It has been quite a year for the many members of the Class of 2021. These students have gone through a tremendously challenging final year of high school. Expectations for what a Grade 12 year would be like were not entirely in sync with the reality of what this year has been.
School communities around the world have experienced the unpredictability, uncertainty, and inconsistency brought on by the pandemic, not to mention the grief and loss that has touched too many in our communities across the globe. Students have gone through multiple variations of learning modes and teachers have had to adjust instruction, classrooms, planning time, and schedules—all while maintaining a focus on learning. Parents have had to do their own adjusting to these variations as well.
So has this been a stressful time for you as a parent, student, teacher, staff member? The answer to this question seems obvious, and perhaps you want to shout "OF COURSE THIS HAS BEEN STRESSFUL!"
We would probably all agree on this point. However, which statement below would you choose to sum up how you feel about this stress:
- Stress is harmful and should be avoided, reduced, managed.
- Stress is helpful and should be accepted, utilized, and embraced.
Which statement did you choose? This is how Dr. Karen McGonigal begins her book, The Upside of Stress, and she confesses to having changed her beliefs about stress and her approach to dealing with it because evidence suggests that "stress is harmful only when you believe it is."
Most of us have been conditioned to seek to reduce our stress, to the point that we worry about the impact stress has on our overall mental and physical health. But as McGonigal states, "The latest science reveals that stress can make you smarter, stronger, and more successful. It helps you learn and grow. It can inspire courage and compassion." She continues, "The best way to manage stress isn't to reduce or avoid it, but rather to rethink and even embrace it."
What a challenge for all of us! Instead of commiserating with one another about how stressful this year has been on our children or on ourselves, could we choose to embrace the stress and allow it to transform us? A few quotes shared from a book about stress won't necessarily change long-held beliefs you might have about stress, but I would challenge you to look at the stress from this past year and find ways to grow from it.
I have given up on the idea that we should return to "normal" following this pandemic. Why would we be willing to accept "normal" as the desired outcome? Why not, instead, envision ourselves and our children becoming stronger and more resilient as a result of this past year? As McGonigal writes, "Even in circumstances of great suffering, human beings have a natural capacity to find hope, exert choice, and make meaning. This is why in our own lives, the most common effects of stress include strength, growth, and resilience."
The pandemic gives us a unique opportunity to rethink much of what we always assumed or took for granted. With regard to stress, this is a great time to consider the research McGonigal presents in her book, which is a great text for a book study with parents or fellow educators. Does stress increase health problems? Increase the risk of dying or depression? McGonigal presents myriad examples of how responses to stress that include giving back to the community, having a sense of purpose, and seeing a benefit from the struggles we have counteracts the negative impacts people often associate with stress.
Perhaps the reality that no one around the world has escaped being impacted in some way by the pandemic is an opportunity for us to embrace our common humanity. One final quote from The Upside of Stress: "The courage to grow from stress is universal. The strength to persevere, the instinct to connect with others, the ability to find hope and meaning in adversity—these are fundamental human capacities. They can emerge in times of stress no matter who you are or where you are."
As a member of an international school community, you have the choice to continue to persevere, to connect with others, to proceed with hope, and to derive meaning that will make us all better for having experienced the challenges of this past school year, whether we are a graduate going off to university or a preschooler promoting to kindergarten.
Dr. Howard De Leeuw is Upper School Principal at Escola Americana do Rio de Janeiro - Gavea, Brazil.
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