Ahh, it’s finally my favorite time of year: summer break. I have completely checked out of technology for the past two weeks but now I am back online and ready to write. For the final three weeks of school I was running a project with my freshmen on my favorite topic: money! As a math teacher, I constantly am asked the questions “when are we ever going to use this?” “Can’t you teach us about something that matters like taxes?” and the like. I really believe in learning the foundational skills that pure Algebra offers, but I also believe in teaching real world concepts as a normal person uses them. So since my first year I have been teaching personal finance in my math classes.
It all began when during the first week of school in my first real job a student told me that a debit card and a credit card are the same thing so it doesn’t really matter which one you get. I died a little inside. I think I said something like “uh… dude! That’s 100% incorrect.” Then I walked to my principal and asked, “is it OK if I suspend my standards for a project and teach about money?” I was teaching Statistics and Probability my first year (along with co-teaching it as a combined math/science course). My principal replied “As long as they’re learning, I don’t care about the specifics.” That’s the beauty of teaching seniors. There are no standardized tests so you can always diverge from what you’re “supposed” to teach. It’s a little more challenging when you teach freshmen and they have to take a graduation exam at the end of the year. That’s why the minute the test ends, I switch in real world mode and start talking money straight up with my kids. I embed some financial items along the way (like profit curves when we study quadratics), but we all know money has to start with the very basics, which only covers essentially arithmetic.
In the new tab called “teacher talk” you are going to find my projects and lessons that I’ve run in my career. They’re far from perfect, but kids don’t need perfect. They just need the honest truth. By honest truth, I mean that you have to talk directly, specifically about your own experiences. We know that kids respond to adults who open up and this especially applies to money. There will be a huge difference in the energy and the way kids learn if you tell them about your own life. There is a profound difference between saying “if a person buys a house and the interest is… they’ll pay…. in interest” and saying “When I applied for my mortgage, the rate given to me based on the market and my credit score was 3.75% which means over 30 years I’ll pay over $68k in interest. I don’t want to pay that much so I have a plan to pay down the mortgage more quickly than 30 years.” Because now students know what my life is like and they can ask me a variety of questions. They get to know me better, which they want. They learn about money, which they want. They trust me because I’m really telling them about my life, not just talking theory of numbers. Many people are uncomfortable with this, as money is still such a taboo in our society. But if you are a public school teacher, your income is public record anyways. Ohio has a really nifty treasury site where you can easily find any public employees salary. I used to look up my college professors while in their class. My perspective is that if they can find it anyways, use it to help them.
If you are a teacher or a parent you have both an opportunity and a responsibility to teach kids how to be intelligent participants in our society. Finance is a HUGE piece of their ability to add value to their own life and to their community. Kids absolutely love learning about money, but they will check out very quickly if you just keep giving them textbook exercises. There are a few students in every grade who will see themselves in the work of calculating compound interest in your exponential functions unit. They might automatically think “if I start saving now, I could have more later.” They will like working with the formula and run their own simulations. But most won’t if they don’t see the example somewhere. Many of my own students do not see parents saving money. And this makes sense given than CNN is always reporting that more than half of all Americans do not have $1000 in savings to cover an emergency. If you switch your conversation to discuss the rule of 72 – which doesn’t really fit in that exponentials unit as neatly – with your own investment account values, your students’ ears will perk up. You have to start with more basic but more real concepts to get their attention.
Yesterday I posted the outline of the project I ran for the final three weeks with my students. I told them more about my life during this project than throughout the other 33 weeks of school, because we got to talk about money. I showed them my actual credit cards and listed out the limit and interest rate for each one on the board. While I hope that they remember how to graph and solve an equation for more than just this year, I know they’re more likely to remember the time I told them all about my bank accounts than that stuff. When I was growing up, teachers always told us that Algebra had to do with money, but we never learned about money at all. I try to make that connection more clear for my students by talking about money early and often.