25 OCTOBER 2019
Last week was a very busy one, particularly for our Grade 12 pupils who were involved in many functions marking the end of their St Anne’s journey. The matrics managed to get the balance right on their last day of classes, having appropriate fun without damaging property, people or their reputations. Thank you to the many parents who supported one or more of the many functions held last week, as well as the Sports Dinner on the first Friday of term.
Our Grade 12 pupils have commenced their NSC Exams, for which I believe they are well prepared. We expect their results to be fitting reward for their diligence and commitment over the past few years. The view that these results will, in many cases, be exceptional was strengthened by the awarding of an unprecedented number of Academic Honours to Grade 12 pupils at one of their last assemblies.
Congratulations to the following girls:
Georgina Baker, Maya Fleischer (Re-award), Gemma Gauntlett, Emma Griffin (Re-award), Christina Herridge, Jade Howard, Jessica Parker (Re-award) and Kezia Taylor.
At the same assembly, Georgia McCall received her Honours Award for her exceptional achievements in Music and Bonolo Mokoka for Service.
Representatives of Independent School in the Midlands met last term in order to focus on Term Dates for 2021. The intention, once again, was to align the school holidays, of the various Independent Schools represented at the meeting. This is not always possible given the particular contexts of each of the schools but we certainly don’t encourage the schools to simply do their own thing. The dates of State School Holidays are an important consideration. Please refer to the dates below.
In my address at Friday’s Prize Giving I focussed on the increasing prevalence of unhealthy forms of stress and anxiety among teenage girls. The following is the relevant portion of my speech:
As always, this Prize Giving takes place in circumstances that stand in stark contrast to much of the world beyond our gates. At St Anne’s, we are blessed with impressive facilities, outstanding staff, caring parents, and relative peace. Elsewhere there are matrics who will be writing their Final Exams in atrocious physical circumstances, possibly underprepared for their exams through no fault of their own, possibly unacceptably vulnerable to the consequences of Eskom’s incompetence. Last week another pupil was murdered at a South African school, this time with a pair of scissors, and a few days ago a boy was stabbed to death outside his Pietermaritzburg school.
Aren’t schools intended to be safe spaces for pupils and staff members? Currently, soldiers patrol the streets on the Cape Flats. The chances of pupils in that part of our country passing military personnel en route to their schools are reasonably high. What a way to start your school day!
Of course we mustn’t fool ourselves into thinking that conditions were necessarily better in the past. For example, the purposefully inferior education offered to the majority of children during the apartheid era was shameful, soldiers patrolled the streets during various States of Emergency prior to liberation, female teachers were paid less than their male counterparts and married women had to struggle to get permanent tenure. I could go on.
With reference to soldiers, and on a lighter note, a fellow Headmaster told me the following story many years ago. He was adamant that it is a true story. According to him, a friend of his was teaching at a school on the Cape Flats in 1986, when the political unrest of the time had led to armed soldiers being positioned in schools. This friend was teaching a chemistry lesson (not Mr Van Niekerk – he is too young) with a soldier positioned at the back of the class. The teacher was trying to explain the concept of balancing chemical equations, with little success. Over and over he pointed out to his pupils the fact that an element was missing from one side of the equation, and he repeatedly asked what had happened to it. After some time the soldier, obviously not a science graduate, finally lost his patience and interfered in the lesson: “Doesn’t anybody moof!”, he said. “Nobody leafs this room until the person whose got that missing thing puts his hand up!”
Unfortunately, the roles that dedicated teachers play in trying to create positive and safe environments for their pupils, often in very challenging contexts, are often undervalued. The unprofessional behaviour of too many South African teachers, as highlighted in the press from time to time, leads to our teachers being painted with the same brush.
The following illustration would possibly be funnier if it were not so close to the bone. 3 pupils were bragging about their fathers:
“My dad is a rugby player,” said the first. “He can kick a penalty from the 22m line and run to the poles fast enough to catch his own kick.”
The second said, “My dad is a hunter. He can shoot an arrow and reach the target before the arrow does.”
“That’s nothing,” said the third, “my dad is a teacher. He stops work at 3pm and gets home before lunch time.”
Our St Anne’s environment is a safe and admirable one. There are no soldiers on duty on the campus, teachers are not clockwatching, let alone rushing home before lunch, we enjoy good food and outstanding facilities. So why are many of our girls anxious and stressed? A recent Report of the American Psychological Association states that today’s teens, for the first time, generally feel more stressed than do their parents. Of concern is that girls between the ages of 12 and 17 are reported as being three times more likely than boys to become depressed.
Of course, we need to remind ourselves that stress and anxiety aren’t all bad. In fact, we can’t optimally thrive without them because, for example, the stress of operating beyond our comfort zones, within reason, helps us grow. All growth comes with some discomfort, and we send our children to school precisely so that they will be stretched and improved. I can confidently claim that the stress that pupils encounter at St Anne’s, for the most part, happens to be of the healthy kind.
Stress becomes unhealthy when it exceeds what a girl can absorb or benefit from. Stress therefore depends on the nature of the problem and of the girl. We diagnose an anxiety disorder only when a girl’s worries are entirely out of proportion to the perceived threat or if her worries hamstring daily functioning. It’s also pertinent to note that girls learn to manage stress from observing parents and that this starts at an early stage. For example, when a little girl falls and scrapes her knee, she will invariably look up at her mother and her next reaction is normally influenced by her mum’s reaction.
Much of what I am sharing with you this morning about stress is based on the work of Lisa Damour, particularly as communicated in her most recent book, Under Pressure. A previous book of hers, entitled Untangled, is in my opinion also a must-read for parents of teenage girls. In Under Pressure, Damour points out that full-blown phobias can develop when people routinely evade the things they fear. Parents and teachers, in particular, must thus avoid dysfunctional rescuing of the girls in our care. We need to help girls face the source of their anxiety. If we want to get rid of a worry for good we must earnestly engage it.
