Should High School Students Have Jobs?

No Stone Unturned

Here’s a typical scenario that I’ve witnessed over and over again during the last several years as a high school teacher:

JP is an average student, receiving mostly B’s and C’s in school.  He wants to save up for a used car–perhaps a Honda Civic Coupe–and be able to pay for his iPhone bill. He doesn’t get an allowance from his parents or guardians, and he has very few connections to business owners, but he’s confident he can get a fast food job, since they’re always hiring. He gets a job at local fast food chain, signing up for 20 hours a week to start.

The problem is, JP decides to quit basketball, and stops coming to tutoring after school because he “has work.” In JP’s eyes, making money TRUMPS all extracurricular possibilities and improving his academic work. JP isn’t expected to help pay any bills at home, besides his phone bill, so he’s prioritized like many high school students do. Can’t live without the phone.

Each student who chooses to work has a unique set of circumstances. After ten+ years teaching, however, I believe very few high school students should choose to work during the school year. Would I recommend a student get a job instead of playing video games for hours on end after school? Probably. Would I tell a student he or she shouldn’t work to help keep the lights on at home? Nope.

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I would, however, tell 9 out of 10 students to bypass that fast-food application and instead, join a team. Go to cooking club. Environmental club. Pep band. Whatever! Do opportunities to grow intellectually and emotionally through wholesome, non-work related activities trump any benefit the average student would receive working a minimum-wage job? I think so.

I’ve seen too many students come to school with baggy eyes, nodding off during first period because of a long work shift the previous afternoon or night. I’ve seen too many students fail to show up for tutoring after school–despite dropping grades–because of work. I’ve seen students quit cheerleading, football, and basketball in order to work.

On the other hand, I’ve seen what can happen if a student proactively decides to quit working in order to pursue new passions.  One student, who blossomed in my digital media class, struggled mightily at first to muster up the time and energy to do documentary work, toiling for long hours at White Castle. She helped pay the bills at home. But she eventually mustered up the courage to quit her job, realizing that giving herself more time for her newfound passion of photography and digital media work would pay more dividends than sweating grease.

She and another student started their own business within a year, but she doesn’t consider it work.

Admittedly, there are advantages to getting a part-time job. Gaining “real-world” experience and dealing with people, time management, and financial responsibility are possible byproducts from working. For some students who aren’t “good” at school, work gives them a sense of purpose.  And some students have to help pay the bills.

And I’ll also admit I never had to work, but I also never had my own car, nor did I have a cell phone. I worked various jobs during the summers: hauling furniture for a moving company, packaging rugs for shipment, and stacking pallets of beer during a graveyard shift.

Almost to a T, the most successful students from my high school class, if they had the choice, opted to participate in sports, music, and other extracurricular activities. Passionately. And it seemed to pay off regarding grades and, eventually, college and other post-secondary possibilities.

As a new school year creeps up, I’m crossing my fingers that our school will be able to connect with more disengaged students, whether it be with athletics, clubs, or other activities. In a roundabout way, I’m arguing for more opportunities and engagement in school, as high numbers of job-seeking teenagers might correlate to a high number of students fed up and bored with school.

Did you, or would you, encourage your child to get a part-time job during the school year?  Why or why not?  What am I missing in this argument? Why did or didn’t you work in high school?

Students, chime in too. What are you gaining or sacrificing while working?  Can you fit in work, school, and still get enough sleep?  Has your school work suffered because of work?  Why do you work?