Monday, June 30, 2014

Teenager Anxiety and the Classroom

Who remembers the movie about the Vienna Boys Choir, Almost Angels?   The only bit that has stuck with me comes near the end of the film.  The lead's voice changes and he can no longer sing soprano.  I remember when this happened to me so I had to leave the glee club.  It happened around the same time to another kid too, Jay.  I was nine at the time, so it was fourth or fifth grade.  I really don't know the cause for my early puberty, but I'm guessing that being such a big kid was part of it.  I don't recall any other consequence at the time.  Whether it contributed to some of the issues I had later, in high school, who knows?

The piece linked above about teenager anxiety is worth the read.  I wish I had read it fifty years ago.  It may have allowed me to get some needed self-understanding at an earlier age.  My first reaction was to recall some of the anxiety I felt as a teen growing up in Bayside.  There were several causes.  One was simply that New York City is busy and boisterous and required negotiation on the spot about situations you would never find yourself in outside a busy city.  I was not confident that I was up to this sort of negotiation.  

One example I recall, soon after I started to drive I went shopping with my dad.  We double parked on Horace Harding Boulevard just east of Springfield Boulevard.  My dad went into the store while I sat in the car.  One of the regular parked cars wanted to get out and I was blocking him.  But I couldn't pull forward because there was a truck double parked just ahead of me.  So I needed to pull into traffic and I wasn't confident I could do it.  Instead of trying that and getting into an accident I left the car in a panic and went to find my dad. 

Another cause was the threat of violence at school.  Elementary school, at P.S. 203, was a safe and welcoming environment.  Sometimes walking to school a kid who went to St. Roberts would pick on me and steal my hat.  I hate hats till this day, particularly the type with the broad brim and ear flaps with imitation fur lining and the top that was faux leather.  Apart from the hat stealing, however, things were pretty safe and once we got to school there was no such threat.

Junior high school, which became Nathaniel Hawthorne Middle School in eighth grade, had some risk to it, though not because there was busing, which might otherwise be blames as the culprit.  After lunch there was recess in the school yard.  Some of the kids who weren't in SP were pretty rough.  (The school had a tracking system and SP kids were the honors students.)  I recall watching one 2-year SP kid getting beaten up and while he was already on the ground getting kicked repeatedly by another kid who was not in SP.  For the most part, this was a non-threat for me as I hung out with a cohort of others and wasn't alone during recess.  But I was aware of the threat.

The persistent threat of violence emerged in high school, at Benjamin Cardozo.  I got panhandled (see the definition from the Collins English Dictionary) repeatedly trying to get into the school when most kids were milling around at the front entrance.  I remember seeing one of the kids who did this when I was in the school Library.  He was talking to the Librarian.  She said he looked like Julian Bond.  He didn't act like Julian Bond, at least when he was panhandling me.  Gym was worse.  It was terrifying.  I think some of the kids who went to the school were emotionally disturbed and as a consequence they were perpetually angry, looking for the least provocation to start a fight.  I was frightened much of the time.  I did find some coping strategies.  One year I was in the Polar Bear Club.  We weren't so crowded together outside and the really scary kids stayed indoors.  A different time I was befriended by a guy who was himself a tough kid but who liked me.  We were in the band in junior high school together.  When I hung out with him in gym, I knew I'd be okay. 

One other source of anxiety was the boy-girl thing.  It was terribly awkward.  During my senior year I recall going on a double date to see The French Connection - filmed in New York where it happened. I had a thing for this girl, but I wasn't able to express it.  During the movie I really wanted to hold her hand, but was too scared to try and never did.  It seems so foolish now.  Yet at the time it was awfully demoralizing.  Each such incident only served to confirm that I'd never be good with girls.

* * * * *

The real purpose of this post is to discuss the anxiety college students have, on the academic side.  Most of the students I see in my class The Economics of Organization, a course aimed at juniors and seniors, are no longer teenagers.  But adult coping skills, particularly when to recognize that a perceived threat is not real, don't miraculously appear when the kid turns 20.  The linked article above uses a benchmark of age 25 for when reasoned judgment catches up with teenage anxiety.  Until then, the kid is still emotionally a teenager, even if chronologically he no longer is.

I am not sure whether this is true or not, but it may be that we are more empathetic to people who show anxiety that in form is similar to what we ourselves have experienced.  The classroom itself is largely a place where I was anxiety free.  Tenth grade is a bit of an exception here, but looking backward on it all, the issues I had could be tied to some larger emotional problems that weren't fundamentally academic. I did struggle in geometry with Miss Chin for a while.  This perplexed her, since I clearly knew what was going on.  After several mediocre performances on exams I finally got 100% on one and she wrote on my test paper - it's about time. Apart from tenth grade, I was very comfortable in the classroom and thrived in that environment. 

Most people who eventually become faculty members probably did quite well in the classroom when they were kids - better than their peers who were "good students."  Even more likely, they were excellent in the classroom as graduate students.  That accomplishment may inadvertently desensitize them to the plight of their own students, who may very well be quite anxious about their own academic performance, even if they are not visibly distressed.  How then might these faculty develop a sense of empathy for their students?  My suggestion is to go through an exercise similar to the one I did in the first part of this piece.  Surely they've had aspects of their lives as teenager where anxiety was the rule.  Having so confirmed that they didn't lead an anxious free existence, they need only ask the following question.  Do different people experience anxiety in different areas and in different ways?  An affirmative response to this question would then lead to an inescapable conclusion.  Many students are anxious in the classroom.  They fear not being smart enough and don't want to look stupid.  They are the ones who have a fixed mindset, in the language of Carol Dweck

Recognizing the issue is not the same as solving it, but surely it is a necessary first step.  What steps should follow that first one?  There are Shangri-La answers to this question, of course.   One example is - get rid of grades.  When I was an undergrad at MIT before I transferred to Cornell there were no grades the freshman year.  I really think that is a healthier approach and I'd vote for it now for all four years of college.  But I won't hold my breath waiting for it to happen.  The next steps I'm talking about are ones an individual instructor can take on his own without needing campus sanction.  For the steps that require the Faculty Senate's approval, let somebody else write an essay on the topic.

If possible, the instructor has to find a way for the student to relax and open up.   Class discussion may be one area that encourages this, though my recent experience suggests universal participation is too ambitious a goal. So it is my belief that one needs a multi-front approach to this and one of those fronts should be regular student writing.  Another bit may be mandatory or "strongly recommended" office hours.  Note that there are bits of coercion in these last two.  The coercion is there only to get initiation to happen.  It's what happens after that which will encourage to the student to relax, or not.  Feedback is the key.  The student must find the feedback a value add and thus want more of it.  This, then, has the making of a virtuous cycle.

Suppose that in thinking about "teaching effectiveness" we asked first not how to lower the cost of instruction but instead how to make the classroom seem less hostile to the typical student.  Are there other ways than the ones I've suggested in the previous paragraph that would make students less anxious, while still conveying high expectations for the students as learners?  This seems to me the key question to be asking.

We educators shouldn't be leaving the student anxiety issue to the psychologists and otherwise stand pat with our current mechanisms.  At present, Dean of Student types are forced to treat this as outlier behavior.  And, indeed, on occasion student anxiety leads to some pretty strange consequences.  But if we thought about student anxiety as the rule rather than as the exception, we'd address it in completely different ways than we do now.  How can we get there from here? 

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