Back to School Dread and Excitement

'Back to school' is emotionally loaded for many of us. As a phrase, those three words can represent many different feelings all tangled together. I interviewed a few teenagers for this piece, and asked the initial question, "when you hear the term 'back to school' what is the first thing you feel or think about?” 

Every teen I talked with shared some version of these three responses:

  • Excited to see friends
  • Dreading early morning wake up routines
  • Anxiety about the homework load

One teen going into Grade 10 explained to me how 'back to school' has changed for her now that she is in high school. This individual said September re-entry at elementary school used to be a lot easier and more gradual, so she didn’t dread it as much. It would take a week before the class really got into the curriculum. As a teenager things are different and she told me that going back to school is pretty horrible because on the first day she will already have a lot of homework.

Another teenager spoke about getting older and going back to school for Grade 12. She said she likes going back to school in a higher grade because with maturity she realises how easy the lives of her and her peers are right now, compared to the challenges they will face once high school is over. She said, “I can appreciate spending every day at school with my friends because in the summer most of us have jobs, which can make it tricky to see each other as much as we want. I also value learning and school more as I get older.” 

This summer Vox reported on a research study that revealed an astonishing statistic – starting at age 25 we lose more friends than we make each year. Those friendships that young people hold dear are a valuable commodity! We also know that relationship investments have the biggest pay-off in terms of health and wellness as we age, so I respect the importance of social connections for teenagers. I think adults would do well to follow the lead of young people when it comes to prioritising and building closeness.

When I asked, “What's hard about getting older and closer to high school graduation?” I heard it was a very stressful time and they experienced difficulty making decisions regarding post-secondary education. Teenagers hate being constantly asked, ‘what are you doing after high school?’ This is partly because they don’t know and don’t appreciate all the pressure to suddenly figure out their lives. Also, as one young man articulated so well, “I hate always being asked about after I graduate because it seems like my life as a young person doesn’t count and the only thing that matters about me is what choices I make after high school.”

All of the teens I talked with expressed a similar mixed reaction to getting older and advancing through high school - they liked the growing sense of control they had over their time, the courses they take, and money, but they also felt the pressures of reality and additional responsibilities getting heavier. 

Young children typically have very little autonomy, starting from birth when they are almost entirely dependent on others to meet their needs. Independence progresses slowly through childhood, especially in our culture where adult ideas dominate most of the things that kids do. No wonder teenagers can't wait to take charge of their own life and make decisions for themselves. 

It’s important to remember that school is not automatically synonymous with learning, knowledge, or wisdom. Parents, how can we recognise learning that happens over summer when school is not in session? How can you verbalise and validate to your teenagers the discoveries and developments you have seen them make?

We become disconnected from the real meaning of knowledge when the reward for doing well in school is more school. It’s difficult for teens attending conventional schools to feel involved in things that actually matter or that they’re making a difference in the world, so encourage their non-academic interests and celebrate the milestones they reach outside of institutional learning. There are multiple intelligences, and every one of them is valuable.