Author: Erika O'Shea
Published: Tuesday, 25 May 2021
Katie Dearing creates a thriving economy in her third-grade classroom with the help of Junior Achievement. The educator, and Junior Achievement alumni, has guided young minds at Oak Park-Carpenter Elementary in the Shawnee Mission school district for six years. Katie knows the education landscape in this part of town well – her own primary and secondary years were spent in the Shawnee Mission school district. After graduating high school, she went on to pursue an undergraduate degree in education and a graduate degree in curriculum and instruction from Northwest Missouri State in Maryville.
Katie’s heart was set on teaching from an early age. “I loved school as a kid. My poor sister got to play the ‘student’ to my ‘teacher’. I’d make worksheets and go up to the ‘whiteboard’.” The presence of inspiring role-models was another factor in Katie’s eventual career path. “My teachers influenced me a lot. I had teachers I really connected with who made me love this profession.” As she settled into her career, her goal was clear: motivate kids today to love learning as much as she did in her youth. Katie’s favorite part of teaching is watching her student’s development over the course of the year. “I love third grade, for both them and me. It’s a year of growing and learning. They come in so little and they leave so big.” She continued, “The amount they learn, how they blossom as individuals, and their maturity level at the end is amazing.”
Katie’s favorite subject to teach is Math. Her passion for engagement shines as she shares how she makes the tough topic interesting for her students. “I love using manipulatives and hands-on play. When we do geometry and angles, kids use straws and bend them. For lines, segments, and rays they get spaghetti sticks and marshmallows to work with. Cheez-its are perfect for teaching area and perimeter because they’re square.” She also incorporates real-world learning into her curriculum through a classroom economy program. “It’s our reward system.” Katie explained, “The kids earn ‘Dearing Dollars’ and they can buy things from a small store.” The currency comes complete with Katie’s face on the front.
For Katie, Junior Achievement’s 3rd grade curriculum is a perfect fit for what she hopes to teach kids in her mini marketplace. “The third grade JA program is geared to money, business, and entrepreneurship. It adds another layer to what I’m already trying to teach them at a more basic level.” The synergy between her classroom economy and Junior Achievement helps reinforce important concepts at a critical age. “Learning about spending and saving is huge. At first, the kids want to spend all the Dearing Dollars they get.”
But the class quickly learns that sometimes it is wiser to save for a while and have more cash on hand. “I do an auction and a garage sale halfway through the year. Some kids have saved ridiculous amounts, but some don’t have any money saved. That’s when I see it finally start to click.” Katie’s students use the core skills they learn during their JA program to set prices during the garage sale. “During JA, they create a menu and have to decide what to sell it for. Junior Achievement takes the things I’m trying to connect for them and pushes it further.”
The impact of JA volunteers goes far beyond teaching students about dollars and cents. “Having five weeks of lessons opens their mind. The exposure makes connections. For example, when we talk about communities and the differences between urban, suburban, and rural, they’ll say ‘we did that with our buildings!’” Katie said, referencing a JA activity which has students build small models of businesses and intentionally place them on a map.
Image caption: During their JA session, Mrs. Dearing's students got to plan and build their own city!
The value of JA volunteers extends beyond Ms. Dearing’s pretend-store and into the real world as they grow. “We teach cursive and them knowing how to use their name as a signature on a check or credit card receipt has a huge impact,” Katie shared. She continued, “As they get older, they start to get allowances. I love hearing them say ‘I was able to save my money to…’” For many of her students, their JA experience is the first time they learn about the role money plays in life. “Some kids have zero concept of money at this age. Things just appear.” Junior Achievement provides important insights to deepen kids’ understanding of the world. “Now when they go to a restaurant, they’re going to think differently. They are going to know the people serving them are at a job. They’ll understand it is how those people earn their money.”
Katie recognizes having Junior Achievement experience at this age can play a big role in steps towards independence. “We talk a lot about the things you can do at different ages, like voting at 18. We talk about the things they may be able to do on their own right now. Going to the movies, a park, a baseball game, even visiting concession stands.” Helping her kids develop a sense of the lifecycle of a dollar bill is important to Katie. “They need to understand that when you go places, even if you’re being given money by your parents, it came from somewhere. It doesn’t grow on trees. Your parents had to do something to earn that.”
The knowledge that is shared during Junior Achievement sessions is important, but just as important is the visibility of JA volunteers in the classroom. Katie explained, “It’s important for kids to see community members involved in education. It’s crucial that they see education is more than the four walls of this building.” The value of this exposure goes both ways. “It’s also good for volunteers to see what happens inside the four walls of a school.” Katie also encourages other educators to welcome JA volunteers to their classrooms. “It gives a big-pictures outlook on so many parts of life. If we didn’t do Junior Achievement, I’m not sure these kids would understand money before taking a high school elective class.”
May is a bittersweet time for Katie, as she says goodbye to the kids she’s spent so much time with over the past months. “I love the beginning of the year and getting to know them. I am such a relationship person. The end of the year is more love-hate. I love seeing how much they’ve grown, but I hate saying goodbye.” To all the third graders this year she offers these words of wisdom: “Don’t give up! Trust your gut and work hard. Persevering through challenges is a life-skill to perfect.” She emphasizes the power of learning and growing from mistakes, “Keep an open mind and always keep learning. I’m an adult. I’m not perfect and I don’t expect perfection. If you try your best, that is what matters.”