Practical Education

“Are you going to teach us how to do taxes?”

The question caught me off guard.  Taxes belong in a life-skills or applied mathematics course, not English.  However, I followed her logic and addressed her question.  We were talking about writing resumes (as part of their career research project), and in her mind she associated one adult life-skill with the other.

No, I’m not going to teach how to do taxes.  I don’t even do my own taxes.  I send all my W2’s and other paperwork off to an accountant who makes sense of all our relocating and student loans for me.  I said as much to my students, to which they responded, “What’s a W2?”

And therein lies the crux of their inquires.  They know they don’t even know the basics.  They know there’s a world of ambiguous “adult responsibilities” waiting for them down the road, and they know that traditional education leaves many of these responsibilities unaddressed.  Sure, we all had to figure it out and we did OK, but I get why they’re asking questions.  Adult life can be an intimidating prospect.

We teach them academics.  We teach them how to survive college, pick a major, write a research paper, and form good study skills.  In my good moments, I also teach them critical thinking skills, questioning content, forming arguments, and defending a stance based on textual evidence.  I get the gears turning and force them to exercise the muscle that is their brain.  What I do is awesome, and it’s important.

But what about those basic adult responsibilities that don’t fall nicely into the academic curriculum, such as writing resumes, doing taxes, and balancing a checkbook?  Where do they learn that stuff?

My students are hungry for that kind of information.  I can’t speak for all teenagers in this.  Honestly, I can’t even speak for all of my current students, but enough of them are asking the questions to make the topics worth discussing.  They’re trying to wrap their brains around what it will mean for them to be an adult, how to live without parents or teachers holding their hands, paying their bills, or putting food on the table.

When I tell them college professors won’t always remind them about assignments before they’re due or won’t always ask for a rough draft of a paper before they turn in the final draft, my students ask why college professors are so mean.  It’s not about being mean, I say.  It’s about adult expectations and adult responsibility.  College students are legally adults, so professors should expect an adult work ethic from them.  It’s up to the student to figure out how to live up to that standard.  It’s up to me to prepare them for that level of personal accountability.

When we first discussed writing resumes, most of them thought resumes and job applications were the same thing.  I had to explain that a resume is a unique document created by the individual, not a form to fill out.  They didn’t know what a cover letter was, either, and yet, someday they’ll apply for a job asking for a resume and a cover letter.  This is probably the most life-applicable thing I teach, but it isn’t common in most English classrooms.  Most students don’t get lessons like this, and I still feel like I don’t get to do enough.

I wish I had time to bring in my full “professionalism” unit to this class so that we could go through the mock interviews, discuss workplace responsibilities, and write an appropriate  “two-weeks-notice” letter.  I think these kids would eat that stuff up.  They’re already asking question after question – I wish I had a more structured way to give them what they want to know.

Reading their career research papers has been interesting, though.  I gave them permission to include a personal reflection in the conclusion of the paper, and about half of them have said that after researching the career, they no longer think it’s the right job for them.  There’s not enough people interaction, or there’s too much people interaction.  It’s not as hands-on as they thought, or it’s more focused on math, science, etc., than they had realized.  The other half say they’re even more excited about their career choice after researching it.

So were the excited students more successful in the project than their less-enthusiastic counterparts?

Absolutely not.  This project may have just saved some of my students from declaring the wrong major when they entered college.  It forced them to think about the day-to-day grind of adulthood, and some realized that they want to do something else instead.  I’d call that very successful, even if they now have more questions than answers.

That’s what it’s about, I suppose.  Questions.  Actively pursuing information.  If they’re willing to ask the questions now, they’ll be able to hunt down the answers as necessary, when the time comes.  The fact that they want to know now what responsibility and professionalism looks like means that they probably won’t struggle too much when they need to be responsible and professional themselves.  They’re already asking the right questions.

We figured it out.  So will they.

16 thoughts on “Practical Education

  1. So much to teach and so little time to do it. Each student has needs and yet we cannot handle all. One size does not fit all. Taxes, and so many other topics are baffling. Today I still let others do them for me.


  2. I completely agree with you. I am currently a college student working on my Bachelors in Business Administration, I can see the need for practical life experience beyond the textbook. I just began a blog about a co-op experience, and felt that you could appreciate what is happening. My classmates and I, as part of our curriculum, work for six months in a real company with real responsibilities. It also gives us an opportunity to see what a desired field would be like from an inside perspective. I love your idea about teaching younger students what to expect, and how to expect life to be like in the real world. If I had this project, I probably would have saved a LOT of time. Thank you for caring.


  3. I do my husbands and my own taxes. A good understanding of the English language is indeed a big help. In fact, if the people who design our tax forms were better in English our lives would be a lot easier. If you can ‘t understand the tax system you will never know for sure just how badly we are being s—-ed.


  4. When I had my senior exit interview in college, my advisor asked me if there was anything about my courses that I wish had been different. Having been a double-major, I was close with my advisor, as we were always trying to find ways to make my classes fit together and still get me graduated on time. So I looked at him and said that while I appreciated the Introduction class I had to take my freshman year, which introduced us to various career paths and let us speak with those who had our degree and were working in the field, I would have much preferred a life applications course. Teach me about taxes, about applying to/leaving jobs, about 401k’s, about insurance and wills and all the other things you’re just expected to figure out. THAT is a course that would have been SO much more beneficial for me. It’s so obvious that the need for this kind of course is there, and yet, few are willing to touch on these subjects. Why ON EARTH, in this day and age, should we just expect everyone to figure it out on their own?!? It seems so silly to me.


