I got schooled by a bunch of nine year olds

This semester, I went back to school, working directly with students to help them understand the benefits of further education, entrepreneurship, and banking. I did this with Junior Achievement Ireland (JAI), an organisation which my employer (HubSpot) recently got involved with through our charity arm. We directed funds towards this initiative as it lets us work directly with children in disadvantaged areas to make meaningful improvements. JAI currently work with over 550 schools across Ireland, the majority of which are DEIS schools, a label which signifies the school is in an area of significant economic or educational disadvantage.

When I saw this opportunity to volunteer, I jumped at the chance. In my opinion, working directly with at-risk children in a school in a disadvantaged area is pretty much at the top of the list when it comes to reasonably low effort with maximum impact on local communities.

JAI has a mix of courses (with curriculums and material provided for the volunteers), but they all basically boil down to covering three themes:

1. Stay in school and complete your Leaving Cert
2. Foster a healthy interest for STEM subjects
3. Figure out your passion, finish school, then either go to college or find an apprenticeship

Hmmm 🤔

What I taught

The course that I was teaching was designed for nine and ten-year-olds, and was called Our City. During the five classes, most around forty minutes in length, we learned about

  • City Zones — how they influence what sort of buildings are present in certain areas of a city
  • City Planners — and how they decide where each zone will be
  • Owning a business — how to decide who to hire, how to set prices, how to encourage people to visit and how to keep customers
  • Advertising — what tricks advertisers use to get people’s attention, how to make an effective advertisement
  • Banking — Savings vs Borrowings, the evils of interest, credit cards, and general online privacy and safety

Again, these are nine and ten-year-olds. When I was that age I was struggling to keep watercress alive in cotton wool.

For each class, we had at least one interactivity activity. My favorite was the City Planners week, when we all became city planners of a town, made and decorated buildings and businesses out of cardboard, and then had to decide where to place them on a large map which was broken into zones.

The city was officially named Savage City, by Martha. Martha also became the proprietor of the Savage Bank earlier in the day, a parallel to Ireland’s housing crisis which I think was lost on the students.

Learning about interest rates

I was consistently amazed by how capable the students were. During the last week, we spent a lot of time talking about interest rates, how savings accumulate, and how taking out loans can easily cause a spiral of debt. Not only did the students understand the subject matter, but they were able to do the calculations on worksheets and come to the independent conclusion that saving for a holiday to Spain, in a year, was better than taking out a loan, and going to Spain now. Take that, Walter Mischel!

What did the kids get out of it?

From chatting to the students and their teacher, as well as understanding JAI’s aims, there was one primary benefit that students got from this course — an understanding of how what we learn in school can be applied in life.

To be completely blunt — many DEIS schools are struggling with a student body who are influenced by people close to them who don’t see education as something worth pursuing. When speaking with a relative who works with at-risk youth in another area of Dublin, he told me that a real danger is students dropping out because they hear that they can make unrealistic amounts of money doing odd jobs, or taking part in illegal activity.

The Our City course takes a whole mix of topics they were learning about in school and makes concrete connections between further study of those topics and success in later life. Each session discusses a set of jobs or community roles, and ends by asking the question: “If you wanted to do this job after you finish school, what might you need to do? How would we do that?”

For example — in week three, we all started our own restaurant, figured out prices which allowed us to be profitable based on market research, made hiring decisions, and discussed how to promote our new business. At the end of the class, I asked: “So, if you wanted to run your own restaurant after you finish Secondary School, what skills might be useful?” I got a whole host of answers, with the primary ones being “Cooking”, and “Maths”. When I asked the students how they might improve those skills, they answered “Learn them in school, and practice” — without any prompting from me.

They also got the opportunity to hear from somebody “in business” about how much they enjoy their job, and how school influenced their career. They seemed almost starstruck when we were chatting about how my day-to-day works — and I didn’t even tell them about the endless free snacks!

Dissecting an advertisement for a rock band

What did I get out of it?

I’ve always enjoyed teaching — one of my jobs during college was being a tutor, giving grinds, and teaching both at-risk and high-performing children. So I was fairly sure that I’d enjoy this experience. But what truly stood out this time, was a feeling of making a difference in these student’s lives. A hugely gratifying moment was at the start of week three, when the students entered the classroom, and one of them (Alex) whispered “yes” under his breath when he saw me.

It also gave me a unique chance to get involved with my local community more. I’ve been living in Stoneybatter for nearly five years now, but my community engagement has basically been limited to getting to know all of the staff in the various coffee shops, restaurants, and farmers markets. Not any more!

If you volunteer, how can you be successful?

So — I hope that I’ve convinced you to take part in a Junior Achievement program in the coming semester (they’ve got world-wide chapters, you can check them out here). If you do, I’ve got a few tips for how to be most successful.

  1. Contact your teacher as early as you can, and set up a quick 15-minute in-person catchup. You want to find out how big the class is, if there are any students who need extra attention or support, and you want to get buy-in from the teacher for your activities. I’d recommend also asking the teacher to handle grouping up the students for activity work, as they know the class dynamic better than you’ll be able to intuit.
  2. Prep each class to death. Two days before giving the class, I’d read the plan for that lesson, highlight important sections in the guidebook, and then write a condensed version of the lesson out. This takes no longer than half an hour. Then, the night before the lesson, I’d re-read over both documents, and the morning of the lesson I’d do the same again. This sounds like a lot of repetitive work, but it means that you won’t have to keep pausing to read ahead while teaching.
  3. Primary school isn’t much like what I remember. You still have full authority and the ability to ask for silence at any moment (my preferred method is loudly saying ”All eyes on me” and then staying quiet until they’ve got the message), but student interaction is highly encouraged. You’ll get some absolutely mad comments and answers, so be prepared to use your best bantering abilities to bring the topic back to where you want it to be.
  4. Enjoy it! You’ve prepped, you’ve got control of the class, and you have an authority figure backing you up. The kids will be super excited to meet you and learn from you. Have fun, and they will too!
Some of the class showing off their certifications