the 12-14 year olds in the region in one building. I was too young to know about any of the community conversations that went on in advance of the decision or what the philosophical underpinnings of the project would have been, but I do know that September 8, 1970 was the first day in my life that I ever stayed at school for lunch!

Beyond the social adjustments to my new learning environment–adjustments that I never did fully make–I recall that my biggest challenges in heading to Junior High were academic in nature. Despite my desire to bring home the same high marks that my older brother seemed to effortlessly garner, I remember struggling in most aspects of the program. In particular, math and science presented the highest hurdles.

Although my parents noticed that their normally happy-go-lucky, cooperative child was quickly becoming more serious, and somewhat more anxious, I think they just chalked it up the natural movement from childhood to adolescence. Actually, I think that I was the one who was most concerned about the change. I secretly made an appointment with our school guidance counsellor and let him know that I was worrying about everything: strange sounds in the night, doing well in school, traveling on the school bus. His remedy was to have me go to the library every lunch hour, put on a set of headphones, and listen to a series of records outlining the facts of life. That’s right, it was obvious to him that I needed to know about Sex! Although this daily ritual drew a growing crowd of other student-listeners, I recall that the information only served to make me more anxious!

In Grade Eight, I began to dread going to school, not for fear of being teased or bullied (though that was not an uncommon experience for me) but for fear of not being able to do the work. I had fallen so far behind that I felt completely lost in many of my courses. Although my teachers tried to help, I could tell that they were getting frustrated by my lack of understanding of some of the basic, foundational ideas that would have helped me in handling the more advanced work.

In February of 1972, I stayed home from school for three whole weeks. During that time,  I was poked and prodded by doctors, nurses and other adults who couldn’t seem to get to the bottom of the illness that mysteriously emerged during the Wonderful World of Disney each Sunday night and seemed to, just as mysteriously, disappear in time for the Brady Bunch on Friday evening. Save for my grandmother who inuitively understood everything, not one adult in my life seemed to be able to connect the change to a type of performance anxiety!

The second of three reports on the the What Did You Do In School Today focuses on the gap between intellectual challenge and the skill sets that students call upon in order to meet those challenges. While the report offers another lens through which to examine the complex issues related to student engagement, it also offers adults like me a way of understanding their own school experience. The enormous impact created by not attending to the gap between what we demand of students, and the skills that they bring to meet those demands cannot be overlooked.

For me, the system provided a way to mitigate the emotional and social impact by allowing me to gradually “drop out” of various programs. In looking back, however, I’m not sure whether this approach served me that well.

WDYDIST Research Series Report Two:  The Relationship Between Instructional Challenge and Student Engagement is worth a good look, and then worth a good conversation. If the what of our transformation agenda is still looking for a compelling why, I sense that this report might hold some important clues.

About Stephen Hurley


I've been privileged to spend the last 30 years serving the public education system in Ontario. Through opportunities to work at most levels of the system, I have developed a heart for big picture thinking that is grounded in the reality of today's schools. I'm passionate about my own learning and look forward to nurturing that passion through my presence at voicEd.ca

1 Comment

  1. “. The enormous impact created by not attending to the gap between what we demand of students, and the skills that they bring to meet those demands cannot be overlooked.”

    Certainly true, Stephen. However, after reviewing the study and to which I read many in the last 12 years hailing from the education system, I was not at all surprised that mastery of students was glossed over, in favour of teacher reform in practices. The report concludes, “However, what is even clearer is the need for reforms to focus more clearly on what is happening in classrooms, not just schools, and for policy to shift away from a narrow focus on individual students
    towards the larger effort of creating the conditions needed to engage all students intellectually. When teachers are supported in a way that enables them to work with the principles of effective teaching, including the expectation that they open their practices to colleagues and others, and given the time and space to build productive working relationships with each other and with students, learning really begins to engage students intellectually.”

    The case study in the report, I have issues with. The first issue is, “The school is located in a low
    socio-economic neighbourhood, more than 50% of its students are identified with some form of learning disability, and a high percentage are of First Nations, Métis or Inuit heritage.”

    Two complex issues interwoven, between culture and disability. The more important thing, the undercurrents of the biases, misconceptions, and long-standing education practices held by the adults of the education system. Where the education practices and policies hinders learning within both subgroups, the LD students and the aboriginals. The Moore Supreme Court of Canada ruling, released, November 09, 2012 a win for every LD student across the country, the education policies and practices were found to discriminate and violating the Charter of Freedoms and Rights. With over 50 percent of students having learning issues, and described as learning disabilities in the case study, it becomes very difficult to engaged students if the students do not have a solid foundation to stand on. The solid foundation in areas of reading, writing and numeracy.

