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Financial Literacy for Everyone

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February 13, 2017

Lisa Bender

Southern Garrett High School
Oakland, Maryland

Lisa Bender is a National Board Certified teacher and has been teaching at Southern Garrett High School (SGHS) for 30 years. In that time, she has made a major impact on the way her school approaches financial literacy education through her innovative teaching methods, and her work to make the program accessible for all students.

Lisa Bender

Lisa and students laughing in class.

However, she didn't start her career that way. Lisa's first job out of college was working at a bank. When Lisa finally decided to go back to school for her masters in education at the University of Maryland, she knew she had found her calling. "It's been a passionate subject for me. I went into it knowing I would have a chance to make a difference not just while they are in my class on the campus at SGHS, but when they leave the school too," says Lisa.

In those first years, her financial literacy course was an economics elective that reached about 20 to 30 kids a semester. It became evident to Lisa, particularly during the 2007 recession, that many people did not know how to manage their money. She knew that personal finance was a topic that not only bettered individuals, but bettered society as a whole. So, she set out to make her class a graduation requirement.

Lisa Bender

Students’ SWOT activity.

"I partnered with a local stock broker who was a regular guest speaker in my classroom when we played The Stock Market Game through the Maryland Council on Econ Education. Together we gathered up the confidence to push out some emails and write some letters and went out on a mission to convince the school board to make this class an education requirement," explains Lisa. Their determination paid off, and now Lisa reaches 180 to 200 students per year, a 900% increase from when her course was an elective.

In addition to turning her class into a graduation requirement, during her years of teaching Lisa has worked to become a National Board Certified Teacher. Though it was challenging, she felt it had a big pay off in the classroom. Being able to hone in on her own skills and methods has allowed her to develop new and innovative ways to reach kids at a variety of ability levels.

Lisa Bender

Index card activity.

One of Lisa's most notable achievements is the empty classroom she turned into a ‘teleconference suite' – a space for students to connect with alumni and learn about their careers. At the time, Lisa was looking for other ways to connect to her students. She explains "I asked myself what is missing, what could I add to my curriculum to make learning even more relevant to the students sitting in my classroom."

Using social media to connect with her former students via LinkedIn and Twitter, an idea clicked. "I wanted to take advantage of these connections to open students' eyes to a much larger world and much larger career landscape," she said. As this idea evolved, Lisa noticed an empty classroom on campus that she decided to re-purpose. She approached local banks and received a donation of a boardroom table and chairs, and reached out to her Alumni Organization who donated a state of the art touch screen wall. This was effectively the final touch in turning the empty classroom into a virtual boardroom for students to connect with alumni.

Lisa Bender

Students participate in small group work.

With the teleconferencing suite in place, Lisa began to set up meetings between her students and alumni, who would video conference in from their offices, talk about their day to day work life, their career path, and answer questions for students. This engages them in a way that is atypical from the usual classroom experience. "If you're just doing worksheets and lecturing, [the students] will tune you out. If I tell them they're going to be interviewing someone who works at NASA, it sets up their game and changes the culture of learning," says Lisa.

Now that the suite is in its third year of activity, Lisa has begun to host teacher development sessions where she demonstrates how other members of her faculty can take advantage of the space. Through collaboration, she will be able to bring in more alumni relevant to the topics her students are learning in their other classes.

The teleconferencing suite is just one of many ways Lisa ensures that her students are engaged on multiple levels. Lisa says "these lessons are important and I hope to build for my students' foundations that last a lifetime."

Lisa Bender

Working one-on-one with a student.

Each semester, Lisa kicks off her course by having students create a foldable SWOT analysis. A SWOT analysis is a tool typically used in business to analyze an organization's strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats. Students take this activity and use it to reflect on their own abilities, in a way that is engaging and tactile. Lisa explains "this activity helps me to learn more about the kids and look at them through an academic and personal lens."

Lisa bookends her course with an activity that was developed from a concept she saw in one of Ron Lieber's columns about money in the New York Times. He reviewed the book The Index Card: Why Personal Finance Doesn't Have to Be Complicated, written by Helaine Olen and Harold Pollack. The premise of the book was that simple steps can make a difference in planning for your personal finance goals. In this spirit, she has her students write four things they want to remember from her class on an index card. If they take away even one lesson, she knows she has made an impact.

"Throughout your life, I tell my students, you're going to get 'booster shots' of financial literacy. When you put down to buy a house or a car and you're sitting with a loan officer, hopefully some of those lessons will come back to you," says Lisa. Through her multi-faceted activities, and investment in alternative education tools, it seems more than likely those lessons will have an impact in her students' lives.

Practical Money Skills would like to commend Lisa Bender for her ongoing efforts and commitment to financial literacy at Southern Garrett High School.

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