Financial guru Suze Orman joins teacher-bashing bandwagon

by Christopher Paslay


Insulting teachers is no way to empower them.  Educators need support and resources to succeed.    


Have you trashed a school teacher today?  Go ahead, you can admit it.  It’s one-hundred percent politically correct and always in fashion.  I’d hold my tongue when it comes to discussing race, gender and sexual preference (I’d even watch my step around folks with disabilities), but when teachers are the topic of conversation, feel free to point fingers and call for their heads on the chopping block.


The Philadelphia Inquirer pulls no punches: “Too many schools are straddled with bad teachers . . .” (Editorial: Obama’s Plan, 3/13/09).


Neither do writers for the Philadelphia Public School Notebook: “Many people argue that creating this new culture requires replacing either all or some of the teachers in the building with a fresh staff that is on board with the school’s mission. . . .” (Does reforming high schools require starting with a new staff, 3/30/09)


Or the LA Times:  “What can be done about bad teachers? . . . a bad teacher either continues to influence the lives of hundreds of students or draws a salary for manning a desk.”  (Getting rid of bad teachers, 5/5/09).


The latest person to drink the anti-teacher Kool-Aid is Suze Orman, a best-selling author and financial guru who was named by Time Magazine as one of the World’s Most Influential People.  Last month in a New York Times Magazine profile article, Orman ripped America’s school teachers a new one.


“When you are somebody scared to death of your own life, how can you teach kids to be powerful?” she said.  “It’s not something in a book—it ain’t going to happen that way.”     


The NY Times Magazine article went on to explain that Orman “has been reluctant to work on school curricula on personal finance, because she says students can’t learn empowerment from people who aren’t empowered, and teachers, she says, are too underpaid ever to have any real self-worth.”


Last week Anthony Cody, a writer for Teacher Magazine, published an article headlined, “Do Teachers Lack Power and Self-Worth?”  In it he calmly dissected Orman’s obnoxious statement. 


He wrote, “When I first read this I got ticked off. Orman has equated empowerment with personal wealth—perhaps not surprising, since she earns $80,000 every time she speaks publicly on that very subject. But then I started thinking a bit more about her proposition. Part of it makes sense. We can only teach what we actually embody.”


Cody went on to argue that teaching is really about setting an example in the classroom—that students learn more from the teacher’s presence, tone, attitude, etc., than they do from the lesson itself. 


I’ve always argued that education is first and foremost about teaching values.  In this respect I agree with Cody: Teachers are modeling respect, patience, confidence, and citizenship as they stand in front of the classroom.  There is a subtle transference of energy that happens when an educator effectively connects with his or her students.  


So in a way, Orman (who was accused by Forbes Magazine in 1998 of misrepresenting her Wall Street credentials, by the way), has a point: Teachers must feel empowered in order to empower their students.


The irony is that stereotyping and belittling America’s educators isn’t going to empower them.  Nor is making them the scapegoat for all of the problems of public education.


Teachers must be accorded a minimum level of professionalism and respect.  We must also be given the proper resources in order to succeed.  We can not do the job alone, contrary to public opinion.  Anyone who’s spent a significant amount of time teaching in a classroom (especially one in an urban setting) understands that it takes a network of parental, political, economic, and community supports to make education work.


First we need the basics: Help from mom and dad; a new community attitude that values education; smaller class sizes; more practical educational policy; better teacher preparation at the university level; and a society that goes back to embracing traditional values.


Teachers are a very big part of their students’ lives.  We do have the power to empower, but insulting and belittling us is not going to help us achieve this goal.