Economics teacher Kevin Rutter, winner of the Illinois Teacher of the Year Award, says the cloud of the nation’s recession has a silver lining: It makes his classes on financial literacy more relevant. Rutter is the coordinator for Schurz High’s Finance Academy, in which students learn about economics and prepare for the professional world through job shadowing, internships and college visits. Rutter is the sole finalist from Chicago Public Schools for the 2009-2010 Illinois Teacher of the Year award, given by the Illinois State Board of Education. Candidates are nominated by their schools and residents in the community.
Economics teacher Kevin Rutter says the cloud of the nation’s recession has a silver lining: It makes his classes on financial literacy more relevant. Rutter is the coordinator for Schurz High’s Finance Academy, in which students learn about economics and prepare for the professional world through job shadowing, internships and college visits.
Rutter, who believes the district should promote financial literacy beginning in the elementary years, is the sole finalist from Chicago Public Schools for the 2009-2010 Illinois Teacher of the Year award, given by the Illinois State Board of Education. Candidates are nominated by their schools and residents in the community. The winner will be announced Oct. 24, and will represent Illinois in the National Teacher of the Year awards program. Rutter talked with writer Margaret Rhodes about his overall approach to teaching and the importance of financial education.
What is unique about what you bring to the classroom?
The answer to that is this program [and] our ability to give the kids a different kind of high school experience. We have this small group of kids we work with over a three-year period. We get to know the kids on a different level. We get to know their families. For me, it’s a much richer experience.
Is there any lesson plan that stands out to you as particularly engaging?
We actually have a couple of nationally award-winning projects. One is called the Beige Book. The Federal Reserve puts out a Beige Book, which is a summary of the economic conditions in the United States. So what we do is a mini-version of it: the Portage Park Beige Book. Step one, we go to the local Chamber of Commerce and get introduced to all the local business people. Step two, students get into groups [representing] different sectors—autos or restaurants. Then they go out into the community, take pictures of managers and ask them about what’s going on in their business.
Sometimes our school gets overlooked in the community. These kids are assets, and I don’t think that the local businesses utilize them as much as they should. Part of this [program] is to bridge some of the gap between our school and the local community.
How do you make economics relevant to students’ lives?
It’s all real-world stuff. It’s easy, you know, given the economic situation that we’re in. There’s a lot of good tie-ins from what’s happening in the news and from what we know about adults in Illinois–they just don’t know economics and finance as well as they should. So it’s easy to talk about things that are real—bank accounts and investments and all the things that they should be learning about.
How has the economic recession affected the way you handle your curriculum?
What’s happening in the world gives what I’m saying a little more weight. The kids understand that the economic situation is difficult, unemployment is rising and it’s a competitive world out there. In order to survive and be productive and healthy financially, you have to have an education. We don’t have an Academy of Farming for a reason. We don’t have an Academy of Manufacturing either because those jobs are not going to be happening in the city of Chicago. We’re a professional services academy for a reason—because that is the direction of the economy.
How do you work with students with different abilities?
That’s another big challenge: How do you bridge that gap between those who are excelling and those who are not? We’re part of the Department of College and Careers Preparation, and they will pay for peer tutoring. I can hire five seniors this year, and they will get three to five underclassmen to [tutor]. This is excellent for me because, for instance, the stock market can be a difficult concept to explain. But I’ve had the seniors for three years and they’ve gone through it several times already.
Classroom management is a big issue among teachers. How do you manage your classes?
The very first job that I had was at an alternative high school for kids with social and emotional disorders. One of the things that they taught us, and that was ingrained in me forever, is structure, structure, structure. You have to develop a routine. You have to have a very rigorous way of doing things. Having topics that are “real world” helps. All the things we talk about are things that they’ll be using in their real life.
What can teachers do in their own classrooms to improve schools?
We definitely have to be in tune with what’s happening in their lives in terms of technology. A lot of teachers shy away from using things like the Internet, Wikipedia and cell phones. We can use that instead of running away from those things.
What’s one piece of advice you would give your students?
The cliché one would be, do what you love. But I always tell them there’s the four secrets to life. Number one is to have something to do, because when you don’t have something to do, that’s when people get into stupid things. And have somebody to love, have something to believe in and have something to hope for. I stole that from Lou Holtz, the old Notre Dame coach.