Strangers in the classroom

I regularly receive e-mails from people who recognize the terrible need for improving financial literacy among young people. Most of the people who write say they want to volunteer their time and teach financial literacy in high school. I am very impressed by how strongly people feel about financial literacy and I have been thinking of ways of harnessing that willingness to help and the generosity of volunteers. Financial literacy is much in need of promoters and organizers. It is a very important issue and we need to work for it.

While I want to encourage everyone to get involved with the schools, I am reluctant to recommend that individual volunteers teach financial literacy in schools, for three main reasons.

1. Contrary to popular belief, it is very hard to teach. I have been at Dartmouth for eighteen years now and I can tell you that every year I have to do a lot of preparation to be able to stand in front of my students and engage them. The first day of class normally ends with a room full of students with baseball caps expertly placed so that I can’t tell whether they are listening or are sound asleep, and a few anxious faces who have been checking their watches for the last 61 minutes of the 65-minute class, and who exit the classroom faster than Speedy Gonzales. And these are the economics students who have elected to be in these classes! It takes a while to filter through the stone faces beyond the first row, and even after years of grueling practice, I barely manage to get through the first half of the term without witnessing a decimated class. It does help to have an Italian mamma instinct, to be armed with limitless patience and unbounded optimism, and to be able to resist the temptation to hang myself from the maple tree outside the window after explaining a concept five different ways and realizing that it is still unclear. If somebody thinks they can just show up in the classroom and teach, I can assure you, it hardly works this way. If you want to teach, you have to be prepared to be trained or the students will “train” you (meaning you will feel like a train has run over you by the end of the class).

2. Individuals seem to have many different ideas about how to approach the instruction of financial literacy. As I have mentioned in previous blogs, financial literacy is a topic grounded in economic and finance theory and it should be taught accordingly. But what I often hear suggested are topics like how to balance a checkbook or how to buy stocks. We need to stay away from these narrow “how to” lessons of financial literacy, as the objective here is to prepare people to understand and navigate a world of complex and changing financial markets. We can’t just tell students how to get from point A to point B; we need to teach them to use a compass. This is no small task and in my view we need a curriculum that teaches the fundamental principals that combine to make one financially literate. Such curriculum development is best done at the national level; inflation does not decrease the value of money differently in Vermont than it does in California or Texas. And while Vermont is much colder than the southern states, it does not freeze how prices work. Once we have developed such a curriculum, there might be a way to engage volunteers in the instruction of it.

3. It’s not always clear how well qualified individuals are to teach financial literacy. In several cases, I have found that college freshmen have set up web pages to teach financial literacy and are eager to go to high schools to offer some classes, even though they may have taken only one introductory course in economics. This is the curse of economics. I have found that many people feel very confident about their views of how the economy works even if they have never read an economics textbook. In other cases, I’ve gotten the impression that people are intent on delivering wisdom and strong values acquired over many years of experience. On the one hand, I am very attracted by the passion that this topic engenders, on the other hand, the dissemination of a sound and consistent knowledge base should be our first priority.

I do not want to discourage anyone who is interested in the pursuit of improving financial literacy in schools. Quite the opposite! Please be involved; do not let the school in your own district not pursue financial literacy, not teach these courses! But perhaps the best role is to be an “ambassador of financial literacy”; be an advocate for financial literacy without going directly to the blackboard. We normally do not let strangers into the classroom, in any course, not just financial literacy. In my view, teaching financial literacy requires a deep knowledge of economics, solid training, and a fair dose of humility. My students would also say that a thick Italian accent helps keeps you awake, but in this case, even that might not be enough!