Facing the Competition

Almost everyone recognizes that this generation of high school students is working harder than any other in American history. These students have more challenging schedules, more AP and IB classes, more activities, and a greater awareness of the heightened academic stakes. Just try scheduling a tutoring session with some of these students! “I’ll fit you in at 9:00 PM on Tuesday after school, tutorial, lacrosse practice, and your group project meeting.” These young people have tighter schedules than some corporate executives, and many have to work on all burners just to stay on top of it all. Increased academic competition is fundamentally changing the high school experience for many students.

Openly they admit to feeling the increasing effects of stress, and parents, who naturally want to give their children every possible advantage, feel it too. A few years ago, I spoke with a stressed-out mother concerned that she had failed to do everything in her power to get her three-year-old daughter into the pre-K program at one of Atlanta’s top private schools. She had already planned her daughter’s academic ascendance from Pre-K to post-Doc, and one misstep would derail the whole plan! Another educational consultant told me of a pregnant mother coming to seek educational guidance for her yet-unborn child! These examples are extreme, but they speak to the level of importance we are assigning to academic success.

While running a tutoring business, I am continually exposed to the anxieties of students and parents and am always eager to understand the sources of their anxiety. The economics of education have dramatically changed, demographic forces are raising the bar for this generation, and it seems that global competition is having an impact on our world and on our perceptions. Since reading Thomas L. Friedman’s The World is Flat, I have been unable to ignore the evidence supporting his claims about the impact of globalization: the increased outsourcing of our manufacturing and service industries, the deepening rift between the haves and the have-nots, and the leveling of the global playing field. Every day I read another story about the level of American competitiveness, both academically and economically: inadequate science programs, the loss of our best researchers, the “new MIT” in Europe, and the hordes of young, ambitious PhD students coming out of China and India. Of course this, too, can generate anxiety.

Sometimes I get caught up in the frenzy, but I work hard to maintain my composure and usefulness. As a tutor and counselor, it is my responsibility to help allay the fears of young people and parents alike, and help focus my students’ attention on the realization of their goals. I try not only to help students prepare for the standardized tests that will get them into better colleges, but also to advise them that these tests will not determine the outcome of their remaining days on this planet. I set the bar high for my students, while instilling in them the knowledge that scoring anything less than their goal will not equate to failure. Even if a student fails to hit the exact score he or she had envisioned or does not gain admission to his or her top choice of schools-all is not lost.

More often than not, my job is to turn the stress-level down, rather than up. Reflecting on my experiences with hundreds of students, it seems that more often than not, the schools to which they gain admission will provide them with a wonderful four years which will take them gracefully to the next phase of their adult life. I engage this same philosophy while interning each week at Emory’s Career Center, advising students to do their homework, to be knowledgeable and prepared for the job search, and to avoid being overly fixated on a single outcome. In many ways finding the “right” first job is similar to getting the “right” SAT score or getting into the “right” college. I discourage notions of perfectionism or illusions of control and encourage my students to have a plan, work hard, and also maintain a healthy sense of trust for life and the process itself. If they can achieve that, much of their stress and anxiety is diminished.

In Friedman’s new “flat” world of increased international competition and lower barriers, can we educate our children and work hard to prepare them to succeed while allowing them to keep something resembling a childhood?

There may not be an easy answer, but I think the question is important. As we look out for our young people and try to position them to become successful adults, we must keep in mind the need to balance this equation. We can prepare them for tomorrow without interfering with their ability to fully experience the joys of childhood and adolescence.

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