This past weekend, while campaigning at our local Einstein’s Bagels, I was approached by a Torrey Pines’ senior. The student was a registered voter and wanted to know more about my campaign message to “Empower Students.” I explained that the message translated into putting students first and attending to their needs so they can succeed—academically and beyond, to live balanced lives.
I asked him to share his school experience. He made it clear to me that he is fortunate to have found his niche and to be surrounded by great friends. He is an athlete and, for the most part, he described himself as the exception rather than the norm. I was puzzled and asked him to elaborate. He then shared with me that many students are bullied and feel “isolated, hopeless, and embarrassed to say that they have no friends.”
To my question as to what he thought might be at the root of this problem, he said that many students are quiet all day and that with many large classes (some exceeding 40 students), there is little time for interaction. Students have just 8-minute breaks between classes with barely enough time to use the restroom. If the next class is held on the other side of campus, many of them must run quickly to make it in time. There is little or no time to connect with classmates or cultivate friendships. Lunch is thirty minutes but many students sit alone or in their cars. Others just walk around campus to let time pass. He mentioned that several students are ashamed to say they have no friends. Through the day, they are lonely, isolated and have limited social interaction.
These feelings persist with our kids after school. Parents might inquire about their day, their classes and friends but students are often times embarrassed or unable to articulate their feelings. Sometimes it’s easier to lie to get parents off their backs. They don’t want to disappoint or perceived as weak. They might have been bullied but yet, remain silent. They shut down and become further isolated at home. Their silence is painfully real. There is no outlet. And when the belief that no one cares settles in, hopelessness and anxiety begin to manifest themselves. When feelings of depression become severe, they begin questioning their lives’ worth.
The numbers are alarming: 13% think of attempted suicide. It’s a horrifying sequence of events and circumstances that derails the mental well-being of our students. The student continued—”Freshman year is the worst,” he said. This is because the transition from middle to high school can be incredibly difficult. Many students lose their core group of friends as they enter different schools. Kids then struggle to form new friendships because the day’s structure, the lack of a centralized area that allows social interaction during lunch or otherwise makes it impossible to cultivate relationships.
OUR SYSTEM IS BROKEN. We seem to be entrenched in a factory-like system of “producing students” while their health, social and emotional well-being take second stage. The “system” is not designed to engender friendships or promote social interactions. That is not the priority. We are obsessed with an efficiency to “churn out education”—a production line akin to the industrial revolution.
Many of us might talk about our students’ concerns but but dismiss their suffering as a new “normal.” Well, I have news for our administrators: This is NOT normal. We need to rethink the education system to incorporate balance and meaning. We must create an environment that fosters a great school experience. And the social component is key to students’ happiness and well being—equally important to academics. Longer breaks between classes, discussion groups, and well-designed physical environments are just some of the ideas that we must explore.
I so much appreciated my conversation with this student and others with very similar concerns. It just confirms my strong belief that our school culture needs to change and to mold itself around students. Towards the end of our conversation, I asked the student what his campaign focus would be if he were in my shoes. He instantly responded that anti-bullying would be a priority, that life skills are imperative for middle and high schoolers. “It should start in elementary school.” Great insight. I so much agree.