One Teacher’s Vision for Financial Literacy Education

I organized a mini human library at our school this year. Students had the opportunity to “sign out” a staff member, and each staff-book had a “title”. Ari Lesser, our physics teacher had this one: Middle-Class, But Investing Like Warren Buffet. Ari has serious concerns about the need for education in financial literacy in our schools. 

When did  you personally become interested in personal finances and investing?

When I was about 10 years old, I’d hang out at the golf course by the 9th hole and wait for players to hit their golf balls into the water. I’d collect as many of them as I could, bring them home, bleach them, and then sell them back to the golfers. Half the time, they were a bit intoxicated, and that helped my business. They’d say, “Hey, Junior! Are you going to sell that back to me?” I got the concept of profit at a young age.

My interest in investing developed in 4th year university. My degree is in engineering, and I had a design project for which I studied companies’ technologies that were related to my field of study. I found their technologies and processes fascinating, and it made me continue to research the company as a prospective investment. My dad had invested too, though he hadn’t talked about it with me. So I got a general interest in investing by osmosis, and a direct interest through doing that project.

Would you say that your parents taught you the value of managing money well?

Yes and no.

Yes, they showed me the value of a dollar, and how to stretch it and manage it. But I don’t think they allowed themselves enough enjoyment in spending money. There’s got to be a balance between saving and spending.

I tell my parents, “I hope that when the time comes, I’ll find that you haven’t left me an inheritance because you’ve spent all your money and enjoyed it.” If parents raise their children to be financially savvy, those children won’t need an inheritance. It’s like teaching someone to farm instead of giving them food. It’s a better gift.

In your opinion, should schools have a role in preparing students to manage their personal finances? Or is this the job of parents?

It’s a dual responsibility, but some parents don’t know enough about finances to teach their children about it. People have areas of expertise. Mine is in physics, and others have an expertise in financial literacy. We need these people to teach students in our schools.

We send students out into the world ill-equipped to handle their money. It’s like sending kids out of day care without knowing how to share. Our education system is lacking when it comes to preparing students for management of their personal finances. Why is it that only the less academic streams bother to teach kids about the benefits of making bi-weekly mortgage payments? There are too many people with Ph.Ds who don’t know how to manage their money. They miss out on the freedom and empowerment that financial freedom brings.

What changes would you like to see in our education system when it comes to financial literacy? What specific topics would you like to see schools covering?

I think that it should be mandatory for students in every grade and in every academic stream to study a rigorous unit on financial literacy. The unit could be tied to their math courses. Teachers would need formal training because not all teachers come to the profession with strong financial literacy. The design of the units would have to involve very careful decision making. Experts in wealth management and debt management – the kinds of experts hired by  banks – would be involved.

Students should come out of school knowing how to budget and how to make money grow. We need to teach them about the hazards of debt and the wisdom of saving and investing. They should learn about different investment vehicles,  how to diversify, how to recognize good investments. Students should graduate with a grasp of concepts like high risk-high yield and low risk-low yield. We also need to teach them the human side of finances – the need for balance – the fact that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all way of managing finances.

Would you be interested in designing and/or delivering a unit on personal finances?

I’d be more interested in running a financial literacy club. People who teach it should have formal training. I don’t have appropriate skills to pass it on to the next generation. I see my own personal finances through my own specific lens. I’m not ready to tell others what to do.

When we had our human library, students were talking with you non-stop. What were their interests?

They want to feel financial freedom. Kids have witnessed their parents struggling with money, and they want to be financially competent.

I noticed that only boys “signed you out”. Do you think that in general, boys have a greater interest in personal finances than girls do?

No. I talked with a small number of students for a long time, and I don’t think it was a representative sample.  I have yet to meet someone – male or female – who isn’t interested in money. The interest is there in everyone. It just isn’t always developed.

If there is anything else you would like to add, please do.

I would like students to understand that money can’t buy them happiness, but that well-managed money can remove stress from their lives. When you consider the amount of stress people carry because of their debts and the number of marriages that break up because of financial conflicts, it’s clear that it’s not just a matter of money – it’s a matter of health.

I’d also like students to realize that more money is not necessarily better. It depends on what you do with it. In general, I believe that schools need to give students a head start in managing money, growing it, and using it as the tool it’s meant to be.

The consummate physics teacher, Ari (on left) excitedly shows off his new fire tube to his colleagues – even though the school year is over.

As Ari and I were talking, another teacher stopped by. She admitted that she typifies the “well-educated but lacking in financial competence” stereotype that Ari described. She said that it was difficult to deal with the shame that she feels about her financial situation. Although each one of us involved in that conversation had a different level of money management savvy, there was no disrespect or shame in it. We spoke as equals, and there was no posturing involved. Wouldn’t it be great if that could be the norm?

Do you think that schools should teach money management? What qualifications do you think are needed for someone to be a teacher of financial literacy in schools? Your comments are welcome.

Image courtesy of EWA

16 comments on “One Teacher’s Vision for Financial Literacy Education

  1. I was struck by so many things in this article. Ari’s very wise.

    “money can’t buy them happiness, but that well-managed money can remove stress from their lives.” Yes, money issues lead to a lot of stress and general unhappiness, but having money doesn’t make you happy. Happy has to come from within.

