“Education is for improving the lives of others and for leaving your community and world better than you found it. “

Marian Wright Edelman

FIERCELY AWARE: The Brutal Facts: 1.1.5

Challenges in Our Schools

Amidst exciting pockets of innovation, the news for many students today isn’t great.  Current students have grown up with tremendous challenges including the preponderance of high stakes testing that has decreased art, music, extracurriculars, and play and amped up academic pressure, even at the very earliest ages.

My daughter’s experience of first grade is a telling example of how our experiences have radically changed over time.  Upon entering the classroom each morning, my six-year-old’s routine began with reading the morning assignment on the board and beginning her work, alone at her desk, as students milled in for the day.  In stark contrast, my first-grade mornings began with a warm hug from my teacher, singing with my classmates at circle time, and delighting in tea and cookies for mid-morning snack as our teacher read to us.

A focus restricted to conventional academics, and its associated pressure, increases for many students as they get older.  Rushing to discuss careers and college in middle school (11 to 13-year-old students) or even earlier and beginning the ritual of university entrance examination preparations four years before anyone in my generation would have dreamed of doing so is commonplace. One has to wonder if these experiences are contributing to the disturbing findings published in Clinical Psychological Science indicating the number of teens who felt “useless and joyless” jumped by 33% in U.S. teens between 2010 and 2015.

Once students enter college the stakes, and the associated pressure rise.  In 2016, nearly two-thirds of all college students reported “overwhelming anxiety,” an increase of 50% from 2011.  Furthermore, The Association for University College Counseling and Center Directors reported that 36.4% of college students had an experience with depression and that depression was the number one reason students drop out of school.



Focused on extrinsic demands and separated from the expression of their intrinsic interests and identity, it is nearly impossible for many students to have a sense of well-being.  One young woman, whose story is captured in a video we frequently use when discussing the power of character strengths, provides a good case in point.  In the video, Estella bravely discusses how the opinions of others distorted her personal identity.  Her experiences in life, school and work focused her attention on what was wrong with her.  Reinforcement was so persistent that Estella had no sense of her strengths.  Even when Estella’s signature character strengths were identified, she struggled to embrace them and feel comfortable naming them as her own.  But when she ultimately succeeded, it was transformative. She saw herself in a new light and “that changed everything.”

We collectively share an interest  in creating learning environments where students experience the best within themselves and others and thrive academically and personally.  Although the task may seem daunting, it is absolutely possible. (see how in Part 2!)  Read how similar challenges are appearing in our neighborhoods here.