Art Abelmann: The pressures of high school |

Art Abelmann: The pressures of high school

Art Abelmann
Special to The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

Pressure … that’s right, pressure. Not the pressure of the air in your vehicles tires, not the pressure you would apply while offering first aid to an open wound, not even the pressure you feel as your ears pop while descending in an airplane.

We are talking about pressure … real pressure … the kind of pressure that creates tears late at night, the kind of pressure that has you change your outfit four or five times before deciding what to wear, the pressure that results in screaming bouts between parents and teens, the pressure that keeps you up late at night or forces you to wake up early. This is high school pressure – perhaps the worst kind in the life of a teen student.

High schools – especially smaller schools like the ones in this area – can be places filled with wonderful opportunities and supportive environments, places where great stories and dreams begin. At the same time, ask any high school student, especially the juniors or seniors, and they will be able to weigh in on just how heavy the pressure can feel.

This past week several programs took place at Aspen High School. Together, under an umbrella of similarities, a common theme emerged. The umbrella, when open, spells “pressure.” Our students, those we teach and those we parent, are under a significant amount of pressure.

The Western Slope College Fair was an amazing event this past Sunday. More than 200 colleges together with hundreds of students and families from across the Western Slope participated. Numerous work sessions, along with one-on-one conversations with admissions officers, were attended. This is exactly what the fair was designed to do. What a perfect event for the college bound to attend.

Then there was the information session with representatives from top schools in the country: Harvard, Stanford, USC and Vanderbilt, to mention a few. You could feel the pressure among the standing-room-only crowd as parents and students tried to glean the information they would need to make their application stand out. Test scores, academic rigor, IB and AP classes, co-curricular, athletics, supplemental materials, interviews, family legacy, early acceptance, early decision. … Students were squirming in their seats as they processed and accepted the long odds of acceptance to such a school.

For parents, gasping at the greater than $50,000 per year price tag, key words were need-based scholarship, merit-based scholarship, financial aid, sliding scale dependent on household income … all adding to the overhead weight that lingered among the crowd until the doors opened at the end of the 60-minute workout. Students and parents exited in silence.

Just prior to the college fair, our school, thanks to the generosity of the Valley Partnership for Drug Prevention, hosted a group known for their ability to speak with students, parents, teachers and coaches on the subject of drug and alcohol prevention. Freedom from Chemical Dependency (FCD) met with members of the school community all week long. If ever there was an area for pressure to be evidenced it would be in the realm of teenage drinking and drug use. Peer pressure to fit in, to be doing what the others do, to explore and to participate is all too prevalent in this realm. Some may be using out of boredom. They may be bored because they are not challenged or engaged. Some may be tempted by the images they see their idols partake in, and others may just be along for the ride that turns into the ride of a lifetime. No matter what, drugs and alcohol in the life of a teen can be described as pressure.

Academic pressure, parental pressure, the need to succeed and peer pressure can also take the form of a deception of academic integrity. As we prepare to embed a code of honor to the academic community of our school, one must look at what may be the root of the problem. As an IB school, with a tremendous amount of rigor and workload, students feel the pressure and on occasion find a relief valve known as cheating. Not all, but some, fall prey to the temptation, leading to an even stronger feeling of the need to succeed at any and all cost. On the other end of the spectrum, some students may cheat out of frustration and misunderstanding. In need of modifications, these student may not get the appropriate extra time or help due to them.

Of course there is the all-too-common athletic pressure, the never-seen – but definitely present – how-do-I-look pressure. And also there is this question: Is pressure modeled within a school by those teaching? Unfortunately, the answer can be in the affirmative. Teachers are under pressure to cover curriculum. Some teachers have a concern that they are to be judged and evaluated based on student performance.

As the teacher, in some cases, wears the pressure on their sleeve as a badge of concern, there is a risk that students may feel this, and in the world of reflection, student demeanor can become a spin-off of what they see in their classroom heroes. Pressure may reflect right off the teacher and onto the student.

Parental pressure can lead to the same … a reflection onto a son or daughter to perform at the expected level and to attain the academic success expected. Can you hear the tears at night or feel the fear, tension and concern on the face of the teen sleeping down the hall from you? No matter where one is on the path to academic success, pressure is all too evident among our teens.

The topic of pressure has been reviewed, not in an effort to alarm or to fear one’s school community, but rather to open the door for conversation, exploration and understanding. How much academic pressure is good in terms of preparing students for college and post-secondary opportunities? After all, most adults feel pressure in their daily lives. Shouldn’t we be preparing our students for adulthood?

How do we, as a community, confront peer pressure in regards to drugs and alcohol? In what way can teaching professionals model best methods for pressure management? Do we as parents help or hinder the issue? Please know that these and related topics are of concern. Each is worthy of our attention and discussion with the hope of finding solutions as a means of being supportive to our student body and realistic in the preparation we are charged with providing.

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