Discussions lately have been intense as the school tries to rebuild enrollment. We have a new director who interviewed the potential arts and First Life (grades 1 & 2) teacher yesterday for two and a half hours. Both of them seemed to be exhilarated by the discussion; the teacher for the thought of having an opportunity to teach a curriculum she could shape, in a way she was comfortable with; the director with the possibility of having an experienced, creative teacher in a position visible enough to help draw the school back into the center of the community, where it belongs.
I've been in the middle of this matter for months. I was instrumental in selecting the director, who is forward-thinking, bright, and fun to be around. She knows her stuff and has great people skills. She has a lot to do in turning the school around from its doldrums of recent years, but, as ever, those of us who believe in the school's mission have high hopes that there is some way we can restore it to its place, no matter how much Fairhope itself has changed. Other members of the Board of Managers and I have confidence that she will be able to make a difference. The teacher was one who attended our puppet workshop, and said at that time that she would give anything to be able to teach at our school, so different from the restrictive and regimented atmosphere in which she now works.
The teacher's remarks had led me to follow up by contacting her and discussing the possibility of us taking her up on her remark. As a public relations person, I had already drafted a news release as if my dream were to come true and she would accept the job. Just associating her name with our school would ensure an increase in enrollment; by the time her ideas were implemented there would be waiting lists of parents who would want to enroll their children.
After the interview yesterday, she called me and asked if I would talk with her and her husband about the job. I knew from her voice she would love to take the job and I hoped I would have the magic words that would help her and her husband see the rightness of her taking it.
Her husband asked a simple and not unreasonable question. How long could I guarantee the salary we promised (which would still be $8,000 per year less than she could get at her current job)? I don't know why I was unprepared for that. A guarantee is a difficult thing in any case, and in the climate of our school it is just not possible. We have been living almost entirely on hope alone since Marietta Johnson died in 1938, even though the school has never closed. We have a trust fund that will keep us alive if we are prudent and diligent in money management. But we have never paid our teachers a wage comparable to what they could get at other institutions. This lady was simply asking that we do that, and we said we would. I have a way of assuming that miracles happen, and they have a way of happening around me. However, this was not what the couple wanted to hear.
When asked point blank for a guarantee, I said six months. One semester. The husband blanched. The teacher looked desparate. I almost thought she wished I had lied. But I could tell I had not said what they wanted to hear. We talked it through for a while and I explained the situations of recent years that had led to our current financial crunch. I said that when I said one semester, I didn't literally think it would be one semester, but if asked for a guarantee, that was all I could actually guarantee. Much is riding on our assumption that our enrollment will be twice as high next year as it was the past year -- and that, with this particularly lady teaching in a high-profile position, and a new director with energy and ideas, I feel that we will do it.
The phrase "I feel" seemed to bother the husband almost more than the phrase "one semester." They are not in a position to change their lives on the chance that this might work out well. All the questions they asked were in the realm of, "But what if it doesn't?" I have trouble thinking that way.
I know there are different behavior styles, and that I fall into the risk-taking category. Clearly this couple doesn't -- and in that case perhaps they shouldn't move into unknown territory.
What bothered me most about the discussion was that she said to me that every single person she had told that she was considering this move said the same thing: "How could you possibly think of doing something like this? How could you give up all you have worked for for this?" What she would be giving up is two things: job security and her place in line for more money and benefits in the public education field. What she would be getting is a similar job, teaching, and a chance to concentrate on working individually with children in an organic way, guiding them without pressure on a learning path in areas in which she was knowledgeable. She would gain a chance to build a department of the arts like none other in the country, a department that developed the impulse of creation in all children equally, even though the talents of the students would be expressed on different levels. She would be giving up the requirement for constant monitoring, measuring, constraining and filling out forms for comparison of child to child. She would be presented with a clean slate of bright, motivated minds that she would need only to inspire and teach. Even though the pay would probably always be less, she would not have to succeed in spite of the system. She would be working within a different system -- one which valued the one thing she did best.
Why does not anybody get this? I am baffled. Why does the world think that she would be giving up more than she would be getting? I don't even see that it's a matter of opinion and that I could be the one who's wrong about it. I know it's right and I know the work and energy I put into it is right. And, discouraging as the work I do voluntarily can be, I know that it is worth doing.
That knowledge is something to get you up in the morning with joy.