When Heather Emery graduated from Terre Haute South Vigo High School in 2003, she never dreamed that five short years later, she would find herself face to face with her old high school administrators, interviewing for a teaching position. Filling in last minute for a teacher on maternity leave, Emery proved to be a perfect fit.
"I knew the school. I knew the teachers. And I knew who to go to for help. I was home."
In addition to social studies, science, and math, Emery also taught the school’s special education classes, a focus of study for her at Indiana State University. While in college, Emery also got involved with The Arc of Vigo County, a nonprofit organization aiding people with developmental disabilities. Heather found working with the disabled very rewarding, because she could teach tangible life skills to directly help these students become more independent in their lives, rather than traditional textbook curriculum.
Putting this "tangible skills" theory into practice, Emery structured her special education classes like a working economy. And she was the bank. Students earned pretend money for class participation, the various grades they received on assignments, and even getting to class on time. Emery stressed to students that school was much like a job, and that it was important to never be late.
Borrowing a cash register from the school, her classroom often operated like a retail store, where students could calculate purchases and make change. Students could spend their pretend money on snacks, drinks or even increments of free time. For some items, students were required to write checks from a checkbook that they balanced themselves. Or they could save their money.
Every two weeks, Emery would collect deposit slips from students in order to bank the money they had saved. By the end of the trimester, her kids were proficient with the mechanics of both spending and saving – they could write their own checks and manage a savings account.
All of this saving really paid off during "Dollar Days" at the end of the school year. Emery had reached out to community businesses, asking for donations toward her special education program. The response was tremendous - an outpouring of donations that included gift certificates, movie tickets, t-shirts, and credit at a video game arcade – all of which students could buy with the money they had earned and saved.
"Many of these students will go straight into the work force rather than on to higher education. My goal was to give them skills they could use when they left high school."