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It seems that every few months, another article, news item, or study presents itself around the issue of teen stress and the pressures our young people face at school. We read about students taking higher level courses at younger ages, staying up increasingly later on school nights and feeling buried under heavy loads of homework. What we don’t always talk about are the ways these pressures impact their moments of joy, the formation of their Jewish identities and their personal growth.
In my role as senior regional director of NFTY Central West and as a senior assistant director at URJ Camp Newman, I spend the bulk of my professional time and energy focused on teen programming. This past summer, I directed our Counselor-In-Training (CIT) program, in which 54 rising senior high school students learned counseling and leadership skills in a fun, immersive, exciting, Jewish environment. My job allows me to see our teens as their happiest and most carefree selves. But as of late, the overly competitive, driven environments they live in five days a week, 10 months out of the year have seeped into their summers and weekends.
This tension between school and summer break was first highlighted in summer 2014. In the feedback surveys of the summer, many of our teens insisted that they needed dedicated time built into the schedule for homework. Our professional camp team reflected, and began to grapple with the balance between providing a space to escape the pressures of school, while still channeling the needs of our teenagers. Shouldn’t summer camp be a much-needed departure from round-the-clock academia? After much deliberation, at the beginning of summer 2015, I cautiously announced that we would build time into the schedule each week for homework. The teens breathed a collective sigh of relief and gratitude, and each Friday morning approximately three-quarters of them settled into their homework, many buckling down for hours at a time. As the summer progressed, we listened to our teens and provided additional opportunities for them to focus on their studies. It was one of the hardest decisions for us to make. As youth professionals, we want camp to simply be camp, untainted by daily life and distinguished by a different kind of routine. But, watching our teens struggle the previous summer without designated time for schoolwork, and seeing how offering that timeframe helped cut out some of their stress, made us realize it was an important step.
But the dilemma did not end there. We watched our consternated CIT community hold a collective breath in anticipation of the arrival of their SAT, ACT and AP scores. We consoled the teary-eyed teens who did not receive scores as high as they had hoped. Even in summer – away from home and school – our teens felt pressure to constantly compare themselves to one another based on grades, test scores, and which colleges they were applying to. After several heated conversations amongst the CITs, we set boundaries on the amount of college talk that could occur by establishing together that it needed to stop as a constant topic in the cabins. This would be a short-term solution because college was constantly on these teens’ minds, but we wanted them to be aware of not letting it overtake their summer experience. The most telling moments were revealed in focus groups and informal conversations when our teens perceptively described the tension between knowing that camp provided a much-needed escape from the academic race, while internally questioning their individual decisions to spend eight weeks away from testing prep courses, internships, or “resume builders” (we’ve since started to build out tools to help them put camp on their resumes).
This tension is not only present at camp, but also surfaces during the school year at NFTY retreats. As a teenage participant in NFTY myself, I knew, and accepted, the sleep I would lose during the weekend. I knowingly sacrificed the shut-eye to spend time bonding with friends and soaking in the magic of a Jewish immersive weekend. Today, some participants are unable to stay up for the 11:15pm end time on Friday night. They are exhausted from the school week and beg to go to bed earlier (or alternatively, fall asleep in programming). In response, we’ve pushed breakfast later to allow for 8-9 hours of sleep. We hear from teens and families who can’t attend an event because of college applications, and receive emails from participants who need to drop out at the last minute due to unanticipated loads of homework or unexpected mandatory school commitments. This doesn’t include the unknown teens who never sign up at all because of homework.
While witnessing how our teens grapple with the challenge to manage their time early on, I realized it is important for us in the Jewish youth arena to have these conversations with them. It is likely that they may not have another safe space to really face some of their fears, concerns, and openly ask questions like: “what if I don’t get into college?” By listening to them, we acknowledge their routines. We integrate their lives with camp and NFTY rather than making these experiences separate. We help our youth manage and fit Jewish life into their schedules.
It is developmentally important for our teens to participate in activities that are fun, stress-relieving, and relaxing. Recovery time and play time have been proven as key elements to success, and teens who make time for recharging often perform better, not worse, academically. The programs we offer, like CIT, also teach them leadership and organically help them learn to manage their time while looking after the needs of others. They gain perspective of their own frustrations, learn how to cope with stress and problem solve.
I am often in awe of our highly motivated teens and their dedication to academia. However, it causes me to wonder what our end goal really is. Is schoolwork getting in the way of their formation of personal and Jewish identity? Is it really beneficial – not to mention healthy or fair – for our teens to sacrifice the much-needed relaxation, social connection and self-discovery of our Jewish youth programs for something that already monopolizes them through the ten months of the school year? This is a segment of a larger societal problem that clearly impacts our Jewish community. It is personally challenging for me to watch our teens confront academic disappointment, stress, and frustration.
The summer left me with more questions than answers. I believe it is time to engage our teens, parents, clergy, youth professionals, and lay leaders in a larger discussion on the topic of teen stress. In a time full of unrest, both within our country and around the world, our programs and communities offer respite for teens from the pressures they are facing. But even more important than that, I believe, is our obligation to provide space for imagination, identity formation, and personal discovery. At the end of the day, we shouldn’t “hand out band aids” as a stress mechanism by adding more and more homework time. This is a bigger issue. I often find solace in the drive and motivation of our teens to fight for justice and look out for the needs of others. We must continue to cultivate that passion by supporting Jewish teenagers in order to help them to live meaningful, inspiring and balanced lives. Ask yourself: What are some ways your community can help create that balance for youth?
Samara Leader works for URJ Camp Newman and NFTY Central West. Her dual role allows her to partner with youth professionals and clergy, envision and implement year-round teen experiences, and oversee the Camp Newman CIT program.