Students in Palo Alto are stressed out. They've been stressed for years. The school sits in the shadow of Stanford University, and students face crushing pressure from parents and the community at large to earn a spot at one of the nation's top colleges. Many students are raised by executives at Facebook, Apple, Intel, Sun, Cisco, Google, and other premier companies and do their homework surrounded by some of the most successful self-made business leaders in the world. It's a lot to live up to. Even the kids who aren't driven to study engineering at Cal Tech spend their formative years in a society that can't help but conflate academic performance with a sense of self-worth. The impact on students' anxiety and confidence levels is undeniable, and the epidemic of student suicides in recent years is testament to the need to support these students.
The 2010 report released by the Project Safety Net task force exploring potential sources of student stress places an enormous priority on students' ability to form personal relationships with faculty. It gives them an anchor, someone to turn to for help, and reminds them that they are not invisible and lost in the crowd. Herein lies the value of a teacher advisor program.
I attended Paly from 2001-2005 and lost friends to suicide in 2002 and 2003. This was before Facebook was available to complicate high school social lives to an unimaginable degree, and the national economic outlook was more encouraging than harrowing — people graduated from college and consistently found gainful employment. We were stressed out regardless. I was a typical burned out senior upon graduating, after charging through the typical varsity athletics, model government, AP courses, applying to elite colleges, and so on. Having a teacher advisor I could lean on for guidance was a critical support system for me, and though I felt overwhelmed every week, my TAs kept me from feeling lost.
They helped us with field trip logistics. They guided us through class registration. They made sure we covered all our bases around graduation requirements. They got us into our PSATs and CAHSEEs. They helped us wrap our heads around writing college admission essays. This was all critical, and I don't remember my monthly TA sessions having more than 20 or 25 kids for each faculty member, compared to the 300-plus students assigned to each of Gunn's guidance counselors. More importantly, the TAs were able to keep track of the emotional state within each student, and if grades were suffering, or if we were suffering, they were there to ask us what was going on, and refer us to guidance counselors. That was tremendous. I never took the time to address my own depression issues until after high school, but I vividly remember how supported I felt simply by hearing the words, "are you doing okay?" It was grounding, and it reminded me that somebody had my back through the daily pressures.
When I reflect on how supportive my TAs were, Gunn's lack of a TA program would be laughable if it didn't cast a reminder of the grim circumstances that led us to this discussion. I know that resources are limited. I know that California's school year shrinks with every budget cycle, and I know teachers are under pressure to condense more education into diminishing windows. But that doesn't matter. Paly was able to pull 45 faculty members into an hour-long support session eight or nine times during the school year (I believe it was monthly), and it made an enormous difference in the lives of the students. It still does. The Gunn community should view TA programs as an investment in the success of the other 19 school days each month; if academic rankings are so important to the community, shouldn't we make a minimal effort to ensure that kids are supported enough to absorb the material? More importantly, shouldn't we make a maximum effort to ensure that our children feel more confident than hopeless?
I would like to encourage everybody to attend "Learning About Counseling Changes for Gunn: How Teacher Advisors Can Better Support Our Kids" on May 16, 7 p.m., at St Mark's Episcopal Church at 600 Colorado Ave. in Palo Alto. Denise Clark Pope, a senior lecturer at Stanford, will lead a panel discussion highlighting the merits of a teacher advisor program. I am grateful for the opportunity to share my own positive experience with the TA program, but this panel is a much stronger way to educate the community and rally support for the cause. We have a stress problem in the district. The school district is responding to collective action. Let's continue the progress, and keep pushing for a teacher advisor program at Gunn.