Damour’s findings are primarily based on research conducted in a United States context. I cannot, however, present any argument as to why her findings may not be extrapolated to a context such as our St Anne’s one.
So why, in our relatively peaceful, well-resourced St Anne’s environment where so many girls are happy, fulfilled and flourishing, is there an increasing number of girls who are showing symptoms of unhealthy stress and anxiety? Attempts to answer this question may indicate what we, as significant adults in the lives of the girls, can do in order to reduce their stress and anxiety levels.
Allow me to suggest just six actions, most of them relating to the work of Damour, for our consideration.
- We should not assume that “when it comes to information, scheduling activities, or enjoying personal luxuries, more is always better. Surprisingly, it is sometimes true that we can ease the stress that we feel by deciding to know, do, and spend less.”
- We should assist girls to more effectively deal with conflict. Rather than dealing with conflict by, in the words of Damour, acting as a bulldozer, acting as a doormat or acting as a doormat with spikes, we should encourage them to be pillars – assist them to stand up for themselves without stepping on anyone else. Damour refers to the martial art known as aikido in which, if someone is coming at you, the first thing you do is step out of that person’s path. That pulls you out of harm’s way, and it can leave your opponent off balance. She states, “Just because a problem is thrown at you doesn’t mean you have to catch it.” And she emphasises that, “Holding one’s fire is not the same as surrendering.”
- We need to do all that we can to help our girls realise that social media is just one big furniture showroom, a “highlights reel”. We need to remind them that what they see online does not, and cannot, represent the wonderful, messy complexity of their peers any more than what they post online tells the whole story about themselves.
- We need to assist girls in moving from grind to being more tactical, to becoming more energy efficient at school. Girls who worry too much about how they are doing academically often find that studying actually soothes their nerves. The more nervous a girl feels, the harder she’ll work. Ultimately, girls’ fear-driven, highly uneconomical studying tactics are reinforced from three sides. Excessive preparation helps girls to quiet their worries about their academic performance, it consistently yields excellent outcomes that leave them feeling proud, and it earns them praise from their parents and teachers. For students who are motivated by fear, this system is exceedingly effective. Until it becomes unsustainable. When we allow our girls to persistently overexert themselves, they develop tons of confidence in their work ethic and none in their talents. We want our girls to build real skills, to know how to work hard when they need to, and to believe that their talents will help them to rise to meet challenges for which they have not specifically been prepared.
- We must focus on who, not on what, girls will become. Research confirms that academic performance does not suffer when parents value their children’s relationships with others at least as much as they value how their children are doing academically. In the same study, it was shown that students who felt that their parents were highly critical, and emphasised academic and professional achievement over everything else, were the most stressed.
- We need to increase our understanding of the link between affluence on the one hand, and stress and anxiety on the other. There are girls at St Anne’s who are self-conscious about not being able to own or do what girls from wealthier families may take for granted. That should not surprise you. At St Anne’s, Mrs Debbie Martin, in particular, is leading a process of raising girls’ awareness of practices that unnecessarily highlight economic diversity and exacerbate the anxiety of these economically-challenged girls. But we should also be sensitive to the anxiety and stress experienced by certain of our wealthier girls. Lisa Damour confirms that prosperity in and of itself poses no risk to healthy psychological development but refers to research indicating that the affluence of a family’s neighbourhood can matter. Girls brought up in the wealthiest neighbourhoods of the United States are two to three times more likely to report symptoms of anxiety and depression than those living in middle-income areas. It is natural that girls want to live at least as comfortably in adulthood as they do in childhood. Maintaining the costly lifestyle to which they have become accustomed may increase the importance of them qualifying for the supposedly right career at the right university, and consequently cause much stress and anxiety.
I am not going to apologise for once again referring to stress and anxiety issues in an address to you, just as I should not have to apologise for referring to global warming, gender violence, racism, or any other serious issue. St Anne’s will continue to be courageous as it questions its current practices, and implements changes intended to improve the psychological health of our girls. I trust that you will agree that psychological health is more important than academic and co-curricular results.
As I said at the beginning of my address, the positives aspects of the 2019 St Anne’s school year have far outweighed the negative. Similarly, the number of girls experiencing unhealthy degrees of anxiety and stress is a minority at the College. However, statistics are of little comfort to any individual who finds herself in a dark place. As partners in the education of the girls in our care, parents and staff members must therefore do all that we can to ensure that our attitudes and practices do not inadvertently contribute to poor mental health and general unhappiness. For this reason I encourage you to conduct your own investigation into some of the issues that I have brought to your attention this morning.
Enjoy your weekend.
“He who fears he shall suffer, already suffers what he fears.”
Michel de Montaigne, French philosopher and statesman
ST ANNE’S DIOCESAN COLLEGE
2021 TERM DATES
|(New girls arrive on Sunday 17 January)|
|Tuesday 19 January to Friday 26 March|
|Half Term: Thurs 18 February to Mon 22 February|
|(Easter Fri 2 April – Mon 5 April)|
|State: 13 January to 26 March|
|Monday 19 April to Friday 18 June|
|Half Term: Thurs 20 May – Mon 24 May|
|State: 7 April to 11 June|
|Monday 12 July to Friday 17 September|
|Half Term: Thurs 12 August to Mon 16 August|
|State: 6 July to 17 September|
|Tuesday 28 September to Wednesday 1 December|
|Half Term: Thurs 28 October to Mon 1 November|
|State: 28 September to 1 December|
(Starting dates are when termly and weekly boarders have to be back at school)