By Sue Kern-Fleischer
How do you make a difficult subject like economics fun, engaging and easy to understand when you’re teaching middle and high school students? Two southern Arizona teachers were recognized for their outstanding ability to do just that during an intimate dinner at The Mountain Oyster Club on December 1.
Gale Mitchell of Tucson Unified School District (TUSD) and Jean McKnight-Guymon, of Cienega High School, are the recipients of the 2015 Ed Eisele Excellence in Economics Education Awards. The Eisele Awards are administered by the Department of Economics and the McGuire Center for Entrepreneurship at the University of Arizona Eller College of Management and the Thomas R. Brown Foundations, and are made possible by the support of Ed Eisele, former president and CEO of Holsum Bakery Inc.
The awards were open to K-12 teachers in Pima, Cochise, Pinal, Santa Cruz, Graham, Greenlee, and Yuma counties. More than 30 teachers were nominated for the special honor, which recognizes educators for their skill, creativity, and impact on students through economic education. Both teachers received a $5,000 check in addition to their award.
Andreas Blume, Eller Economics Department Head and McClelland Professor of Economics, said both teachers are passionate about helping their students understand both basic and complex economics principles.
“What struck us most about Gale and Jean was their devotion to their students. They go beyond the curriculum, adding easy-to-grasp, tangible examples to illustrate economic concepts and help their students succeed,” Blume said.
Gale Mitchell is a veteran teacher with more than 25 years teaching languages art, social studies, and economics in TUSD’s GATE program. She designed the only economics program in Tucson for middle school students and her teams have taken honors at the Financial Duel in the Desert, the Arizona Financial Face-off, The Arizona Economic Challenge, and the Arizona Finance Challenge since the inception of these competitions. In 2002, she was named as an Outstanding Educator by the University of Arizona College of Education Alumni Council.
“Many Americans lack even the most basic economic knowledge to ensure financial stability for themselves and their families,” Mitchell said. “As a result, they spend more than they should, become buried in debt, and despair of ever being able to retire and live comfortably. If they become knowledgeable about the concepts I teach early on, they are more likely to apply them to their own lives.”
The seventh and eighth graders in Mitchell’s classes study both micro- and macroeconomics during the first semester. In the second half of the year, they learn personal finance and entrepreneurship.
“Twenty years ago, I taught a scaled-down version to GATE fifth graders, and as I ascended to sixth grade and then seventh and eighth grade, my curriculum expanded and deepened,” Mitchell said. “Curriculum development is one of my favorite things, and I took so many classes from Dr. Donald Wells, Dr. Gerry Swanson, Mr. Steve Reff and a host of other amazing people brought in by the Thomas R. Brown Foundation, that I had many exciting ideas that begged to be added to my course.”
For Jean McKnight-Guymon, teaching students was not even on her radar when she graduated from the University of Arizona in 1989 with a B.A. in journalism and began her career working in public relations. She spent 16 years in a public relations career talking to media and traveling the world to promote Tucson. She completed a master’s degree in education while working as director of public relations for the convention bureau, and soon realized that while her PR career was fun, it lacked positive long-lasting impact. She credits her career change to her husband, Michael, who was working in a career that positively improved the lives of Tucsonans. Without realizing it, Michael influenced her to make a change. She has never once looked back with regret and continues to educate her students with a memorable mix of entertainment and education.
“My teaching is a product of the University of Arizona and the Thomas R. Brown Foundations’ economics education workshops. I owe a lot to the UA,” she said.
Often the most difficult students succeed in McKnight-Guymon’s classes because she uses her career knowledge and experience to offer an interactive and exciting class that teaches economics using games, collaboration, and popular media.
“I call some of my teaching ‘The Dirk Mateer Method,’” she said referring to Dirk Mateer, Thomas R. Brown Foundation’s Endowed Professor of Economics in the Eller College. “I use Dirk’s website music and movie clips to teach topics from global trade and supply and demand. The supply and demand clip from “The Office” in which Dwight corners the market on princess unicorn dolls is a favorite of my students.”
Other games include Capitalist Monopoly, where students ask questions along the way about the choices made that built wealth or created poverty for the players. “Then we change the rules and play Socialist and Communist Monopoly to understand the impacts, good and bad, of government intervention in the free marketplace,” she said.
McKnight-Guymon has been teaching at Cienega for 14 years and she said she wouldn’t have it any other way.
“Teaching is highly rewarding and I laugh every day in my classrooms,” she said. “I believe an economics education opens students’ minds to the immense possibilities of our free-market capitalist economy where everyone with a work ethic and an idea can succeed and build wealth.”
This is the second year the awards have been presented. Dirk Mateer, who directs Eller’s Office of Economic Education, offered his congratulations:
“We applaud Gale and Jean for their unwavering dedication to helping their students understand how important economics is to their lives,” Mateer said. “We hope more teachers will take their lead and find innovative ways to incorporate economics lessons in their classrooms at all grade levels. When imagination and creativity is thrown into the mix of teaching, the results can be phenomenal.”
Top photo, L-R: Mary Bernal (Brown Foundations), Gale Mitchell, Jean McKnight, Sarah Smallhouse (Brown Foundations), and Andreas Blume. Photo by Thomas Veneklasen.