  5. When I taught standard English 12 (before being lovingly thrust into the woes of journalism), I always included a career unit which encompassed the entire process of the job search. We started with the basics of completing an application for Subway (complete with math!), which always surprised me when students did it incorrectly. Students then created a resume and cover letter before dressing up for an “interview” with either me or my collab teacher. We ended with a thank you note, a career research paper, and the completion of a budget using a template. This unit was much more important to my stand level seniors than reading Beowulf or Macbeth (we did that too), and many of them used these skills soon after graduating. Now if only they’d make an English 12 for non-college bound seniors…


  6. Funny, one of my students mentioned wanting tax info as well. It’s an interesting question, and it does require consideration for sure. I know a lot of schools are moving towards a career academy model where students have more hands-on experience and are able to have more real-world courses and credits.
    There’s a definite perk to assignments that they can see in areas outside of school. The best project my AP students have done all year was a mock trial. I’ve never seen dedication sustained for so long.


  7. If you fill out your own tax forms, you have to be able to decipher difficult sentences. These sentences appeared in the instructions for filling out Form 990 for 2013. Basically, it was asking me to check either “Yes” or “No” on Line 2 in Part IV. And I quote:

    “Line 2. Answer “Yes,” if any of the following are satisfied.
    A section 501(c)(3) organization met the 331/3% support test of
    the regulations under sections 509(a)(1) and 170(b)(1)(A)(vi),
    checks the box on Schedule A (Form 990 or 990-EZ), Part II,
    line 13, 16a, or 16b, and received from any one contributor,
    during the year, contributions of the greater of $5,000 (in
    money or property) or 2% of the amount on Form 990, Part VIII,
    line 1h. An organization filing Schedule B can limit the
    contributors it reports on Schedule B using this
    greater-than-$5,000/2% threshold only if it checks the box on
    Schedule A (Form 990 or 990-EZ), Part II, line 13, 16a, or 16b.
    A section 501(c)(3) organization did not meet the 331/3%
    support test of the regulations under sections 509(a)(1)/170(b)
    (1)(A)(vi), and received during the year contributions of $5,000
    or more from any one contributor.
    A section 501(c)(7), 501(c)(8), or 501(c)(10) organization
    received, during the year, (a) contributions of any amount for
    use exclusively for religious, charitable, scientific, literary, or
    educational purposes, or the prevention of cruelty to children or
    animals, or (b) contributions of $5,000 or more not exclusively
    for such purposes from any one contributor.
    Any other organization that received, during the year,
    contributions of $5,000 or more from any one contributor.”

    I think it does take an English teacher to teach students how to follow the logic in these sentences. Or better yet, the English teacher can teach future writers of IRS instruction books how to make their directions easier to understand.


  8. I love that your students are genuinely curious and trying hard to understand what they need to do once they get to that realm of “adulthood” they only hear about but never experienced. It’s great that they think about this stuff, and don’t believe they’ll be coasting along forever. It’s wonderful to hear schools like the one you teach in give room for that kind of discussion. It’s needed. I had a “career ed” class in my last two years of high school, but my teachers weren’t very good at teaching us much of anything. I learned to write CV’s and cover letters using Google. Your students sound like they have good heads on their shoulders, and that means they’ll make it through all right.


  9. While I appreciate (and can’t imagine) all of the material teachers are asked to fit into one school year, it does seem like there should be more room for the practical. I think it’s more of a systemic issue than a classroom one…I remember when I was a kid we had a “check writing course” and I knew how to write my own checks in 4th or 5th grade. My younger siblings (9 and 12) can’t even sign their names in cursive! Thanks for posting. I wish I had a teacher that had us truly explore our career ideas.

    Alexa —


  10. It is such a hard transition from High School to College. If students aren’t already detail oriented and on task, moving into the College scene will quickly become overwhelming. I agree with others that knowledge on finances, specifically credit cards and loans, are of utmost importance. Seems like I, as well as many of my classmates, were sucked into debt due to easily obtainable credit cards on campus. Great post.


  11. I did just graduate high school be exact a year ago from last weekend. but i do agree that although some teachers them self’s do not know how to do their own taxes, they should at least bring it up to the students and let them know that will be part of their adult life. when i first had to do my first taxes this past march I was in complete shock of where to go what to bring and how it effected me. Many may say parents should teach this as well i completely agree yet some teens do not have parents in there life or just a bad home situation. They may have no idea how to do taxes may not even do them. Then be punished for it, when they are not even educated on the subject. Is not school all about education? I just think they should take a little bit more consideration in at least teachers helping students get ready for the real life.


  12. Dear Mrs Roberson,
    I have just launched my blog and it touches the issue you bring up in this post. It should not be the solely the teacher’s role to instruct teenagers about the basics of practical living. I encourage women (read:mothers), by giving them talking points, to talk to their children about money and making informed decisions. Check out my blog,Financial Advice from Mother to Daughter, .


  13. Life skills are so very important but so often ignored, or over looked. Even the NEA has released a statement saying, “Kids are learning to do school,” but do not have the necessary skill sets needed outside of the classroom. Appreciate your point of view and your talent.


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