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I’ve fallen in love with JA because it gives kids the skills to participate in their community.


Image caption: Elizabeth Hughes, 1st Grade Teacher, Maplewood Elementary

Elizabeth Hughes has a unique perspective not many other Junior Achievement Champions can claim. She has experienced JA as a student, facilitated it as a volunteer, and welcomed it into her classroom as an educator. This rare triple-feat gives you an idea of the passion Elizabeth has for helping children succeed.

As an educator in the North Kansas City school district at Maplewood Elementary, Elizabeth spends her days with first graders. “I fell in love with teaching them to read and watching them form into little humans,” Elizabeth shared. In fact, inspiring kids has always been a no-brainer for the educator. “It’s always been there. I have always loved kids. It’s never phased me to teach.”

Part of her love for the field comes from strong community ties her family built in the town they lived in during her early years. “I’ve lived all over west coast. I did elementary school in a really small town.” Elizabeth continued, “My dad was the PTO president. We were on a first name basis with the principal. My 4th grade teacher babysat us. That was the type of town we lived in. I want that in my classroom. I want us to be a family.” Over the years, Elizabeth has come to see the importance of empowering her students to build their character as they work on their reading, writing, and arithmetic. “My real passion is helping tiny humans know how to be kind to each other and how to participate in the community.”

This drive to set kids on a positive path is what draws Elizabeth to Junior Achievement. “I’ve fallen in love with JA because it gives kids the skills to participate in their community.” She explained that hitting mandated testing benchmarks isn’t her only goal, “When they are six or seven, it’s not always developmentally appropriate for all students to be able to read or write at the standards set, because we’re all created differently. But I can make sure everyone is kind and knowledgeable about their communities. Junior Achievement helps me do that. No matter where kids are at academically, they can grasp this.”

In her own youth, Elizabeth’s middle school brought Junior Achievement to 7th grade history classes. While the program left a big impression on young Elizabeth, details about a different class’ experience are what she remembers most. “I was really bummed because I didn’t get the history teacher’s class whose JA volunteer was from Costco,” she said laughing. She explained how the volunteer coordinated a shadowing program for his group. “They got to take a day off from school and actually go to Costco. They were paired up with people form the different divisions and they got name tags. I was so jealous!”

During her time at Mid-American Nazarene University, Elizabeth was able to reconnect with Junior Achievement as part of her degree program. “JA had a partnership with Mid-America, and they sent us out to be volunteers. I led a second-grade session.” This opportunity gave Elizabeth a valuable connection when it came time to earn student-teaching hours. “My cooperating teacher had been doing JA for years. I met her because I was her Junior Achievement volunteer one time.” After finishing her student-teaching and graduating, Elizabeth advocated for Junior Achievement in her first position. “It wasn’t a part of our school’s programming. I brought it to my old school and now I’ve moved schools and brought it here too.”

The community-building aspect of Junior Achievement hits on a priority for the teacher. She shared the difficulties her students faced at her previous school. “My old school was low income, Title 1 in Kansas City, Kansas. There was a lot of trauma. Our kids are experiencing more and more trauma in their little lives.” Building psychological safety and trust is key to creating a positive learning environment. “My classroom needs to be their safe spot. A place where they feel loved and know no matter what they do, I’ll still love them. But they are held accountable for their behavior. There are consequences, just like in society.”

Elizabeth sees the cumulative nature of Junior Achievement and the potential it holds to build cumulative knowledge year after year. “In first grade, we learn about things. Goods and services. In the second year its production…making things. Then in the third-year kids learn what to do with the money they earn selling the things they’ve made.” This progression aligns well with real-world development. “The 3rd grade program comes at just the right time when many kids are starting to earn money. The conversations about saving, earning, and spending appropriately are really cool.” Elizabeth also values the goal-setting skills it teaches students, especially given our instant gratification world. “If they want something big, they need to think about the steps to get there. We are not seeing that modeling in homes as much because of the credit industry. I want to teach them that if you want something, sometimes you have to wait for it.”

Elizabeth wants her students to leave the first grade with tools and skills that will see them through the rest of their development, and Junior Achievement helps her with that. “I want them to be respectful and responsible. If we can own up to our mistakes and be gracious with ourselves and others, whether we’re winning or losing, people will respond well to you.” Elizabeth knows that by partnering with Junior Achievement, she is preparing her students for the real world. “My goal has always been for them to leave my classroom knowing how to be kind, how to problem solve, and how to be contributing members of society.”

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