    The second issue with the case study is, ” Many students at the school fell into what Edyburn describes as the “achievement gap” (2006). While the “average” student at the school was achieving one academic year for each year in school (i.e., one grade per year), many students
    could not do this, including First Nations, Métis and Inuit students; students with learning disabilities; students living in poverty; and students whose first language was not English. According to Edyburn, “contemporary schooling practices are not effective for some groups of students. Continuing to do what we have always done will perpetuate rather than
    eliminate the gap. Repeated failure over time creates an achievement gap that is exceedingly difficult to erase”

    Not a word on mastery, abilities, and proficiency in reading, writing and numeracy. The SES variables will inevitably start to take over, where school becomes a matter of survival, do the time, and for many of the LD students disengagement from school. For my youngest child, it started in grade 1, where she not only was disengaged, she hated school. It was not until, I undertook re-teaching and tutoring at home, my child became fully engaged in school by grade 7. Why? Mastery of the foundations, reading, writing and numeracy that in turn led to steady progress and achievement that in turned led to being engaged in learning. Repeated failure over time, is an indicator of weaknesses in aspects of reading, writing and numeracy, and knowledge gaps that were not taught or student did not reach the mastery level. Both are at play with the LD subgroup, interwoven and tightly bound with each other.

    The third issue and which I am surprised it was stated in black and white: ” Even though leaders and teachers at the school knew that a large percentage of their students were falling into the
    achievement gap, they were reluctant to change the way they had always approached the curriculum, teaching, and the organization of the school. Many of them believed, like many educators, that the achievement gap was primarily a feature of the students’ characteristics and/or their experiences outside of school.”

    One does not have to wonder why, there is disengagement. The main premise and belief systems of educators is at play. All failure and low achievement is a result of external SES variables. As a parent, I certainly experienced it in the last 12 years, regarding my child. The beliefs of the school versus one dyslexic parent, who knew a thing or two on mastery, a solid foundation, and failure. It is where my school experiences differs greatly from yours. Having teachers rolling up their sleeves, to ensure mastery and proficiency in reading, writing and numeracy to ensure students had the foundation to do the advance work and learning from grade 6 and onward. Disengagement is tightly bound with the teaching practices and education policies of a school. Further tied into knots, by the misconceptions and belief systems of the adults within the education system.

    The fourth issue is, “For students in the two school-within-a-school cohorts, intellectual engagement scores in the school have increased from 44% twelve months ago to 47%.”

    What can I say, but a 3 percent increase is nothing to rave about. Not in my eyes, where my youngest child was performing at a grade 1 level at the end of the grade 3, except for reading, which was apparently at grade level. I questioned that too, to no avail when my child had major word decoding difficulties over the 12 years. Engagement for my child, came with a solid foundation, learning strategies to overcome the current pedagogical practices and steady improvement of the cognitive weaknesses that arose from the dyslexia, Today, my youngest is in grade 12, with a 85 percent average, and for the first time, a 78 % in English. My child stands as a testament when students have a solid foundation to stand on, to reached their full academic potential. My child also has a social life in and outside of high school. The only reason, why my child was not supported by the school and by extension the school board, was because of the misconceptions and belief systems of the educators.

    The conclusion of the paper – “Instruction is not well matched to skill levels for many middle and secondary students in Canada. The implications of these findings for students who feel that their work is too difficult or too easy are significant for student engagement in school and for students’ learning in their Math, Language Arts and Science classes. Middle and secondary schools are clearly in need of change. However, what is even clearer is the need for reforms to focus more clearly on what is happening in classrooms, not just schools, and for policy to shift away from a narrow focus on individual students towards the larger effort of creating the conditions needed to engage all students intellectually. When teachers are supported in a way that enables them to work with the principles of effective teaching, including the expectation that they open their practices to colleagues and others, and given the time and space to build productive working relationships with each other and with students, learning really begins to engage students intellectually.”

    As a parent, I never observed any policies that focus on individual students, If anything, the opposite. But than again, I am not trained as an educator, who might not understand the complexity of teaching instruction and pedagogically practices. However, the report does state that the instruction is not well matched to the skill levels of the students. As a parent, I have been saying that from 2001, to no avail. In the end, I had to undertake the home tutoring and reteaching, so that my child could expressed herself in the different learning mediums and become an engaged learner. The question is how to go about it, to prevent disengagement from occurring in the first place. I have a funny feeling, this question will never be the focus, when the education practices and policies live in separate silos from the rest of society, the learning sciences and knowledge and advances of the 21st century. Disconnected and not at all obliging and tolerant of knowledge and even parents’ wisdom that does not hail from the knowledge banks of the education systems and their research.

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