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Spreading Financial Literacy through Storytelling

Like everyone, I wear a lot of hats in my life. My primary role is as a father of three children, but beyond that I am a husband, a school teacher, and the current President of the Board of Trustees of the Chicago Teachers Pension Fund. In each of these roles, financial literacy is important. While most young people and many adults "prefer not to think or talk about real money matters," such deliberate ignorance of a critical daily element of living in a capitalist society can and does have significant negative consequences. For this reason, I try to gently promote financial literacy as an important part of living to my children, my spouse, my students and my colleagues. Because talking about money with children, friends or colleagues can be awkward (and often considered crass) but often necessary, I have found that the most palatable way to discuss financial issues is through the art of storytelling.

While my children were growing up, I tried to be a loving father, of course, but when I could, I also tried to teach my children about the importance of being responsible with money. I tried not to overwhelm my children with financial matters, but I also didn't want to ignore the pecuniary issues that would some day confront them as adults. Unfortunately, just showing my children bills or bank statements often intimidated them or had them "worried we'd run out of money." Over time, I realized the better way to illustrate a financial point was through a story (often of my childhood experiences) rather than through a piece of paper with numbers on it. My children loved hearing about my efforts as a child (I made and saved money by collecting golf balls and selling them back to golfers) because the time between then and now made for a "safe" discussion; my children knew I no longer did this and that I had survived the experience.

As a husband, I co-manage the financial aspects of my family with my wife. She and I share the bill paying, while I manage the money we save for our retirement. Over the years, we have discussed the various aspects of our collective shared assets and debits. She is less inclined to talk about these matters, but we both believe it is important to have a working understanding of our financial circumstance. Still, it is a subject that is much more easily broached indirectly than directly. When her eyes begin to glaze, I often revert to telling her about related financial decisions I had made prior to having known her. This generally revitalizes the discussion because it exposes my vulnerability as opposed to hers or ours.

As a high school English teacher who teaches seniors, I am often asked by students to help them get into college by writing letters of recommendation. Students also regularly discuss with me their college options as they pertain to which schools have accepted them and the various costs of each institution. During those discussions, I review the varied costs of going to college and I frequently discover that many students have no real understanding of the college debt they are about to take on. I find this troubling and problematic. On the one hand, I want to encourage students to continue their formal educations, but I am also concerned about the amount of debt many will accumulate over the course of their college experience. I preach the importance of understanding one's debt load, and the notion of compound interest as it relates to both debt and assets. I discuss my own experiences with college debt and the difficulty I had paying off college loans for some post graduate work I did not complete. (Ouch!) These are difficult discussions to be had, but vital, in my opinion, for those who live in a capitalist society.

Finally, as the President of the Board of Trustees of the Chicago Teachers Pension Fund, I am one of twelve trustees who oversee 11 billion dollars in the collective assets of some 63,000 members of the Fund. I am entrusted by those members to invest our money as prudently as possible, with the hope and actuarial expectation that our money will grow at a rate of 7.25% each year. Each month, money managers come before the Board and ask us to invest with them. Understanding the power of stories, these men and women often regale the Board with tales of past successes, and paint pictures of outsized returns to come. Momentarily mesmerized, I often tell brief stories of my own to help remind Board members (myself included) that our fiduciary duty is to the seventy-five year old retirees who are depending on us, and not the finely suited people before us. My concern is that we all become beguiled by money managers who tell us that "except for 2008" they have excellent records of success. I remind Board members that the "except for 2008" story is reminiscent of the oft told anecdote that ends, "Other than that, Mr. Lincoln, how did you like the play."

Recently, as a consequence of a lifetime of trying to find appropriate, easy entry into discussions about money and the role it plays in each of our daily lives, I have written a book and started a series and built a website about an 11 year old entrepreneur who helps her financially irresponsible parents get their house in order. The protagonist, Emma "Sideline" Rockland, is a determined, heroic figure who understands that money, at its core, is neither good nor bad, but rather, an element that is part of our daily experience. Emma "Sideline" has a business person's mindset; she works hard and learns from her mistakes. By asking questions and listening to the answers of people who know more than she does, Sideline becomes stronger and better prepared to take on an indifferent capitalist society. Like all wise fiduciaries, she views people with respect and judges them "not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character," inspiring and instructing through her story. In the end, Emma, through her story, helps her readers, young and old, better understand the ways of the financial world we live in while building a better world for herself, her family and her community.

In the end, I am convinced teaching and promoting financial literacy to young people is best actualized through the art of storytelling. My Sideline book series is only one way to help students begin, at an early age, to engage in continuous lifelong learning of the importance of money management in a manner that does not overwhelm. I am asking educators and money managers from around the country to help me in this effort by sharing their own ideas as to how we can gently and more effectively inject financial literacy into elementary and high school curriculums. Please contact me if you'd like to learn more or if you have ideas to share. I'll share as many of your ideas as I can via my website and other social media. I can be reached at or through messaging me via LinkedIn.

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