JEROMESVILLE -- Inside a Hillsdale High School classroom last week, two boys competed to see who could hold an object in the air the longest. One hoisted a textbook in the air, and the other daringly held a cup of water above his own head.
It wasn’t difficult to lift either, but once they held the items for a while, their muscles began to ache. Neither would give up. They held the book and cup of water until the bell sounded.
“They’re both competitive as high school students often are,” said Hillsdale High School principal Dave Baker.
Baker has seen stress accumulate in his students and staff during the first few months of the 2020-21 school year. Like holding an object, holding onto stress also feels heavier in time.
It’s become increasingly harder to continue learning and teaching amid the COVID-19 pandemic, he said.
To help, the high school principal and longtime educator developed a set of universal lesson plans for teachers to follow during the two school days before Thanksgiving break. The district operates in a hybrid fashion, so half of the students would participate one day and the other half on the next.
Baker called it, “Stress Less Day.” It featured lessons that defined stress, taught students about their learning habits and offered some inspirational stories.
During first-period classes, teachers were asked to forego their regular subjects and instead define and discuss stress with their students. It was here that students were asked to hold a book in the air. Over time, it was more difficult to keep the book aloft. Stress too becomes more difficult to bear in time, teachers explained.
Later, students watched videos about Walt Disney, Michael Jordan and others who overcame obstacles to achieve success. They made personal learning profiles to better understand how they learn, and just for fun, they built structures out of marshmallows, tape and spaghetti.
At lunch, administrators served ice cream.
"The world is not quite as stress free as it may have been a year ago. I know that I have teachers that feel stressed out. I have students who feel stressed,” Baker said. “We’re really trying to be sensitive to what they need.
"So, for two days, we gave them a chance to do some little things to take their mind off things. We just wanted to take the stress away.”
Teachers who had scheduled tests and major assignments were encouraged to proceed with their plans, but the majority of most students’ days featured Baker’s educational, but fun lesson plans.
“I think the hardest thing is not knowing what’s going to happen next,” Baker said about the ongoing school year. He’s heard concerns about COVID-19, the continuance of in-person classes, sports and extracurricular activities.
He has aimed to keep the school year feeling “as close to normal as possible” for Hillsdale High School students and looks to consistently reassure his staff.
“I tell them to try to keep a steady approach to the things you are doing. Try to be as close to what you’ve done in the past as possible, but understand we are dealing with a whole new set of circumstances,” Baker said. “I’ve said to a couple teachers, ‘You are a heck of a good teacher.’ I’ve seen them teach. They know how to teach, but they may need that bode of confidence.”
Baker meets regularly with other school administrators via Zoom calls. The situation at Hillsdale is no different than at other schools. All are dealing with elevated stress levels this school year, he said.
Stress Less Day took shape after Baker heard Hilliard City School’s Superintendent Dr. John Marschhausen ask his staff to slow down. His message came after one student committed suicide and at least one other had attempted it.
“Right now, your curriculum and your content is not the most important thing that we’re doing,” Marschhausen said. “We’re going to think about kids first and content second.”
Baker echoed this sentiment.
“We know we can’t cover the same material this year. We’re just not there, and that’s alright,” Baker said. “Sometimes we just need to make sure we’re sending students home with smiles on their faces.”
Teacher burnout has been a topic of national discussion amid the pandemic. In a survey conducted last April, 81 percent of teachers reported feeling somewhat or extremely uncertain. More than 70 percent also indicated they felt stressed, anxious and overwhelmed. Sixty percent indicated feeling sad, and 54 percent marked that they felt lonely, The Journal reported in June.
Closer to home, the man who was set to become superintendent at West Holmes Local Schools died by suicide this summer.
Baker hopes to plan additional Stress Less Days for his students and staff in the coming months.