The Myth of the Balance 

Maya Shepard, Staff Writer

In this day and age, it’s difficult for students to balance the stress of work, school, and life. (Credit: Maya Shepard)

Andrew Tankersley gets around five hours of sleep per night. Like an estimated 67.1% of his classmates, he works an after-school job, which his parents initially encouraged to keep the Roswell junior productive amidst the challenges of distanced learning. When asked about the scheduling logic behind the addition of the job as a solution to his troubles in school, Tankersley replies, “Honestly, I don’t think [my parents] really thought about jobs and school, like they didn’t really make the correlation, I think they just wanted me to be productive and get a job. I really don’t think they thought about school at all.”   

The idealization of the “working teenager” is one many teenagers face as we enter high school, with after-school jobs seeming like an inevitable ritual to prove our worth and maturity. It isn’t always motivated by validation, though- many students work to support their families financially; for them, missing a paycheck means more than missing a class. 

 Based on the results of an 82-student survey conducted by the Sting, 68.4% of working students feel their current schedules sometimes force them to choose between schoolwork and the workplace. Of those, 48.7% choose depending on the situation, not always placing one entity over the other. 38.5% favor school, and the remaining 12.9% favor work. While this may seem like a promising determining factor regarding school’s importance to working teenagers, the amount of time many workplaces require can push this prioritization to its limit. Drawing from the survey, on an average school day, 56.6% of working Roswell students spend four to six hours at work (7.5% work over seven hours), and 83.5% spend one to three hours on schoolwork. These time frames could range from a one- to six-hour difference, but student testimonies seem to favor the latter, many recounting sleepless nights of homework following lengthy shifts.  

Tankersley has fared similarly; while his two jobs may have been introduced as a parental penalty for academic challenges, they did little to combat those initial issues. While Tankersley attributes personal growth to his time at work, its “draining” effect on his school schedule has undeniably cast a shadow over his educational concerns. “I mostly wake up tired, like extremely tired […] I thought I was tired before, but it’s tiring now. […] The latest I’ve gone [working] on a school night was 11:04 p.m.” His first shift on the job was 3 p.m. to 12:02 a.m. As Tankersley recounts, “I closed up with the owner.”   

According to an online Georgia employment law guide, “Minors 14 and 15 years of age can work up to four hours on a school day, eight hours on a non-school day, or 40 hours in a non-school week. Their shifts must fall in between the hours of 6 a.m. and 9 p.m.” (“State Labor Law – Georgia.” Homebase, Pioneer Works Inc., 15 July 2021, https://joinhomebase.com/state-labor-laws/georgia/.) Once students turn 16, however, they age out of those protections, with little to no measures enacted to shield them from a newly enhanced workload. Furthermore, the average age of a rising sophomore is 15-16, meaning by the time most students reach junior year (the year colleges are known to examine the closest for applicants’ academic strengths and weaknesses), they are unprotected by Georgia law from being overworked outside of school. 

To lessen this potential consequence, Tankersley eventually decided to quit one of his jobs, but his employers increased his workload in anticipation of his departure. “Having two jobs, a social life, and school life- it doesn’t work out. So that was probably the most draining week I had so far…I got home right around 11:02…I started doing a project, I did some homework, which might’ve been around 1:30 a.m., I took a shower, and figured out I had more stuff to do, and I got to bed around 4 a.m.” Tankersley’s mother then let him rest the following morning, trading a full day of school for a good night’s sleep. 

Late nights are not exclusive to Tankersley’s experience. 52.5% of survey participants recount getting five to six hours of sleep per school night, and 63.7% believe they are not receiving enough. One wrote down their experience of intermittently feeling “extremely tired” and “okay,” culminating in being “exhausted on the weekends.” Specifically on the working front, there is an overwhelming sentiment towards reducing school hours, homework quantity, or both to preserve students’ likelihood of rest. This is evident through responses to the question “What do you think the school, your employer(s), or both could do to improve your school, work, and sleep schedule?”  

This question was addressed in Tankersley’s interview, wherein he agreed that the constant pileup of homework can negatively impact students’ academic progress. “I mean I’m gonna say what every kid could say, in that there is too much homework…I’m not complaining necessarily, but I am at the same time, cause there definitely is too much homework, like, you know you have Algebra homework stacked with like Astronomy, Psychology, stuff like that, US History, plus stuff you didn’t necessarily get done in class; for me personally I mean, it could be part of my ADHD, but I just have a hard time doing stuff and I feel obligated to try and do that at home…If I do end up doing homework at home, it’s probably gonna be a three-to-five-hour period of me just doing homework.”  

When prompted for a potential solution to this unbalanced workload, Tankersley refers to both the popular opinion on shortened school hours (specifically for additional sleep in the mornings) and a personal plan he’s been implementing for his own health. He has “set designated times for each thing…social life, workout life if you have it, job life, which you can’t really schedule that, school life…This may sound silly, but I’ve started doing like bedtimes and stuff, and giving myself some time to relax, but kind of timing it a little bit so I can like you know relax at home, get some work done but not too much, like maybe like an hour max on homework, you know go to the gym or whatever, go to work…get home, shower, do what you need to do, and then get in bed by like 11:30 p.m. or so. Like just setting schedules for yourself has started helping me. And I wish someone gave me that advice when I started working.” 

As is evident from Tankersley’s and the surveyed students’ preceding testimonials, the increased responsibilities of additional work can complicate a student’s schooling experience far more than is currently expected by both fields’ administrative entities. This shifts new challenges onto students’ shoulders, which may create the potential for increased organizational skills; however, even as those skills develop, many students fall behind. As can be discerned from the survey’s results, they find the lack of support all too evident, and seemingly all too inevitable. 

Andrew Tankersley now works only one job on “Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturdays, 5 p.m. to closing, which is around 9:30 to 10:00 p.m.” While he finds a portion of his educational workload has lifted, his reply to the question “Do you find that the workload is still an issue, even with schedule?” is not one of optimism. 

“Yes, I do. [It takes me] five hours or so to completely knock [the homework] off. When I’m giving myself a designated time for homework, like say one hour or two hours, I’m still cutting off my homework time, and chances are I’ll probably have more homework I could be doing. But I’m just stopping, you know, for sake of physical or mental health stuff like that. So, while it is helping me have more of, like, a stable life and mental health, it is definitely still taking a toll on my school and my grades and stuff like that.” 

While a majority of the survey’s responders share Tankersley’s dissatisfaction with the current distribution of homework, a handful of others exhibit little sympathy for their frustrations, taking the stance that the heavy workload is “a part of life” and “pretty well balanced.” One suggests “It’s me that could improve it,” recommending the mindset that all work is manageable, should the student try hard enough.  

That ancient idealization of the “working teenager” returns in the rhetoric behind these statements: getting good grades, waiting tables after the bell, and handling piles of homework without missing a minute of sleep. But the bell is now eight hours into the day, waiting tables can last just as long, and working students in 2021 must ask themselves- sleep or homework? Laziness or productivity?  

For many, an in-between is nonexistent, and that goes without mentioning the pandemic’s drastic effects on school and on the economy (which students’ employers depend on for their businesses’ survival). Both institutions are at present trying to boost quantity- of grades, test scores, profits- with the resources they have. And when those resources feel drained and overworked, they face failing the test, abandoning the ritual, and losing their worth. They press on into sleepless productivity, keeping school, work, and life imbalanced for yet another night.