anxiety school

Engagement, Opinion

Performance Anxiety: A Personal Story

The Gap Between What I Can Do And What I'm Being Asked To Do

I clearly recall beginning to feel very uneasy at school soon after starting Grade Seven. A year earlier, in 1969, our school district had decided that it would be a good idea to congregate all of the 12-14 year olds in the region in one building. I was too young to know about any of the community conversations that went on in advance of the decision or what the philosophical underpinnings of the project would have been, but I do know that September 8, 1970 was the first day in my life that I ever stayed at school for lunch!

Beyond the social adjustments to my new learning environment–adjustments that I never did fully make–I recall that my biggest challenges in heading to Junior High were academic in nature. Despite my desire to bring home the same high marks that my older brother seemed to effortlessly garner, I remember struggling in most aspects of the program. In particular, math and science presented the highest hurdles.

Although my parents noticed that their normally happy-go-lucky, cooperative child was quickly becoming more serious, and somewhat more anxious, I think they just chalked it up the natural movement from childhood to adolescence. Actually, I think that I was the one who was most concerned about the change. I secretly made an appointment with our school guidance counsellor and let him know that I was worrying about everything: strange sounds in the night, doing well in school, traveling on the school bus. His remedy was to have me go to the library every lunch hour, put on a set of headphones, and listen to a series of records outlining the facts of life. That’s right, it was obvious to him that I needed to know about Sex! Although this daily ritual drew a growing crowd of other student-listeners, I recall that the information only served to make me more anxious!

In Grade Eight, I began to dread going to school, not for fear of being teased or bullied (though that was not an uncommon experience for me) but for fear of not being able to do the work. I had fallen so far behind that I felt completely lost in many of my courses. Although my teachers tried to help, I could tell that they were getting frustrated by my lack of understanding of some of the basic, foundational ideas that would have helped me in handling the more advanced work.

In February of 1972, I stayed home from school for three whole weeks. During that time,  I was poked and prodded by doctors, nurses and other adults who couldn’t seem to get to the bottom of the illness that mysteriously emerged during the Wonderful World of Disney each Sunday night and seemed to, just as mysteriously, disappear in time for the Brady Bunch on Friday evening. Save for my grandmother who inuitively understood everything, not one adult in my life seemed to be able to connect the change to a type of performance anxiety!

The second of three reports on the the What Did You Do In School Today focuses on the gap between intellectual challenge and the skill sets that students call upon in order to meet those challenges. While the report offers another lens through which to examine the complex issues related to student engagement, it also offers adults like me a way of understanding their own school experience. The enormous impact created by not attending to the gap between what we demand of students, and the skills that they bring to meet those demands cannot be overlooked.

For me, the system provided a way to mitigate the emotional and social impact by allowing me to gradually “drop out” of various programs. In looking back, however, I’m not sure whether this approach served me that well.

WDYDIST Research Series Report Two:  The Relationship Between Instructional Challenge and Student Engagement is worth a good look, and then worth a good conversation. If the what of our transformation agenda is still looking for a compelling why, I sense that this report might hold some important clues.


CC Photo by: massdistraction

Meet the Expert(s)

Stephen Hurley

Stephen Hurley

Education Consultant, Catalyst, voicED Radio

Stephen Hurley is a recently retired teacher from the Dufferin Peel District School Board in Ontario. Stephen continues to work to open up public spaces for vibrant conversations about transformation of education systems across Canada.

Stephen Hurley est un enseignant récemment retraité de la Dufferin Peel District School Board en Ontario. Stephen continue de travailler à ouvrir des espaces publics pour des conversations dynamiques sur la transformation des systèmes éducatifs partout au Canada.

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