Today’s interviewee is Paul Richards, who is in his fifth year as principal of Needham High School in Needham, Massachusetts. During his tenure, he has studied and surveyed student stress and tried a variety of measures aimed at reducing it. The father of a kindergartner and first grader, Richards is leaving Needham high at the end of the 2008-2009 school year to become the high school principal at the American School in London. (Take a look at the school’s web site where you can read the Needham Stress Reduction Committee’s materials. They have compiled a very comprehensive resource list.)
Interview with Paul Richards, Principal of Needham High
by Sara Bennett
” Schools need to look at their own practices.They need to educate teachers, parents and students on the culture of stress.”
–Paul Richards, principal, Needham High, Needham, Massachusetts
Is stress really a problem for high school students?
Yes. In the twenty years since I was a high school student, the demands on students’ time have increased dramatically. The problem is created by the culture. Many parts of school culture in suburban schools are very positive and show definite links to achievement. But there’s an underside to it which affects both the physical and mental well-being of our students.
The affects are individualized. For some kids, it can be academic stress–too many AP classes, too much homework, too much competition. For others, it can be the overscheduling afterschool–homework competing with piano lessons or sports or community service. For some kids, it’s social stress.
At Needham High, we’ve chosen to focus entirely on academic stress because that’s our business. At the same time, we’ve been very clear that the parents have a big stake in reducing the stress. Many students will say that the primary stress comes from their parents’ expectations, namely name-brand colleges, high grades, and resumes full of accomplishments and activities.
What is the school’s role in creating stress?
Schools need to look at their own practices to see how they contribute to the amount of stress students face. They need to look at the way they use grades, rankings, GPAs, how much homework they assign.
What kind of steps have you taken to reduce stress?
We stopped publishing the school honor role in the newspaper a few years ago. We’re rewriting our homework policy this year. We’ve helped students with their schedules. When students sign up for courses, they map out their week, including how many hours they’ll be in the classroom, hours of homework, hours on extracurriculars, hours on personal hygiene, etc., to make sure they haven’t overloaded themselves.
We’ve had several parent assemblies, we’ve spoken to 8th-grade parents, and we’re going to have a community forum to share techniques.
The students developed a contract that they have their parents sign so the parents won’t look at the electronic grade book. Our system allowed parents access to the electronic grade book and some parents were a little too close to it, monitoring their children’s progress every day.
We’ve talked to the parents about why they shouldn’t micromanage, about how it’s important for the students to become responsible over the course of the 4 years so when they go to the college they can handle it and not be at their parents’ doorstep. These days, even graduate students and adult employees are coming back to their parents for help. We need to end that.
We’ve also been very active in providing stress management techniques. We partnered with the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine, which runs programs in schools wanting to teach kids stress management techniques. Last year, 150 sophomores and juniors took part in their workshops. This year, they worked with the entire sophomore class.
And, our primary goal has been to move towards standards-based learning. That’s considered good practice–measuring kids against standards rather than seat time or homework completion. One of the benefits is it deemphasizes grades, and that’s a part of the stress equation. Some teachers have started grading with rubrics, which still translates to a bottom-line grade, but deemphasizes the 20 or 30 grades in a term, where every single piece of work counts.
One thing principals can do is determine what our relationship will be with the College Board. Some schools have dumped AP courses so that they can cover material in more depth. Still, we are stuck with state-mandated tests and, as a school, you have a legal and ethical obligation to cover the material that’s going to be on the test.
When students feel that their education is authentic, and when they have a good relationship with their teacher, they report feeling less stressed by the work, even if there’s a lot of it.
Any parting thoughts?
The sinking feeling in my gut is that we’re producing a generation which can perform very well on what we give them. They can study for a test and regurgitate the material, but the creativity, the individuality, the innovation, continue to be pushed aside. My sinking feeing is we’re producing a generation that will have the wrong skill set for what society really needs.