Erika Fix did not aspire to be a teacher. In fact, she could not envision a career speaking in front of others. Then one day she ran into a former high school friend who shared his horrible experience as a student. Erika also recalled the hostile learning environment for both staff and students at their school. That chance conversation with an old friend crystallized into a mission for Erika, a mission founded on the importance of giving kids a safe place to learn. Teaching became her life’s work.
Erika focused on social studies, history and political science at first, but her teaching career took a turn when she was hired by my alma mater, Gladstone High School in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula (U.P.). She would replace the retiring Sue Beranek, who two years prior had started Gladstone’s personal economics course with my financial support and with the executive support of Superintendent Jay Kulbertis. Erika had never heard of such a course. Michigan, like the majority of states, does not mandate financial literacy training, so most teachers (and students) are never exposed to the subject.
Building on the foundation that Jay and Sue implemented in this community of 5,000 people, Erika now conducts two separate personal economics classes spread over four semesters. The course is an elective, making it even more impressive that over 50% of the senior class enrolls in the program each year. The students learn about economic choices, banking and savings, investing, budgeting, taxes and insurance.
The students also learn about funding their college education. As Erika stated recently to an audience of local financial professionals, “I hope now kids realize their career choice might also dictate their college choice. If they want to go into social work, for example, it isn’t economically prudent to go to the most expensive university with any hope of paying off their loans.”
I cannot imagine how daunting it must have been to deliver this difficult content to a group of teenagers. Sue tutored Erika during the transition, and Erika’s love for learning helped.
Knowing the course material is different from truly understanding the content, however. As a true professional committed to her vocation, Erika submitted a grant application to Take Charge Today, run by the University of Arizona, through which she attended a summer training session. “Their curriculum is amazing,” Erika said. “I still use much of it today. It’s very detailed but still fun for the kids.”
In a community that suffers from generational poverty and limited economic opportunity, knowing how to make the right financial choices is an important piece in becoming responsible, confident adults who are less vulnerable to abuse and control.
Learning From Experience
Concurrent with her newly discovered specialty as a personal finance instructor, Erika and her husband were recovering from their experience operating a construction business during the Great Recession. As with many small-business owners at that time, they suffered considerable financial stress keeping up with credit card debt to support their household and business. This made the course less abstract for Erika. “It was really sinking in that kids who had this class might not make the same mistakes, or at least they would make decisions with their eyes wide open.”
Erika became a passionate advocate for financial education as part of the core curriculum for elementary and high school students. Her mission and purpose continue to expand.