At Fairbanks High School, every student who graduates will have taken Laura Falk's Financial Management course – a class she has refined throughout her 12 years of teaching. Laura has a background in family consumer science, teaching topics from global foods to college and career readiness for over a decade. Her real focus and strength in teaching, however, is financial management.
Teaching her Financial Management course to about 125 students every year in grades 10–12, Laura is the only teacher of this subject in her school. Although she teaches finance skills in all of her courses, Laura believes that the stand-alone class is most effective to prepare students for practical life skills, rather than being lumped in with economics or business classes. She recognizes that most students leave high school without learning the vast majority of the money management lessons she teaches. "Many students go off to college and graduate with thousands of dollars in debt that they may not know how to pay off. That's why it's crucial to give students tools to be successful," she said. Laura focuses on lessons and life events that directly impact her students, such as the pros and cons of credit, how to manage loan debt, how to maintain a good credit score and how to finance a car.
The success of Laura's teaching methods is evident in her students' test scores. Her students' growth through pre and post-tests is always positive, increasing up to 50 points with a 99 percent pass rate. Students have come back after they complete the course saying that it's the most important class they've taken and how they are going to use the information in their daily lives. One of her students even became a teacher's aide for the course. There was one activity that especially stuck out to the student, which was a budgeting project. He wanted to do the project again as a senior because he was closer to being on his own and using his budgeting knowledge in real life, showing the importance of teaching relatable topics.
One of Laura's goals for her teaching is to not to bore her students. She offers something different every day, and says that is the essential to engaging her students. By varying the topics and methods for learning from partner projects to solo projects, students are engaged in course work. Making lessons creative, interesting, fun and practical helps students see the value of these important personal finance topics.
"I'm not a textbook teacher. It's not my style, and I find it a little boring. It's unique that my students will never know what the day will look like in my class. Kids can very easily get bored and unengaged, but this keeps things interesting for everyone," says Laura. She does this by seeking out the new latest and greatest resources to bring into her classroom.
There's always new information and technology to learn and integrate into lessons, and keeping the content current with culture is the key to engaging students. Laura achieves this by signing up for educational newsletters, keeping up with financial management companies, attending conferences and collaborating with other educators. For example, at the Next Gen Personal Finance (NGPF)'s Inaugural Summer Institute, Laura joined other educators from across the country and discussed current and trending teaching methods for personal finance in Palo Alto, California at the NGPF headquarters. The professional development gave Laura the opportunity to implement new teaching methods in her classroom.
One teaching method that has been proven to be successful is integrating activities into the course that make learning feel more relevant to students. Case studies are one such activity that Laura utilizes in the classroom. Presented with a real person and relatable situation, students take turns acting as the lender to determine if they should be given a loan or not. "These exercises push kids to think outside the box and immerses them in real life scenarios," says Laura. They are not just learning the textbook definitions, but getting experience that will help them when they are faced with similar life events. "I watch the students and listen to their conversations and can tell when they get it. A lightbulb goes off," explains Laura.
Case studies aren't the only way students receive real-life lessons. Guest speakers are a great way to bring the real world into classes. Laura brings in experts in various fields to provide her students with knowledge beyond her teachings, including representatives from banks, car dealerships, Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), the military and a local hospital.
Technology is another important facet of the course, and computers are used 2–3 times a week for different activities. Students use Ohio Means Jobs activities to research and decide the careers best suit them, taking into account personality, skills and salary so that students know what to expect before starting a job. They then figure out their monthly salary, choose a city to live in and find an apartment, purchase a vehicle, health insurance, groceries and fill out a complete budget. Additional resources such as Dave Ramsey's curriculum is also used to teach about saving and emergency funds.
"Teachers need to be passionate about teaching. That's the tricky part as teachers. My parents taught me about handling finances, but it's not always the case now with kids growing up. I'm also finding that some students aren't getting a lot of financial education at home," explains Laura.
A few students came into the class not knowing what a budget was, showing that students aren't necessarily coming in with as much as teachers may think they are. "A lot of teachers never feel fully trained or comfortable teaching the subject, but it is starting to shift towards more robust training for educators to become educated," said Laura.
Practical Money Skills would like to commend Laura Falk for her ongoing efforts and commitment to financial literacy at Fairbanks High School.