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I love the winter holidays across world religions, because of something they share:
a promise of light amid the darkness.
(Feel free to google around if you’re unfamiliar with these traditions–this site offers a simple primer–or trust me that humans through history have clearly yearned for symbols of hope in these early months of winter in the northern hemisphere, met by cultural signs of Light across religions. Pretty cool.)
So, what does this have to do with academic wellbeing? More than you might think! There are many aspects of schools that act as darkness for students, causing them to stumble on the way to healthy development. As an education professor I teach about these contexts of darkness, helping my students/future teachers recognize the societal forces shaping our Education processes. As a private coach, I guide students to finding a light source that they can carry in their days, weeks, and years through Schooling. It’s a privilege to serve in these roles of understanding darkness and light within Education for the very people who are within it.
For some students it feels like an unrelenting daily darkness; for others it seems like a hovering darkness that simply clouds the brightness they used to know when they were younger. Think: most preschooler are overjoyed to be learning at school; what happened? Darkness.
Examples of the DARKNESS in the Education sector:
High-stakes, learning-limiting testing like AP exams
Content they can tell isn't relevant and future-ready
One-size-fits-all curriculum without regard to personal needs
Overly competitive extracurriculars
Overworked and undervalued teachers
Broken college admissions processes
Lack of student autonomy, freedom, room for curiosity
Fruitless obsession with GPA
Meaninglessness of most grading systems (eg grade inflation)
Being surrounded by burnout classmates
(there’s more but you get the point)
Examples of LIGHT in the lives of Students:
Having a relationship with one or more caring, nonparental adult
Finding and cultivating an adolescents’ inner “spark”
Engaging in meaningful, real-world challenges via project-based learning
Growing self- and social-awareness and management skills that last into adulthood
Practicing ways they can make a difference in the world, also known as mattering
Opportunities to build self-efficacy, confidence to succeed
Creating healthy friendships that support academic & life success
(there’s more here too, of course, but these are some key ones)
If you are or know a student in need of more Light to get through the Darkness, there are plenty of resources. Family, friends, school staff, and professionals like me can help locate these sources. There is hope for a brighter (pun intended) experience through the years of high-school and college! But it takes conscious action: trusting the school, even the really “good” ones, isn’t enough. There are too many negative societal elements that darken the path to navigate it haphazardly. Sadly, I see it again and again through the beleaguered faces of students in my classes, their inner light for learning extinguished by the processes that got them there.
Let these winter holidays–and today especially, the winter solstice!–symbolize a new commitment to Light for Students. Each day forward offers us a minute or two more of daylight. We’re on our way.
Happy holidays and cheers to a wonderful new year,
Events & Announcements:
Pop-up Book Club! Many of you have been impressed with the book Never Enough: When Achievement Culture Becomes Toxic–And What We Can Do About It (Jennifer Breheny Wallace, 2023). There’s so much good stuff to unpack in this book; I’d love to hear what you think of it! If you are local, please join me on Sunday Jan. 21, 3-4:30 in the Eden Prairie library. Even if you haven’t finished the book, please consider joining the conversation. We’ll let some of the discussion questions in the back of the book kick us off. Bring friends. Refreshments provided.
Thanks to the many of you who attended the online workshop “Beyond Stressed: Helping Students Manage Their Academic Stress Response”! Email me if you’d like a copy of the recording.