Toxic academic culture and what we can do to fix it

The Editorial Board

“It’s about learning, not the grade.”

It is a line repeated in almost every class and on many syllabi. Yet, with the weight that grades and academic achievement hold, it is often difficult to separate the content learned from the letter grade visible in Powerschool.

“Toxic academic culture” is an umbrella term encompassing a variety of characteristics that distinguish a positive pressure that motivates students to achieve from a negative one that creates unhealthy stress and leads to harmful coping mechanisms. Despite this phrase looking unfamiliar, it seems to be a concept that South students find all too recognizable.

Almost 64 percent of students at South feel that there is a toxic culture within our school, according to an un- scientific survey of 331 students con- ducted by The Oracle. Senior Samantha Gregerman agreed with this assessment, claiming that the environment around academic performance can easily turn negative.

“I feel obligated to do well because if I don’t, I feel like I’m falling behind my peers,” Gregerman shared. “It’s definitely more of a personal

competition, but I’ve seen in other classes [there is] competition in ways that haven’t been healthy.”

Unfortunately, the concept of a “toxic academic culture” is not a problem isolated to South, Instructional Supervisor of the English Department, David Adamji said. He ex- plained that he also witnessed this competitiveness between students at his former job at Walter Payton College Prep.

“[I] absolutely witnessed what I thought to be at times unhealthy competition amongst students specifically because they were all used to excelling at a high level,” Adamji said.

Especially amongst the students in high- er level classes such as Academy and Honors level, Adamji has noticed similar patterns.

“I think sometimes the leveling of students can [create competition], especially when we’re looking at those honors and Academy level courses,” Adamji shared. “I would imagine because every kid in there considers themselves an Honors level student [there is] some of the competition to be present.”

Competition is an incredibly large problem. However, just because the issue is societal rather than isolated to 4000 West Lake Avenue, it does not mean that we cannot all be part of the solution.

can be important and help motivate students, The Oracle Editorial Board encourages South teachers and administration to consider taking several measures to address unhealthy student stress including discouraging inter-student competition and check- ing in on students’ mental health.

Gregerman believes that teachers who go out of their way to build a positive culture in their classroom, beyond selecting a few platitudes to slide between icebreakers, create an environment more conducive to productivity and student success. She explained that this pervasive culture at South endures, especially when teachers contribute to an atmosphere that pits students against each other, even if inadvertent.

“I think the classes I’ve always succeeded in the most and felt the most comfortable in are the ones where the teacher have set a precedent that the class is not about competing with other students,” Gregerman explained. “It’s about lifting each other up. It’s about learning. It’s not about the test grades. If teachers preface that, or set that foundation towards the beginning of the semester, I [would] definitely feel more comfortable in classes and feel like I could be motivated to perform better.”

“Checking in on students’ mental health” does not have to mean compromises in con- tent or curriculum; it simply means asking students how they are feeling or even doing

a quick survey. Senior Sarah Kim has found that teachers who proactively communicate with their classes create a positive atmosphere.

The Oracle Editorial Board urges students to be a part of that encouraging culture, steering clear of stressful topics such as comparing exam grades or performances as much as possible.

Sophomore Mary Redfern agreed that much of the pressure originates from between students. She believes that students need to avoid competition between one another because when the topic of stress comes up, it seems to only reinforce and amplify itself, creating a positive feedback loop.

“While having conversations with my friends and classmates, the topic of nerve- racking, stressful assignments always get brought up,” Redfern shared. “I feel as if most conversations are solely based on how stressed [students] are.”

The anxiety-inducing conditions placed on students is not their fault, and hating the source of academic stress is definitely a more appropriate allocation of blame. How- ever, given that the “source” of outside pressures creating student stress shows no sign of changing, it is up to us to create a change.

In particular, discouraging competition and the pressure of high expectations seems to affect students in the process of applying for colleges. Kim has seen how all-consuming the process has become, creating ten- sion even between close friends.

“You hear that [a friend is applying to the same school as you], and you immediately start thinking, ‘Do I perform academically better than them? How many clubs am I in? How many activities am I doing?’” Kim explained. “You start comparing each other even though you’re friends because you re- ally want to go to that school and there are a limited number of spots.”

Despite the emphasis placed on plans immediately after graduation, the end goal of the “college admission process” is not the

emblem printed on a future diploma but rather the fulfilled lives students will hopefully get to live;

that is never dictated by where they do or don’t

complete their

higher education. Spanish teacher Ann Lu- go-Walsh echoes Kim’s sentiment, pointing to the college admissions process as a source of stress.

“The college process has become infinitely more stressful than [it was] when I was a student,” Lugo-Walsh said. “It seems like at a very young age [students] are creating resumes and I would love to see less pressure to build that.”

As far as the college admissions process goes, The Oracle Editorial Board urges students to avoid feeding into a culture that pits them against one another, and recognize that, if conversations about upper education are not uplifting, there are resources to help, such as speaking with a college counselor.

“The more you talk about [the college ad- missions process], the more stressed you are,” Kim added. “Minimizing or limiting the time you talk about college can definitely help with your health and just the environment overall.”

John Klasen, director of college counsel- ing, also highlights the importance of students maintaining a healthy mindset for both themselves and other people. Klasen said that students need to recognize when they are potentially putting themselves in a negative headspace that could be harmful to their mental health.

“A certain amount of challenge and rigor should always inherently be a part of a student’s academic profile,” Klasen said. “But, when that becomes what I like to call dis- tress versus eustress [moderate stress that can be beneficial], then I think we have a real problem, and I see that a lot.”

It is not just about learning, but it is not just about the grade either. It’s about find- ing the healthiest way for both of these things to intersect, and it is a balance that we encourage students to find for them-