Teacher Talk with Leola Rutherford
To say that Leola Rutherford is passionate about personal finance is an understatement. This sixth grade teacher at Girdwood K-8 school outside of Anchorage not only teaches her students all about personal finance, she began sharing her financial wisdom and NGPF curriculum with other teachers across the state, and is an active participant in the legislative process to make personal finance a graduation requirement in her state. Read on to learn her motivating story.
Leola, a fifth-generation Alaskan, grew up in a house where money was a taboo subject. Luckily she had a semester of Economics in High School that included some basic but valuable personal finance. Since she raised her family in a town that did not provide a personal finance curriculum, Leola and her husband taught their children by “walking the walk” (they lived in a duplex so that their home generated income, and lived with one car) and “talking the talk” (Rich Dad, Poor Dad was bedtime reading at their house.) She is right to be proud of their sons, who in their twenties, have paid off their student debt, own cars and homes, and have Roth IRAs.
The greatest gift my parents gave me was their financial independence. I’ve been able to help the next generation because my parents saved and invested wisely so they are not dependent on my brother or myself in their retirement. I’m eternally grateful that my parents made different choices and saved for my college education from the day I was born.
Tell us about your school
Girdwood PreK-8 School is located in a small ski resort town of two thousand people an hour’s drive away from Anchorage–Alaska’s biggest city. We are a close knit community of outdoor enthusiasts and independent thinkers who cherish living in a valley surrounded by seven glaciers on the edge of the Chugach–our nation’s third largest National Forest. Despite the fact that most people are seasonal or remote workers, we are not a transient population. The “new kid” in class arrived a year or two ago and when most teachers retire, they become regular substitutes or part time aides in the school.
Being a resort community, affordable housing for working families and income inequality are our biggest challenges. Girdwood school is a vital part of our community hosting a popular assortment of community events, fundraisers, movie nights, and after school classes for both adults and children. The school has the only gym and there is no movie theater, bank, or hardware store in our small town.
I’m the solo 6th Grade teacher at Girdwood School where there is only one teacher per grade level. I teach all the core subjects plus I’m also the Middle School Debate Coach and Coding Club Advisor. We wear many hats and rely upon volunteers to support our small school of about 200 students Preschool through 8th grade.
What are your students’ favorite classroom activities?
FinCap Fridays! Who doesn’t love playing a Kahoot!? The bonus is having Yanely as a regular virtual guest to help us learn about current events in a fun and engaging way. Each day, we begin our Morning Meeting with one of NGPF’s Questions of the Day. Each afternoon, we return from lunch to one of the “So Expensive” or FinCap Friday features. It’s a great tradition. At this point, I think my students would revolt if we didn’t talk about finance at least once each day.
Leola also mentioned how motivating the NGPF contests are for her students, and the students love playing Arcade games too! She keeps a leaderboard for the games in her classroom, and students can play the games as a reward for finishing lessons early.
When/how do you know you have gotten an important concept through to your students? Would you like to give an example?
I know my students have mastered an important financial literacy skill when they can make connections to their own lives. For example, when we were talking about tax refunds on tax filing day, I knew we’d mastered budgeting when one student explained that “because all money is fungible, we should treat our tax refunds like any money you’d earned–keep to your 50-30-20 budget and don’t forget to pay yourself first.” “Yeah,” another student responded, “my older sister said she was going to buy a new car and I told her she’d be better off buying a used car and to check Blue Book first. I warned her about taking out car loans and how the dealer might try and sell you something more than you can afford.” And this financial advice was coming from an eleven-year-old? Yep. That’s when you know you’re making a difference. “I like personal finance,” one sixth-grader explained, “because it’s something I know I’m going to need in my real life.”
Leola also explained to me how she establishes a society within her classroom. There are three branches of “government” in her society. Students use money that they design themselves. She even has students rent their desks. They can buy insurance to protect themselves. They can also buy desks to rent to other students for some passive income. They even have market days and invite others in. It sounds pretty amazing! The students are making “real-life” decisions daily. And they share their new knowledge with their families too.
Tell us about your NGPF experience
Which professional development opportunities have you participated in?
I’ve benefited from the the whole smorgasbord of NGPF PD options: I’ve leveled up to Senior status every year loading up on one-hour virtual and self-paced workshops, taken enough Certification Courses to become a Distinguished Scholar, filled my shelves with books recommended by NGPF guest speakers, begun listening to podcasts in my classroom, attended all the NGPF Camps, and even went to the Jump$tart Conference in Atlanta, all thanks to NGPF.
