After observing a lack of discussion around teaching financial literacy in schools, Maureen Neuner transitioned from a career in the private sector as an accountant to become an educator devoted to making a difference in students' lives.
Maureen has reached 400 students throughout her eight-year teaching career, and currently teaches ninth graders at Pinelands Regional Junior Hugh School in Tuckerton, New Jersey. To help her 14–15-year-old students engage in personal finance topics, she utilizes games, technology and activities that relate directly to the financial issues they are facing or will be facing in the near future. She explains the importance of talking to students about money directly and understanding what parents wish their children were learning in school. However, Maureen recognizes that there is still a taboo surrounding discussions about money.
"Many people don't want to admit that they make mistakes and parents may not want their children to worry about money issues," explains Maureen. She encourages her students to talk to their parents about what they learn in class, which helps parents become more aware of their own personal finances. "Most parents tell me they wish they had a class like this when they were in high school."
Along with the other Business Education teachers at Pinelands Regional Junior High School, Maureen leverages various programs to enhance their curriculum, including the Council for Economic Education's Financial Fitness for Life program, Next Gen Personal Finance Curriculum, the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia's Keys to Financial Success program and lesson plans from Practical Money Skills. These blended resources allow Maureen to cover topics like life planning, career exploration, job applications, interviewing techniques, college financing, banking, credit, saving, investing as well as insurance and retirement planning.
Some schools offer online programs that students complete on their own, but Maureen focuses on the importance of one-on-one teaching to ensure students understand the impact of financial literacy on their futures. Students benefit greatly from being able to ask questions, participate in discussions and receive guidance from a teacher because they may not always get it from home. She also places an emphasis on making the course relevant and interesting to her students. "We relate back to what is going on in the world. Some students love investing, others love learning about scams. They all have different interests," says Maureen. In her financial literacy course, the balance between learning through technology and hands-on activities is crucial to help improve students' personal finance skills.
Teaching her class in a computer lab gives students many activities and lessons to engage with. Maureen teaches practical personal finance skills her students will use in their future, such as how to do their taxes, fill out important employment forms and gain proficiency in computer software. She uses computer programs where students learn about the stock market, budgeting and making life decisions about money. One such computer simulation teaches students how to find a place to live, how to get a job and manage unexpected expenses such as parking tickets, accidents, and household emergencies. Her students also play board games such as Life and Monopoly to build a foundation in career decisions and handling money. "One of my students' favorite things to do though is to play Visa's Financial Football (video game). They absolutely love playing," says Maureen. She explains that when the students start playing the game in the beginning of the year, they struggle with the answers, but by the end of the year, they're playing against each other and having fun with it and even playing it at home in their spare time.
The lessons don't end inside the classroom. On a recent field trip funded by her school, she took her students to Wall Street to learn about and experience the financial district in New York. They visited the NY Stock Exchange, Federal Hall, the Federal Reserve Bank of NY, and even took pictures in front of the Wall Street Bull. "Many of my students have been to New York City before, but never to Wall Street, which made the trip even more exciting," explains Maureen. "My students asked the next day if we could go again soon."
Part of the course focuses on career planning and determining the student's strongest skills. The students role-play by taking turns interviewing each other as employers and candidates and critique how each other did in the interview process. Ninth graders likely haven't applied for jobs yet, so her class prepares them with the information and skills they need before they're faced with those decisions, as opposed to making mistakes and spending a lot of time trying to fix them later. Maureen explains, "A perfect example for the students is a lesson we use from Next Generation Personal Finance about FICO scores. The students do a case study that shows them that it's easier to build credit properly from the start than to go back and try to improve a low credit score later." If students are educated at an earlier age, they will have the information they need to make smart money decisions. "They understand the importance of saving early and will tell me about how much they have saved throughout the year," says Maureen.
Throughout the year-long course, she teaches students how to be in control of their finances. Maureen encourages her students to make decisions for themselves and think through problems on their own to build a strong financial foundation. "Regardless of their future job and salary, everyone can save and manage their finances well for a good life," she noted.
Financial literacy is now a graduation requirement in the state of New Jersey, and Pinelands Regional Junior High School started offering the course in 2010, five years before the requirement was implemented statewide in 2015. The school requires its own pre and post-tests to determine how successful the courses are, and her class also participates in the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia's pre and post-tests, which show great progress from the beginning to the end of the course.
The success of Maureen's financial literacy course is evident not just in numbers, but also in how it has positively impacted student's lives. Recently, one of Maureen's students was having a hard time in school and wasn't sure he was going to graduate. After taking the financial literacy class, he graduated and listed her as a reference for a job. "It really made a difference for him. He knew how to go into an interview, behave on a job and save money. He even saved enough to buy a car in cash. To see my students being able to succeed financially is extremely rewarding for me," says Maureen.
Practical Money Skills would like to commend Maureen Neuner for her ongoing efforts and commitment to financial literacy at Pinelands Regional Junior High School.