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Walking Away Comfortable with Math

Teacher: Brett Shifrin

School:   Gould Academy (Bethel, Maine)

Subject:   Algebra 1, Calculus and Math and Finance – Brett also coaches snowboarding and cycling.

Grade Level:   9th-12th

State Financial Education Requirement:   Currently, it is not a requirement, but organizations are working to get it passed.

Years Teaching:  Approximately 25 years and teaching personal finance since 2009

Why Teaching:  Brett said he’s teacher because he likes the lifestyle and working with kids. He likes seeing them “grow and especially seeing them gain comfort and become confident with math.” He says he may have been “too idealistic when (he) started, but (he) likes the kids and the people (he) works with.”

Why Personal Finance:  During the recession, Brett shared that a former student, who was on Wall Street, and his father, a business professor, gave an assembly. The next day, Brett said there were so many kids with questions it became clear that there was an interest and desire to understand what was going on in the financial world. As a result, Brett started a personal finance elective.

To begin with, Brett said the class was about meeting the kids’ needs and demonstrating the applicability of math. He said, in student’s minds math can be abstract and unrelated to their life. So, he’s an “advocate to make math real to their life now and in the future.”

He also likes that with financial topics there’s always something new – whether it’s tax laws, investing philosophy or trends, etc. – it keeps him learning.

Resources:  For many years, Brett says he relied on textbooks as well as the Wall Street JournalKiplinger’s magazine, federal, Jump$tart’s weekly emails with links on financial subjects and various internet sites. This year, he’s going to try to use the book Broke Millennials because it “speaks the kids’ language” and can be used as jumping off point to discuss financial issues. His students have found the book readable and engaging.  A few are reading ahead of the class.  As with many other teachers, he also creates his own resources. Finally, he also uses the Jump$tart Clearinghouse, which he says helps simplify finding resources by searching by topic. However, he also notes that there are so many resources out there that it can get overwhelming – every bank, investment firm and financial organization seems to offer information.

Brett also is a “big fan of learning by doing,” as such likes to attend conferences where he gets to hear from other experts – for example the National Educator Conference.

For Brett, as a teacher, one issue his students also face – in terms of resources – is having his course approved by the NCAA.  He knows of only one textbook that has been approved in the past but is resubmitting his course this year to see if it will be approved.

His Story

While Brett teaches personal finance there are two things he wants his students to walk away with: patience and questions.  He wants his students to have the patience to get an answer to financial questions – whether it’s one to their parents or a salesperson.  As consumers, having the confidence to ask a salesperson to slow down or fully explain details is a key ingredient to financial success.

In classes, Brett focuses on scenarios and using spreadsheets to make a decision – whether it’s looking at various credit cards, student loans or the future value of money.  However, one thing that Brett instills in his students is that there’s no right or wrong answer.  Instead, he wants his students to make the best decision that meets their needs and to use math to justify the decision.

For example, when looking at a credit card scenario, some believe in paying off the highest interest debt first, others the smallest debt. He asks his students to figure out what works best for them and why that’s their best decision.  As Brett says, “the math doesn’t matter if you don’t follow through.” It’s the behavioral economics that impact financial health.

As high school students, one of the areas Brett discusses with his students is student loans. Part of the lesson takes place in the classroom where they look at sample student financial aid awards and private vs. federal loans. They also look at subsidized loans.  And, then, he encourages his students to talk to their parents – to find out if they have a 529 account.  He said even in his Calculus class they work on student loans.

Brett said, being able to read a financial award letter and understand necessary loans – for current and future years – and being able to project the cost of those loans over four (or more) years of college can help students truly grasp the cost of making this decision.

Once his students have the patience and questions, the last part is that he wants his students to be comfortable with the math part.

He does this by finding stories – that he creates or are taken from his life – that his students can relate to. And, he ensures that stories are both positive and negative.

Brett said, “as a class, we can look for themes that connect to what is being learned and take away ideas that can be used later. Students need to understand that not all decisions work out, but can be used to improve their financial understanding and future decision making.”

He believes it’s important that his students need to know that making financial decisions can be difficult.  However, having a set of financial beliefs and goals can empower students to “plan to achieve financial happiness based on their beliefs and goals.”

His students’ plan, he said, should include a system for evaluating their current situation, developing a mathematical model to examine the time value of money and making informed decisions will help students be in control of their financial lives.

In general, Brett helps his students examine a financial decision by:

  • Determining what the decision involves by asking:
    • What is being asked of the student?
    • What do they know or how can they learn more about the information involved?
  • Developing a strategy to examine the decisions using their knowledge and mathematics.
  • Finding the present or future value of a decision.
  • Implementing that strategy to look at various outcomes.
  • Analyzing the results to determine the best course of action, by asking:
    • What are the range of outcomes that are acceptable?
    • How likely will these outcomes occur?