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Tailoring Lessons to Students’ Needs

Teacher: Michael Onda

School: James Wood High School (Winchester, Va.)

Subject(s): Mike not only teaches Economics and Personal Finance but beginning with the 2018-2019 school year, he’s adding a Cybersecurity Fundamentals course. This is in addition to coaching Cross Country in the fall, Indoor Track and Field in the winter, and Outdoor Track and Field in the spring.

Editor’s note: Cybersecurity courses were added to the Virginia Department of Education roster in 2017, and Frederick County Public Schools (where Mike teaches) adopted the classes due to student interest and the growing career opportunities.

Grade Level(s):  Mike’s classes are primarily juniors and seniors, with an occasional sophomore or two in the classes.

Years Teaching: 19 years

State Financial Education Requirement: Virginia requires the equivalent of one year of Economics and Personal Finance for both a Standard and Advanced Studies Diploma. The state also requires one industry credential – such as through Working in Support of Education (W!se); however, other credentials can be substituted. (Interestingly, in 2018 of the 100 Best W!se High Schools Teaching Personal Finance 45 were from Virginia.)

Why Teaching:  For Mike, teaching is a second career. Before teaching, he spent 11 years in the Marine Corps on active duty. He then decided to go into the Reserves and “always thought” he’d get into teaching. Mike shares he admired one of his high school teachers, which stayed with him, and, as he progressed through his military career, he found that he enjoyed the teaching and training aspects of his job.

Why Personal Finance:  Mike’s undergraduate degree is in finance and when he initially got hired to teach business, a personal finance class didn’t exist – there were elements in his classes, but he wanted students to be more aware of money. He wanted them to understand the pitfalls and promises, how to manage their finances, and create a financially healthy future. Mike said he had seen and experienced personal finance challenges and mistakes, and “wanted to be able to teach students important personal finance concepts that would spare them much misery in adulthood” as possible.

Resources:  Mike not only has attended the Jump$tart Coalition National Educator Conference in the past, he’s also attended multiple Virginia Jump$tart Teacher Conferences. (There are 51 affiliated Jump$tart Coalitions.) Conferences give him the opportunity to network with other teachers and resource providers and develop his own ideas. For the most part, he tends to create his own resources so that he can tailor them to the needs of his students.

His Story

In .19 seconds Google finds about 4,780,000 news articles with the phrase “student loan debt.” Not surprising; however, for Mike and his students, the real story is that not everyone is going to a four-year college. And not everyone should. Some will go to a two-year college and transfer – or not, others will go to trade school, some will go into the military and some will find their own path.

Mike said the push for “college for all” has left the workforce with a significant skills gap. “There are numerous, highly skilled jobs that don’t require college that continue to go unfilled because many high school graduates believed that the only way they could find a rewarding, well-paying, fulfilling job was to get a bachelor’s degree or higher,” he said.

However, he also said, “we’re starting to realize there are a lot of great career opportunities that don’t require the cost of a higher education degree and can be rewarding, satisfying and provide a good life.”

It these different paths that Mike focuses on when working with his students. He wants them to walk away with the tools to help them succeed no matter what they choose. It’s also why creates a lot of his own resources. In one class, he could have a future doctor, a future mechanic, a future soldier and 30 who don’t know. If a lesson doesn’t resonate with his students, it’s forgotten.

As a result, Mike designs more open-ended assignments allowing his students to tap into their personal interests. He said he tries “to keep things very fundamental and generic to apply to wherever his students are.”

When the year starts – it’s half a year of econ and half a year of personal finance (approximately) – Mike and his students dive into a career assessment. They have a career coach from the local community college come in and talk about the options available and what they might enjoy doing. It helps the students understand what and how they may need to plan for the future.

They then go into taxes, calculating a paycheck, tax returns, and basic money management. They also address comparison shopping to find an apartment and Mike introduces the concepts of insurance, banking – online and off – credit and credit scores, loans and risk management. He rounds out his lesson plans with retirement and investment, and wealth accumulation.

In all of these lessons, the students crunch different numbers based on their desired path.
Mike also tries to make the lessons personal by sharing examples from his background. The school district where Mike teaches has a higher percentage of students who go into the military, which gives him the opportunity to tap into his training and background.

All of his lessons are reinforced when his students participate in a Reality Store hosted by the Virginia Cooperative Extension. In the “store,” each student is given a fake life – including a career and salary – and has to find housing, transportation, and other necessities to make the life they are given work financially.

Once Mike’s students close their books on personal finance lessons, they participate in W!se testing. While the testing provides the necessary credential for graduation, it’s also a way for Mike’s students to punctuate their personal finance knowledge.

In the end, it’s Mike’s desire to prepare his students for a financially literate future – no matter what path they take – that is the core of Mike’s lessons.