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A Lesson In Economics

Monday’s lesson in 12th-grade economics was on the federal deficit. My co-teacher reviewed with the students how and what the government currently spends money on, how and when the government raises money. “What happens,” she asked, “if you’re spending more than you make?”

Our students knew the answer from our personal finance unit from a few weeks ago: “You’re in debt!”

“So what should you do when you’re in debt?” she continued.

“Stop spending,” one student offered.

Another suggested, “Get more money!”

Conversations like this one remind me of why I’m excited and challenged by teaching: The economy is both much simpler and much more complicated than can easily fit in a 70-minute class. My co-teacher and I walk the fine line daily between simplicity for the ease of learning and complexity for the sake of accuracy.

Our class discussion continued as students came up with the different programs and ways the government spends money. They hypothesized how government revenue would be affected by a weaker economy. They made the connection that during difficult times, the government would need to spend more to support those most vulnerable and affected by changing economic conditions. Yet we still didn’t have a consensus — should the government continue to spend more? Cut spending? Raise taxes?

Before the end of class, students were asked write about how the federal deficit would affect them. As I introduced the writing prompt, I shared what I read about in the New York Times earlier that day. I told them that Mayor Bloomberg released a spreadsheet that listed all the schools in New York City, listed the number of teachers, and how many would lose their jobs. I expressed to them that if I had to answer the writing prompt, I would definitely make the connection between the federal deficit, and the budgets at all levels of government. They asked questions about the cuts and the spreadsheet and I answered.

While most of the students in class were writing, one of them asked.  “So are you worried, Ms. Lawit?”

“Well,” I replied. “Yes and no.”

She waited for me to continue. “From what I’ve read, I’m not nervous that I’ll lose my job, but I am worried that other teachers here might,” I said. “I’m also nervous about how it will affect our school.”

She considered this before asking, “So what do we do?”

I turned the question back to her. She thought for a moment, before replying. “Learn more. Then we have to get loud.”

I smiled and left her to continue her writing.

As a teacher, I am a budgeter of time and have to prioritize. I wonder if we should have spent more time on this with the students. I’m often conflicted about how to balance my views on education policy with my day-to-day work in the classroom. I view them as separate, although they certainly inspire each other. Like the economy, education is complicated and there is a fine line we walk between simplicity for the ease of politicking, and complexity with the aim progress.

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