Thursday, June 08, 2006

Doing the Right Thing

June 8

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.

I didn't.

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.


Benedict S. said...

Yesterday after "Bible" study class, I had a discussion with a lady artist. It came up that she has a teacher daughter who was almost ostracized from a central Ohio (Bible belt) community for trying to teach middle school kids using methods that sounded to me verily like Mrs. Johnson's. Seems she survived because the principal -- a no doubt enlightened person -- judged the teacher by the results she was getting rather than by her conformity to "standards." I can't offer much more than that, but the thought had crossed my mind many times before -- and I think I mentioned it to you at least once -- that the best thing that could possibly happen would be for Mrs. Johnson's ideas to migrate out of the private school arena into the public schools. That the arts techer you interviewed seemed to wish to be able to teach that sort of program suggests to me that there is a latent desire out there to explore innovative methods. (I use the word "innovative" marginally, since Mrs. Johnson's ideas have been around quite a while.)

As I write this, I'm reminded also that the art gallery where my wife hangs her work is running a benefit show for another innovative school, the Waldorf School in Charlottesville. Their curriculum is environmentally based, and they, like Organic used to, teach all 12 grades.

If all else fails in your attempt to enroll the arts teacher, you might see what can be done to help her teach "innovatively" in her current situation. I understand your need to see your school survive and prosper, and will still do all that I can to see that happen, but it would be a shame to see the idea fail -- as opposed to the school.

Best wishes, and good luck. I'll send pleasant vibes in the teacher's direction.

Finding Fair Hope said...

Did I not make it clear in all my mentions of the current hiring situation that this teacher is the magnet for the local public elementary school? She has the equivalent of a waiting list for her first-grade class; parents knock themselves out to get their children in. If she were to choose to defer to us it would be a fantastic coup, public relations and otherwise -- because everybody knows she is the most beloved teacher in Fairhope Elementary, and especially helpful with children who might be a little behind or ahead of other children.

I have always told people who asked what made the Organic School different from other schools, "When you were in elementary school, did you ever have a favorite teacher, one who was a little different, a little more understanding and encouraging than the others? The difference is that at the Organic School all teachers were expected to be that. In the public schools, the best teachers have to operate "outside" the system -- sneak, you might say, their innovative ideas in. Much of the literature teachers in the public school work from now is pure Marietta Johnson. It's just that the system really isn't set up to allow putting the ideas into practice. It's about tests and measurements even more.

One thing this wonderful teacher suggested to me that we might follow up on in our school is to emphasize that gifted children -- now literally being left behind in the public school as more and more emphasis is put on bringing deprived or challenged students up to a "standard" -- can really thrive in our school. No gifted child left behind! How's that for a new idea?

beenandgone said...

If it is not too late for the teacher to have her husband rethink his totally metallic point of view, then I would suggest another approach: To have the opportunity to participate in the teaching of children where "the system" has been placed off to one side, and to be truly stimulated, enthralled, by the looking at the flowering of a wonderful variety of talents coming forth from what might normally be described as "ordinary" kids is something money can't buy.

In fact, those wanting the opportunity and the stimulation should have to pay for such a richly rewarding expenience, and many people do by volunteering freely of their time and knowledge and care.

If your new teacher candidate can identify with that, Maybe she'll discovery that she has the guts to tell money minded husband that this something she wants to do...and is going to do.

John Sweden said...

What a drag. I tell you honestly ML if I hadn't tied my life to this part of the world, I would be knocking on you door tomorrow morning and begging you in Swedish for the chance. What a great opporunity for anyone. A chance to build something of value from scratch and attach your name to the rebuilding and invorgating such an historically important and well established educational institution, doesn't come along if at all, to many times in one's life.

The position and opportunity you are offering in order to be successful, needs and individual who is not only strong, self assured, self confident, innovative, independent, and courageous but one is throughly commited, as Marietta Johnson, was to advancing and expanding the boundries of the educational process as a whole. Sounds a lot like you, actually.

Don’t balme the husband, its up to her to fight for what she really wants to do and if she wanted to do it and saw an opportunity in it, she would have faught for it. That to me, was the first indication that she wouldn’t be up to the challenge for making the sacrifices necessary for the long underpaid haul. Her suggestion that you take the “gifted and the slow”, from my position, indicates she has a relatively low opinion of the organic school’s legitimate role and value as a potential mainstream educational program. I know you must feel very disappointed after all that hard work and this may seem like a failure, but I have gut feeling about this, that the fire soul, the school needs was definitely not this person.

So go have a cup of Joe, Java, and Hope

Finding Fair Hope said...

All is not lost, Organic School fans! I have spoken, first with my daughter, the mother of two bright and promising elementary school students (not in this area, unfortunately) and she gave me an inspirational talk which turned me around. My mood of frustration was lifted. She convinced me that getting a known-to-be-creative teacher on board was worth everything to the school, and that promising "one semester" would not have been satisfactory to any normal person.

Our school has to be in the forefront of progressive education; it has to be committed to excellence and innovation. It has to commit to pay its teachers! We can no longer accept defeat and say that it's just too bad. We've come too close this time to give up and walk away from our chance at a comeback.

So I called a couple of board members -- I'm the president, after all -- and told them we had to find a way to assure this lady that her move would be worth it. They said, "Yes, do it!" We have resources and we'll do whatever it may take to put this thing over, and hire the lady.

It may be a cliffhanger. They will be away for the weekend, and we will be searching our own sugar bowls, but money will be found by the time they return.

Stay tuned to this blog for further information.