Achieve, Achieve, Achieve: The Monster of Our Own Making

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Emily Johns is Dean of Students at Chatham Hall, a 9-12 boarding school for girls. She received her B.A. degree from Randolph-Macon Woman’s College in American Culture. She is currently working on her M.A. in English at Middlebury College’s Bread Loaf School of English. Emily comes to Chatham Hall with fifteen years of boarding school experience where she has directed residential life, taught English, coached volleyball, directed summer programs, and worked in admission. Passionate about teaching girls, she has dedicated fifteen years to working with young women on both the college and high school level. She has co-presented at NCGE: Linking Lives: Integrating Spiritual Life and Residential Life (and will also give presentation this November at NAES); at TABS on gender-based discipline: Navigating the Grey: Effective Discipline for Girls; and, at NCAIS on a school-wide summer reading initiative. She recently attended the Gardner-Carney Leadership Institute, a program designed to help teachers teach leadership. Emily enjoys gardening, antiquing, reading, and spending time with her husband and ten-year old daughter.

As boarding school educators, we know that we have chosen a vocation, not a job. I let our families know, at the opening of school each year, how much their daughters are cared for. Their daughters, I tell them, are surrounded by adults who actually choose to live alongside hundreds of adolescent girls who share bedrooms and bathrooms! It is true – this works requires an uncommon person. We must be crazy, and yet many of us find so much joy in this crazy life. We love what we do, and we spend countless hours – full days and long nights – actively engaging our students in their school lives, and we strive to do so with intention and purpose. Morning after morning, we rise early, plan inspirational classes, offer transformative mentoring, coach winning teams, and direct stellar musical and theatrical performances. We want our students to wow audiences, to exceed expectations, and to feel prepared to lead successful college and adult lives.

And, while we are busy demanding high achievement from ourselves and our students, we also expect our students to be leaders and doers, authentic and compassionate, motivated and articulate; we want them to find time to dream big, and to give back; to travel the world and to dive into independent research; to play outdoors and to read for pleasure. We stretch them to extend their generosity beyond our school walls, outside of our campus gates. All the while, we are keeping our fingers crossed, hoping that they get into (big name) University. “Go get ‘em,” we cheer! “Rise above it,” we mentor. “You’ve got more to give than this,” we believe! “Lean into discomfort,” we coach. “Be leaders,” we demand.

And our students rise. They rise to each occasion because they are achievers and pleasers. They run around campus from class to meals, from practice to club meetings, from study hall to hall meetings – striving, reaching, mastering, and perfecting. We demand this of them; they want it; their parents want it; colleges require it. And they can’t let any of us down. When we notice the pressure, and see that they are utterly depleted, we attempt to rescue them. We bombard them with questions, knowing that their self-care matters, understanding all too well that they need to “be well” in order to “do well.” “How is your diet? Are you getting enough sleep?” “What kind of time are you taking for yourself?” “Are you doing what truly feeds your soul?” “Take a break from studying.” We see that the demands of life are exhausting – we don’t need a documentary to explain it to us. And, we also feel trapped by this bind because we didn’t create it – we were hired to prepare them for this superhighway to success. The path that we are paving, however, is bulldozing them emotionally and bypassing their need for authenticity. Let’s be honest: we are enabling.

I am reminded of bell hooks’ reflections on the human need for belonging, the need for place, and how our over-consumption is making us feel estranged even in our own homes, even in our own beings (Belonging). Our traditional western values do not intuitively honor what Eve Ensler in “Embrace your Inner Girl” calls our “girl cell,” our emotional center (Ted.com). In our competitive world, it is simply more efficient to design models and systems that streamline, harden, and control, than it is to navigate the maelstrom of human emotions. But, “How did we end up living like this,” questions Omid Safi in his recent blog post, “The Disease of Being Busy”? “Why do we do this to ourselves? Why do we do this to our children? When did we forget that we are human beings, not human doings? … The dis-ease of being busy … is spiritually destructive to our health and well-being” (www.onbeing.org). Now is the time that we must stop and ask ourselves, what kind of communities do we want to be fostering?

After working with girls (boarding schools and a woman’s college) for the last 16 years, I have been able to experience firsthand the now staggering levels of anxiety and depression diagnosed in our adolescent girls. The anxiety levels we are seeing are so high that many consider them to be pandemic. The number one topic at conferences geared towards educating girls these last few years is anxiety. The ripple effect of the pressure to know, to do, to achieve, achieve, achieve comes at the expense of our human dignity. The effects of our meritocracy, the monster of our own making, is quite simply destroying us, and it is destroying our children.

Our work as educators is critical right now. I have seen glimpses of the magical, compassionate, relationship-centered moments when our students and adults are connecting and thriving; however, cultivating a boarding school community where we are consciously modeling “the good life” as a cohort of teachers, coaches and life guides, a life where we do not have to apologize for allowing our students to take time for what some people – even experienced educators –might call “the soft stuff,” is challenging. In many of our schools, our life balance, our mission, and our practices are not re-enforcing each other; consequently, we send our students mixed messages, messages that contradict our goals. We need to be deliberate now more than ever in helping our students discover the meaning in their education. Education has to be more than accumulating experiences, certificates, and accolades; more than a checklist of “things she has to do to get into college.” We must dare to step off the conveyor belt that leads to nowhere and first admit that responsible education is teaching beyond academic achievement; it is more than a one-track agenda. And then, we must create the space (and the time) that our students need in order to breathe, to reflect, to play, and to be. We need to be brave and set limits.

The good news: boarding schools, unlike other school models, have the incredible power to be the transformational sanctuaries that our students need. Our schools are “dreams schools” in this time of culture shift and education reform because we get to determine so many of the variables – the nuances of a schedule such as the start time, the spacing of classes, the rigor of our sports programs, and the evening routine; the dedicated time for community (both structured and unstructured), holistic faculty development that syncs with the adolescent life-skills teaching and advising. My hope for our schools is that we will be daring enough to take what we know about the development of adolescents, and the problems with a meritocratic system and use that to build a new kind of scaffolding, scaffolding specifically designed to develop adolescents cultivate an authentic sense of self. Only when their learning is inspired by curiosity and purpose, will they feel called to listen to their inner geniuses; only when they are given permission to be a work in progress rather than a finished product, will they feel that they belong in the world; and only then will they truly feel empowered to lead it.

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