    The idea that not all parents are equipped to teach financial literacy, any more than we can expect all parents to be able to teach physics or calculus, yet most of the time we’ve left it to parents to teach. It’s scary that something with so much lifetime impact gets left out of formal schooling. And that what little we do teach of financial literacy often gets targeted to kids outside of the academic tracks.

    1. I too am struck by the fact that our schools are not more intentional about teaching financial literacy. It’s something that everybody needs. Also, “well educated” doesn’t mean “financially literate”. There’s an assumption that smart people will figure it out. Not true!

  2. “I think that it should be mandatory for students in every grade and in every academic stream to study a rigorous unit on financial literacy.” AMEN! I see so many people struggling financially due to a lack of financial literacy. We were there for years too. It’s so sad, because it just doesn’t have to be this way.

    1. It really doesn’t have to be this way. I think schools need to focus not only on numbers, but on the psychology behind personal finances in the face of the marketing machine. It would take a whole lot of thought and work to create a series of relevant units for all grades. But it would be worth it!

  3. I think the human library was a great idea! As for financial literacy, it should definitely be taught in schools, and I agree with Ari that we need trained individuals to teach it. Surveys have shown that many teachers (forgive me I forget the percentage) feel unqualified to teach it. Teachers and students deserve to have financial literacy taken as seriously as any other subject.

    1. For me, I even get stuck on what makes a teacher “qualified” to teach financial literacy. It certainly isn’t just about numbers. I agree that it has to be taken as seriously as any other subject. Financial literacy is something that literally every student will need.

  4. “… it’s clear that it’s not just a matter of money – it’s a matter of health.” Love that point – it IS a matter of health. And without health, what good is wealth?

    I totally agree that financial literacy should be taught in schools by qualified individuals that are confident in their abilities. Though I do think parents have some responsibility here, I know it’s not realistic to think that all parents will be willing/able to provide kids with a broad base of financial knowledge.

    1. My own parents were excellent with their money, but they didn’t talk about it – let alone teach it to their children. (My siblings managed better than I did, mind you. I think that being the youngest played a role in my own lapses. Birth order & pf might be worth a post.) Ideally, schools and families will work together in promoting financial literacy.

  5. Wow, wow, wow! We need more teachers like Ari!

    “We send students out into the world ill-equipped to handle their money. It’s like sending kids out of daycare without knowing how to share.”

    Our education system really needs to put a focus on life skills. Integrating topics that will prepare students for their life after school. I agree it’s both the parents, and schools responsibility, but is some areas parents are not equipped. I like the idea of the financial literacy club, at least there is som,e type of education or discussion happening.

    1. I thought you’d like this one, Brian! When I first started my teaching career, there actually was a life-skills course for grade 9 students. It got tossed after a few years though. Maybe financial literacy could be combined with other life-skills issues in a series of units to be delivered throughout high school.

      1. Its one of the ideas we’ve considered. A full year course with each semester covering a different life skill topic, financial literacy being one of them, other would include tehcnoloy, interpersonal communication, and careers.

        1. I like that idea of mixing in other life-skills – including even more basic ones like punctuality and showing up – but I think I prefer the “one unit per grade” approach rather than one full course. So much to consider! I’m glad you’re on the front lines making things move forward.

  6. This post, I mean… wow.

    So many good tidbits to take away from this post! When Ari said “We send students out into the world ill-equipped to handle their money. It’s like sending kids out of day care without knowing how to share”, my jaw literally dropped open. The sad thing is, is that what he said is true. Starting out as a young adult in heaps of debt post-education, is not the way to go and unfortunately how many people in their early 20’s start out the next phase of their life.

    1. And it doesn’t stop in the early 20s unfortunately. I remember talking to a young teacher a few years ago, and he had just bought a new house. Then it came out that he still had student debt. And hefty car payments for his dream car. Ugh! He had set himself up to be debt-ridden for decades. Perhaps a financial literacy class in high school would have help him make better choices.

  7. Lots of great points from Ari, and great idea to have a human library! I like that he pointed out that it’s important to learn more than the value of a dollar. Money is not just meant to be saved.

    My high school actually did require a “money management” class for graduation and it covered the basics of financial literacy. The teacher was a social studies teacher, I believe. He followed a textbook and also taught his personal tips such as “pay your mortgage twice a month” and “get a Roth IRA” and some other tidbits which were somewhat helpful, but didn’t delve into all sides of the issue. I’m grateful we had to take the class, but I think it lacked a big-picture emphasis. Instead it felt like we were learning a bunch of facts about isolated topics like buying a home, estate planning, etc. that there was no way we would remember 10-50 years later!

    1. The fact that you had a money management course at all is a good thing. Interesting that it was taught by a social studies teacher. I would say it’s a tie in my mind between a sort of psychology class and a math class – though as Ari said (in person), math doesn’t have to be just about numbers. A big-picture emphasis is what is needed. Isolated topics don’t do the subject justice. Hmmm, I can think of someone who would make a very good teacher of personal finances. What do you say, Kalie?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *