Taylor Hudak, 22, of Guilford, is a master’s student in the Integrated Bachelor’s/Master’s Program at University of Connecticut’s Neag School of Education. She graduated with bachelor’s degrees in mathematics and secondary mathematics education from UConn in May. Originally published in the Hartford Courant.
On the surface, this student is picture-perfect: Straight A’s, president of a club, athlete, 100 volunteer hours, works three jobs, and fundraiser for numerous causes.
This was me.
And I thought anxiety was a normal part of my path to success.
I was organized, excelled at everything, and achieved near perfect grades. I finished my summer math packet on the last day of school, before summer even began. I worried that if I got a cold or missed a day, everything would be ruined. I suffered from crippling panic attacks during which I couldn’t communicate with anyone, and my leg would shake uncontrollably.
I assumed that after completing that one assignment, winning that award, or achieving high honors, I would experience a wave of relief. Instead, after accomplishing one task, I discovered three new tasks to stress about. I thought for sure I could relax once I got into college. Instead, I tacked on another four years of anxiety. I promised myself the pressure would stop once I graduated. My parents used to joke that they would throw me a party the first time I received a B on my report card. They bought me a chocolate cake after I received a C on my college physics midterm.
One day, I realized I could do less and still be OK. I decided to value myself over my schoolwork because I was tired of panic attacks. This didn’t mean I started slacking in my academics. I remained successful in school. I just found a balance, stopping work at 8 p.m., completing assignments one week ahead (not three), taking breaks, and doing yoga. I still experience anxiety, and am an overachiever at heart, but in a much healthier and sustainable way.
It is not a question if overachievers will burn out or break down, but when. A New York Times article showcased students who required intensive therapy and medication to cope with the college application process or the fear of failure. Students are making themselves physically sick over fear of a B+. They exist in a constant fight-or-flight state over their academic performance, resulting in stomach issues, headaches, anxiety, depression, and even suicide.
Although parents play a key role in helping their children seek a healthier and happier lifestyle, here are a few key points for teachers:
Encourage overachievers to do less. Tell them it’s OK to pass on an opportunity that might enhance a college application. There is always more to achieve, but it can come with diminishing returns.
Rethink extra credit. Overachievers jump on every opportunity to ensure a 100 rather than a 99, spending unneeded stress and time on already mastered skills. Limit the quantity, and only offer extra credit assignments that are enriching and valuable.
Inspire students to find something they love. Intersperse these soul-fulfilling activities between less motivating tasks.
Ask students what they want you to know about them. You might be surprised at the answers you receive.
Praise effort and failed attempts, not just perfect answers and 100s. Encourage students to take risks and share their thinking, even if it might be wrong. Even if a student “fails,” there is something learned toward getting it right. Failure is often a vital stepping stone to growth and success.
Incorporate mindfulness in the classroom. Start small — maybe just a quick breathing exercise before a test.
Be honest and share times that you have failed. Remember that C you received on an English midterm sophomore year? Tell students how you overcame it, and that somehow, you still got hired as a teacher.
Celebrate. And for the student who falls short of an A for the first time, bake them a cake.