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?

When Should Students Become Responsible For Their Own Success?

No Stone Unturned, Room 137

I don’t blame Steffon for his distrust issues; after all, he’s bounced around from foster parent to foster parent.  I don’t blame Sara for her constant angst and depression; after all, she’s just come out of the closet and receives no support from her parents, who now remind her daily that she’s going to hell.  I don’t blame DeAnthony for his shockingly sparse vocabulary; born to a single mom with five other siblings, nobody read to him before he attended school.  And I don’t blame Angela for her emotional outbursts–she witnessed her mother get murdered in their trailer several years ago.

These are all real students I’ve had over the years–names have been changed, of course–and at this point, I can only pray that my attempts at guidance have helped add enough academic and life skills to their arsenal to become happy, productive, citizens.

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Advising students who carry massive social, academic, and emotional burdens into our classrooms is, at times, an overwhelming task.  But as a high school teacher, I’ve got students who will be entering the adult world soon.  They need to take responsibility for their own actions.  Somehow, they must put their pasts behind them–a difficult task when such struggles are constantly creeping into their rear-view mirrors–and develop perseverance and grit to find success.

At what point should we educators, and society at large, blame young people for failing to overcome hardships and soul-crushing situations at home?  At what point should we expect, if ever, developing adolescents to confront their harsh realities and make a decision to take steps to overcome behavioral or academic issues?

I’ve been there, when I could care less that Rayvon is pissed off about his deadbeat father.  He had no right to continue disrupting class, seeking attention in all the worst ways.  I’ve been there when I’ve gone out of my way to stay after school for tutoring, providing a safe and productive place for students who’d otherwise be up to no good, only to sit at an empty table watching the second hand cycle around and around until packing up my bag and trudging to the faculty parking lot.  It’s frustrating, but I won’t stop trying.

It’s often individual educators–and not the system–who attempt to build academic and social bridges for our most needy students.  Yet there are other teachers who proclaim that it’s the students job to learn, regardless of background, ignoring situations like those mentioned in my introduction.

Americans love rags to riches stories, and there are enough tales of young people rising up from abusive homes, dilapidated housing projects, and abject poverty to become doctors, lawyers, congressmen, and professional athletes.   The exceptions are hardly, the rule, however–all you have to do is examine statistics about cycles of poverty and educational attainment.  Nonetheless, the rags to riches narrative holds a vice grip on our consciousness and our educational systems.  If he or she can succeed, why can’t you?

Yesterday marked the end of my ninth year teaching public school in and around Louisville, Kentucky.   It has been a tremendous journey thus far, and every year I’m constantly reminded of one concept from my teacher education courses: Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.  Progress towards personal and academic growth is derailed when basic needs aren’t met.  When so many students come to school hungry, angry, stressed out, and overwhelmed, it’s no wonder that little learning takes place.

It’s not fair that some students carry massive burdens as they trudge from class to class, while other students breeze through private schools and tennis lessons, with the only uncertainty being which college or university they will attend.  And right now, many of our schools are not set up to create conditions where most students have a reasonable shot at similar outcomes as their more advantaged peers.  It will take a herculean effort.

Do politicians, and Americans in general, have the political will to reimagine school as places where students’ various backgrounds are addressed through alternative curriculums, more social worker access, and other interventions?  What is your take?  When should students become responsible?  Nature vs. nurture–am I emphasizing nurture–or the lack of it– too much when it comes to student development?