I’m always surprised by how quickly things change with the advent of online banking, social media, and apps for investing. I am acutely aware at how outdated my “wisdom” is and thankful for the NGPF curriculum, certification courses, and timely Questions of the Day to help me keep up to date with this rapidly evolving field.
Can you fill us in on an example of how you have incorporated something you learned from a PD session into your lesson plans?
The most impactful certification course I’ve taken so far was Tim’s Behavioral Economics. Morgan Housel’s “Psychology of Money,” was my missing piece. It helped me understand the cognitive biases behind why we often don’t put all our great personal finance lessons into real-life practice. Thanks to an NGPF grant, I now have a class set of Morgan Housel’s book for our 6th-Grade Socratic Seminars. I knew I’d hit on a winner when I had to buy extra copies of “The Psychology of Money” because students kept asking for a second copy of the book to take home so their parents would stop stealing their textbook to read.
What NGPF resources are your favorites/do you rely on the most for your lesson planning?
Every morning I look forward to the daily emails I get from NGPF because they come with ready-made slides on relevant current event topics related to finance. These just-in-time resources never disappoint and are the perfect way for our class to start our Morning Meeting each day.
How did you first get started with your advocacy work?
I was embarrassed to learn that Alaska ranked 46th in the nation when it came to guaranteeing access to Personal Finance education. NGPF’s annual report helped put the importance of financial literacy in perspective. Armed with quantifiable statistics, I lobbied our School Board and found a receptive audience eager to prioritize financial literacy in their “College and Career Readiness” mission. This January, personal finance was reinstated as a graduation requirement. It is still not a stand-alone semester course, but integrating financial literacy into existing required Economics or Consumer Skills courses is an important first step in ensuring equity of access to personal finance education statewide.
Where did you go for guidance?
Inspired by NGPF reports of what a difference individual educators were making in getting their own states to pass personal finance legislation, I resolved to put Mission 2030 for Alaska on the top of my bucket list of things to do before I retire. I wrote to every legislator I had any connection with. Having had a “previous life” in politics before becoming a classroom teacher I knew the power that a single passionate voice could have. I resolved to be that person and share the personal finance success story of my own students.
Please fill us in on what you have been fighting for and share your successes.
Undaunted by a lack of response to my first attempts, I became more active in our teacher’s union and doubled my local and statewide lobbying efforts. We once again have a bi-partisan coalition government ruling the majority in both our State House and Senate. The promise for change is on the horizon and things that once were labled “been there, done that,” are now getting new life and attention.
Locally, the ball really started rolling when our local School Board hired a new Superintendent and Financial Literacy was reinstated as a graduation requirement in our district as part of their “College and Career Readiness” efforts. Finally, School Board members, Senators, and Representatives were starting to return my calls and emails.
On the state legislative level, first Representative Ruffridge agreed to sponsor legislation in the House and then I got a call from Senator Wielechowski wanting my input on financial literacy legislation he was introducing. It was a humbling experience to be the only “invited testimony” when SB99 was introduced. Then, during the public comment period, a host of testimonials and letters of support came rolling in. Current and former students, parents, fellow teachers, business leaders, Anchorage School Board Members and our Superintendent have all voiced their support for making a semester of personal finance a graduation requirement in Alaska. Tim Ranzetta also wrote a moving letter affirming NGPF’s commitment to free personal finance curriculum and quality professional development.
Last week, SB99 passed Senate Education with unanimous consent. Next step is a hearing before Senate Finance, then on to the Senate floor, and over to the House. SB99 is still a long way from getting passed into law, but we are hopeful that every high school student in Alaska will soon be guaranteed access to a personal finance education.
Here is Leola’s message to her fellow educators:
“Financial Literacy for All” is a cause worth fighting for. My plea to any of my fellow educators is to take action. Dare to go beyond the four walls of your own classroom. If you want to make a difference in a child’s life, if you want to leave a legacy you can be proud of, don’t hesitate. Share your own NGPF success story today. Your voice needs to be heard.
About the Author
Beth Tallman entered the working world armed with an MBA in finance and thoroughly enjoyed her first career working in manufacturing and telecommunications, including a stint overseas. She took advantage of an involuntary separation to try teaching high school math, something she had always dreamed of doing. When fate stepped in once again, Beth jumped on the opportunity to combine her passion for numbers, money, and education to develop curriculum and teach personal finance at Oberlin College. Beth now spends her time writing on personal finance and financial education, conducts student workshops, and develops finance curricula and educational content. She is also the Treasurer of Ohio Jump$tart Coalition for Personal Financial Literacy.
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