A Gap Year for Young Teenagers

It's a source of constant amazement to me that we question our educational system so little and fail to question it deeply. When the education system does come up in popular discussions, it's always over issues like funding, or messing with teacher employment policies, or creating slightly different types of schools that just recycle old ideas under new names. None of it has to do with what it actually means to educate a child, and whether our school traditions are the best ways to do so.

Perhaps it's natural that people would be highly accustomed to a widely uniform system that nearly everyone is raised in, and that nearly everyone puts their kids through, but still—it seems hardly any adult ever bothers to question the fundamental structure of our school system.

What questions am I talking about? Well, here's a question you don't see often: Why the hell do we expect all kids to go through thirteen years of school in a row—nine months school, three months break—year after year after year? 

Most kids never question the thirteen years of schooling society commits them to, but many get exhausted by it. Every day, I work with a wide variety of high school students, ranging from some who struggle mightily to care about their classes to some whose ambitions and overcommitments absolutely astonish me. Nearly all of them—the straight-D students to the straight-A students—get pretty tired of school.

It really doesn't have to be this way. Though there's no exact statistic, it's clear that most Americans tend to work at least several different jobs throughout their lives, perhaps changing every few years or so. If most of us won't ever do the same thing for thirteen years straight in our adult lives, why do we subject kids to it? Does it make any sense for them to constantly return to the same environment when they're in their years of most rapid change and development?

Granted, there are substantial differences between elementary, middle, and high schools. These are differences that mark students lives, and that they celebrate or bemoan. Nevertheless, most K-12 schools have much the same foundation: Students attend on a compulsory basis on set days for set amounts of time; they are grouped with other students, usually through the course of the year; they interact with a limited number of authority figures responsible for directing all educational activity. Following some sort of overarching plan—or more likely, several loosely-coordinated plans—meant for them to learn what is necessary for adult life, they will do the same thing next year.

I'm a teacher, and I absolutely love teaching—but it depresses me and troubles me to see so many teenagers so burned out from school. There's a lot less joy in teaching if my students are always tired of listening to me. Clearly, it is partially my fault if my students are not engaged, but a lot of the fatigue I see in their eyes is fatigue from school in general. It wouldn't matter the teacher, the subject, or the style of delivery—they'd get tired of at least some of it.

credit: Shutterstock (accessed here)
There are, of course, many different ideas as to how we might change the structure of schooling, modest ones and radical ones. For now, though, I think it's best for me to voice just one simple, modest proposal: Why can't young teenagers just take a "gap year" from school?

The traditional "gap year" takes place after graduating from high school and before a student attends college. Most American students don't take such gap years, but studies show they improve college success rates, and some colleges even encourage them.

Nevertheless, I don't see why the same positive benefits wouldn't hold true for students just a few years younger: Taking a year off at the start of high school or after a year or two there could enable students to think more deeply about their education and acquire valuable new experiences outside of school settings. When I consider the students I teach, I believe many if not most 14, 15, or 16-year-olds would benefit from taking a gap year.

My mother missed all of eighth grade because her parents took her on a trip around the United States. She's never called it a "gap year," but it certainly was. When she told me this story when I was young, I thought the idea sounded crazy, but my mom's education turned out just fine. In fact, she'd probably say her experiences on that trip formed the basis for her college pursuits in American studies. Most teens probably wouldn't get to go on long trips with their parents, but they'd benefit from a gap year just the same.

You might ask what a teenager would do with their time if they took a break from school for a year. For one thing, they could help out at home a lot more—taking care of younger siblings, cooking, cleaning—things they often do already in addition to school, but probably never as much as their parents might like. There are many lessons to be learned in such activities, and they'll be important for the rest of those teenagers' lives. Plus, we all know that very few students in the U.S. have the chance to take home economics anymore, even though they should.

Teenagers taking gap years could also work: The minimum working age in the U.S. is 14, and again, many high schoolers already work jobs on top of going to school. If paid work isn't available, they could easily become interns. Many people rightly criticize the prevalence of internships—but if you're going to be an intern at some point in your life, it seems to me far better to do so while you're still a minor and still living at home, rather than in college or afterward when you're trying to strike out on your own.

If teenage gap years became the norm, employment and internship opportunities would undoubtedly spring up everywhere, giving adolescents a jumpstart on thinking about their working futures, rather than postponing all of it until age 18 or 22. There are many lessons to learn in virtually any type of job, and again, few of those lessons are taught in school.

My students got me to start playing
Clash of Clans last year, and I don't
know how many hours they and I
have spent on it. (source)
You could easily raise the criticism that teenagers might not want to do these things if they took a gap year. If school isn't going to be compulsory, what's to stop them from playing video games at home for a year? Well, it certainly is possible they might do that, but such a choice (if families even permitted it) would be an education in and of itself.

I know from personal experience how playing games and ignoring real-world obligations or opportunities can be highly addicting, but I also learned the hard way that wasting so much time on games really isn't worth it. I also know that many high school students already spend many evenings and weekends gaming when they should be doing homework or could be engaging many other constructive activities. I bet the freedom of a gap year would allow more of those students to find the balance between entertainment and productivity. Even if someone wasted their entire year on games, I think such an experience might make their family more reticent to let them do so again when they're 19, 25, or 30.

Please note that I would never want a gap year to be mandatory. I'm sure that if gap years became a real option endorsed by school districts there'd be relatively few students who would take the jump at first: There's a lot of stigma among adolescents about finishing school later or being a "super senior," and there's a lot of draw to return to school every year to rejoin your circle of friends and participate in "normal" teenage social life.

As time went on, more and more students would likely realize what an opportunity the gap year presents, and it might become the norm. Still, many students would likely want to persevere and keep going to high school every year, and I'd applaud them for it. I'd undoubtedly have been one of them, considering I didn't take any break for either my bachelor's or master's, going to school for 18 years straight.

Nevertheless, I don't think that 13 uninterrupted years of schooling should be compulsory or even expected for our nation's youth. The healthy, vibrant development of young adults should feature a wide variety of learning experiences and opportunities for growth, and returning to the same institution year after year often isn't the best recipe for such development. Maybe it's time we encouraged teenagers to take a break.