When class is a challenge for the teacher, too

This semester, I taught an experimental Economics Concepts class. If you’re not sure what that means, it’s a modified version of our high school’s regular Econ class, designed to be more accessible to students who would probably struggle in that course.

We teach Econ to freshmen here, and it’s typically one of the hardest courses they face. We’re always looking for ways to improve the pass rate, hoping to do it without gutting the course of its content. Hence, my experiment.

Not every student in my class needed this modification — some were placed there just by scheduling happenstance — but for many, econ was clearly going to be a challenge.

For me, the class was a challenge as well.

. . .

Although most of the classes I’ve taught in my 25-year career were on-level classes (Econ, Civil Liberties, Gov, U.S. History, Journalism), for the past few years, my schedule has been heavily weighted toward AP. 

And those classes are, quite honestly, a lot different to teach.

It’s not that AP students are never disruptive, or that they never show up unprepared. Trust me, they do. I teach AP Macro to freshmen, so it’s not surprising when ⅓ to ½ of them haven’t done their homework, and monitoring the constant cell phone usage is a problem.

And it’s not that teaching AP is easier overall. Those classes have their own challenges, like working with deeply frustrated kids (and parents) who are academically or emotionally unprepared for their first truly rigorous class, and who are angry with you when it doesn’t go well.

Plenty of reason for long days and sleepless nights there as well. 

. . .

But in an AP class, even in an AP class for freshmen, most students show up every day ready to learn. They are motivated, even if only by grades. And they are accustomed to doing well at “school.” They know the system, and they buy into its rules.

In my experimental class, I was reminded pretty quickly that this is not normal. I was reminded that motivating a more typical American 14-year-old — who struggles with comprehension, whose family relationships are strained, who isn’t part of the dominant culture, who isn’t inherently interested in buying what I’m selling — is a lot harder. 

Like a young teacher just out of college (who at least has the excuse of naivete), I went into this experiment with passion and the belief that I would miraculously turn all of these kids on to economics. I would write these amazing lesson plans — behavioral economics! simulations! — and it would be great!

I wasn’t prepared for the ubiquitous interruption of TikToks. I wasn’t prepared for the day when a rapper’s death or a Trump tweet would consume most kids’ attention. I wasn’t prepared for kids who couldn’t stay seated, or kids whose personal conflicts occasionally hijacked the classroom culture. 

I knew my students probably wouldn’t do homework, but I was not prepared for kids just opting out of classwork as well. 

The hardest days were the ones where I really thought I’d planned something special, and it flopped. In our first unit, which was about “Scarcity and the Individual,” we were talking about irrational behavior (which I find fascinating), and I gave them a short (and I thought, really interesting) reading from Predictably Irrational, thinking it would spark good discussion. 

They could not have been more bored. So they just didn’t do it. 

And I just watched the minutes tick by, waiting for it to end.

. . .

Over time, though, things quietly improved. 

There were bright spots, like the day when the students quizzed me all hour about credit. They were fascinated by the concept of credit scores and the misleading advertising around buying on credit.

Most of them loved playing Glacier Peak, a virtual business simulation that let them create and run their own fictional enterprises for a few weeks. “Watch me go home and be a nerd and play this at home!” one girl told me.

And they ate up info-graphics. A few weeks ago, I showed my students this map showing the spread of unemployment in the last recession. At first, one of the students literally shouted out: “You’re going to make us look at a map! Why can’t we watch a real movie in this class?” But before long, they were completely sucked in, gasping in shock at all the right places. 

Over time, I also started to realize how much my students were actually getting from the class, even when I felt like we were getting nowhere (or we weren’t getting anywhere fast enough). 

Several parents told me, at conferences, that their kids would come home and grill them about economic concepts and personal finance. “She’s mad at us,” one mom told me, “because she thinks the other kids already know more about budgeting and business and getting a job, and she wants us to share more with her.” 

One mom, whose son was usually silent in class, said her son “talks about the class all the time at home.”

And the kids started to tell me things, too, like how they want to go to college but know that they’ll have to rely on scholarships, and it worries them. Or how their parents have struggled with unemployment. Or what it was like when they lost their food stamps. Or how it feels when the kids around you seem to have it so much easier than you do.

“Everything is just so hard all the time,” one boy told me.

. . .

Yesterday in class, we talked about the education system. The semester is nearly over, and I wanted them to share their honest thoughts on school. Why are they in school for so long? What would make our education system more efficient? How can we change what we do to reach more kids, kids like them?

I wanted them to evaluate education from an economic perspective, but I also wanted to know what I could have done better for them. We want to reach all of our students, but how do we do it when there are so many obstacles?

The students talked about wanting more control over what they learn and fewer required classes — “Why do we have to learn about slope and read boring books?” — but they also acknowledged that 14 year olds might not always make the best choices. 

“They might just take the easiest way out,” one student observed. 

They talked about having smaller classes, where there’s opportunity for everyone to get individual attention. And they talked about relevance — wanting teachers to tie what they’re learning to real life.

Mostly, though, they talked about being heard. Many of my students said, in retrospect, that they liked economics class. Not because they like econ  — one girl asked: Does anyone really LIKE econ? — but because they felt like it was the one class where they got a chance to talk, and where I listened to what they said.

That’s so simple, really, and so frustrating. Right? They liked the class, and they were willing to learn some econ, but only because they believe their experiences, opinions and insights mattered to me. 

All the time I spent pondering how to engage them, and that was it? It’s just so simple, and yet I guess it doesn’t always happen.

The class is ending in a few weeks, and I have mixed feelings. I worry that the class wasn’t challenging enough, that my students didn’t learn enough econ or build solid study skills. I worry that they liked the class because I was too lenient about rules (like the cell phone rule) and not because they were really engaged in learning. The critic in my head tells me I could have done more, should have done more, should have leveraged the relationships to push them harder.

Overall, though, I’m willing to call it a qualified success. I feel like I connected with some students who aren’t sold on school, and I gave them a reason to feel better about it. If I also taught them something about scarcity, cost-benefit analysis and making better long-term decisions, even better. It will have to be enough.

Martha Rush is a teacher, author, curriculum developer, speaker — and occasional blogger. She’s working on her second book, a joint project with Quarter Zero to bring lean entrepreneurship to more high school students. Visit NeverBore.org or like the NeverBore LLC Facebook group for more information on Martha’s projects. @MarthaSRush #beatboredom