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HR director gives back as volunteer teacher

Kate Thomas joined Southwestern Michigan College more than four years ago in February 2013, but doesn’t usually teach. She makes an exception each May in a classroom at Dowagiac’s Justus Gage Elementary School. Thomas, SMC human resources director, just completed her third spring as a volunteer teaching Junior Achievement’s “JA Our Nation” to Diane Hartsig’s class.

“JA Our Nation” introduces fifth graders to the intersection of work readiness and upper elementary grades social studies learning objectives.

Thomas holds a 2009 bachelor’s degree in business administration from the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay with an emphasis in human resources management.

Her day job is especially applicable to the fourth 45-minute unit, Get and Keep the Job! where students identify work-readiness soft skills necessary for career success, such as crafting winning resumes and making eye contact in job interviews.

“Life skills often get overlooked. I can help teach these kids things,” said Thomas, noting students surmise they can’t build a resume because they lack jobs.

She counsels them to think broader to encompass other skills, such as service, like a student whose family volunteers at Kalamazoo Gospel Mission.

“Don’t sell yourselves short,” Thomas tells them.

She was one of 237,680 volunteers in 2015-16 reaching 4,803,046 students in 209,651 classes at 21,802 schools.

Two of Jane Mitchell’s SMC business students, Zachary Davis of Dowagiac and Trent Matheny of Lawrence imparted JA business concepts last fall to Wendy Skinner’s second graders at Merritt Elementary School in Brandywine.

Through hands-on classroom activities, the program provides students practical information about the nation's free-market system and how it serves as an economic engine for businesses and careers.

The curriculum also introduces the need for entrepreneurial and innovative thinking to meet requirements of high-growth, high-demand careers and the concept of business globalization.

All JA programs are designed to support skills and competencies identified by the Partnership for 21st Century Skills.

JA programs also correlate to state standards in social studies, English and mathematics and to Common Core State Standards.

Other JA Our Nation lessons include: Free to Choose Your Work or Business,” where students are introduced to the nation’s free-market system and how it supports businesses and careers; Innovation Nation, where students experience how entrepreneurial thinking can spur new businesses and the opportunity for future income; Career Clusters, where students examine career groups and skills needed for a variety of careers; and Global Connections, where students explore how the United States connects to the world economy.

Thomas talked to her class about the Great Depression compared to the Great Recession, the difference between goods and services and how markets evolve, using the example of the 2014 Balance Calories Initiative (BCI).

BCI is the single-largest voluntary effort by an industry to help fight obesity, setting a goal to reduce beverage calories consumed per person nationally by 20 percent by 2025.

Coca-Cola, PepsiCo and Dr. Pepper Snapple Group are working alongside the American Beverage Association and the Alliance for a Healthier Generation to reduce sugar consumption.

“It’s cool to see the light going off,” she said. “Some connections they make are astonishing.”

Free-market economics, the system by which unrestricted competition between privately-owned businesses determines prices, “is hard for them to digest,” Thomas said. “That’s a stumper for fifth graders.”