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Lessons I Learned From Teaching at Junior Achievement

They say the best way to learn is to teach.  I've always found this to be true.  The process of first understanding something yourself and then understanding how to communicate it to a particular audience solidifies information much better than simply learning it.

For over 10 years, I've volunteered with Junior Achievement (JA) as a classroom guest speaker on various topics.  For several years, Debbie and I joined forces for JA-in-a-Day, a basic primer on several financial topics at the elementary school level.  My favorite JA audience, though, is the high school level.  There's a lot more back and forth in the discussion, making it more fun and more challenging.

The main course I teach for the high schoolers is entrepreneurship.  While I tell them about my experience as a business owner, we also walk through various elements of starting a business of their choosing.  We've "started" a cosmetics manufacturer, a grocery store, an auto repair shop and other ventures in recent years.  I lead them through elements of business such as idea creation, funding, marketing, employees, management and dealing with problems.  While I (and hopefully the kids) have learned plenty through these lessons, I want to focus on two.  One is primarily for me, the other is primarily for them (but always challenges me as well).

Ask Questions... Get Them Talking

I mentioned before that deeper learning comes from understanding how to communicate information to a particular audience.  Even if I knew everything about entrepreneurship, which I don't... including how to spell it, standing in front of a group of 9th - 12th graders and just talking gets painful, mostly for them.  60-90 minutes is a LONG time with no interaction.  The struggle is how to engage a group of young people I've never met.  No one wants to sound stupid and the topic isn't exactly something they've been discussing on social media.  Here are some things I learned to get over the hump, most of which is applicable elsewhere:

  • Not everyone is going to actively engage.  In fact, if 1 out of 5 do, it's a success.
  • Give a brief outline of the topic and areas we may discuss, then
  • Start asking questions
    • What is your idea for a business?  Why?
    • What skills do you have now and what else will you need?
    • How much money will you need and where will you get it?
    • Will you need employees?
    • What will you do when _______ goes wrong?

It can be slow at first, but once the questions get going, there's an almost endless supply of material.  Kids, and adults for that matter, enjoy answering questions as long as they don't feel threatened.  To me, the real balancing act is how much to share up front before starting to ask questions.  This seems to be different with every group and is where flexibility and the art of the presentation comes in.

The Mind Stretching Exercise

To share a secret, this next item is what I want them (and me) to know more than anything about starting a business or doing anything that matters.  If the discussion has gone well, I do this at the end.  If it bogs down, I insert it at a slow point.  I introduce the Mind Stretching Exercise by asking, "In general, would you say things in our world are getting better or worse."  While the answers are mixed, most say things are getting worse.  I then share things like the following with them (some of these are dated):

  • [After asking them to take out their smartphone] You are holding much more computing power than NASA had when putting the first man on the moon.
  • Over the last 20 years, the proportion of people living in extreme poverty has almost been cut in half.
  • Just 200 years ago, 85% of the world population lived in extreme poverty. 20 years ago it was 29%. Today only 9% live in extreme poverty while the majority of people (75%) around the globe live in middle-income countries.
  • Just 7% of the world’s population lived in a free or relatively free society in 1850. Today that number is closer to two-thirds.
  • The inflation-adjusted price of plane travel in the U.S. has fallen by more than half since the late 1970s.
  • The average American now retires at age 62. One hundred years ago, the average American died at age 51.
  • Many others which could be shared to demonstrate how far we've come.

After sharing these tremendous advances which should bring positivity and happiness (traits desperately needed by entrepreneurs), I then ask why do they think we have a general feeling that things are getting worse.  Their answers inevitably lead to social media (and media in general).  We talk about the power of media in its various forms and that bad news sells much better than good.  In my closing comments, I tell them they will be a product of the people they spend time with and the media they consume... so choose wisely.

These classroom visits are always a reminder to me that our view of things can be greatly skewed out of reality depending on what or who is influencing us. Is the world perfect? No. Can we do better? Yes. The real takeaway, though, for those wanting to move forward and improve is that optimism is the only realism.

A Word About JA

Junior Achievement https://www.juniorachievement.org/ has many programs in our schools and communities. They are always in need of volunteers to mentor young people on various topics in a variety of venues.  I recommend giving them a try.  It can be trial and error.  I found spending most of the day with 3rd graders nearly killed me, so I focus on high school instead.  JA, as well as the teachers and students they serve, are very appreciative of their community volunteers.

Any information presented here is general in nature, believed to be reliable as of the date published and is not intended to be and should not be taken as legal, tax, investment or individual financial planning advice. Competent, licensed professionals should be consulted when implementing any kind of financial, estate, tax or investment strategy.

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