When I was a teacher, I had the feeling that what I was doing really didn’t matter.** I could have been the best teacher in the world and at the end of the year, nothing would really change – they would send me the same number of kids next year and a paycheck. I could be the worst teacher in the world and I’d get the exact same outcome – they would send me the same number of kids and a paycheck. Barring some sort of felony conviction, I could have continued on like that for the next 35 years and retired. I didn’t recognize it at the time, but there was almost zero correlation between my work and any sort of outcome in my life or the life of the school district where I worked. When I got my paycheck, I felt nothing. It was just a number on my computer screen.
Then I started selling off my old CD collection online through Half.com. Most were listed at $1.29 plus shipping, which was a couple of bucks on each order. As soon as my “store” went live, I would wake up each day and there would be 10 new orders that had to be packed up and shipped off – the $1.29 plus shipping started rolling in. The weird part was that I was ecstatic each time I sold one of my old CD’s and made a buck or two. Thousands of dollars from the school district? Meh. $1.29 from selling an old CD? Jumping up and down! What was going on here?
I thought about it a lot and this is what it came down to for me: mutually voluntary association. I had something people wanted to buy and they were willing to part with some of their money to get it. We both got what we wanted out of our interaction. While teaching, how many of my students wanted what I was offering? How many would choose voluntarily to be in my class versus all they could possibly be doing with their time if they weren’t compelled to by the law or by their parents? Maybe 5% and that is probably a bit high. I started to think back to the most satisfying experiences I had as a teacher and they were almost always tutoring situations – I had skills or knowledge and kids were voluntarily willing to come work with me.
When I quit teaching to help start the Princeton Learning Cooperative, we decided that those were the only experiences we wanted to have with kids – voluntary, mutually beneficial interactions. I was done making kids do things they didn’t want to do of their own free will.
When I was teaching, if they added a new student to my class I was annoyed – more to manage. When we have a new member join PLC, it is like a little celebration. This young person wants what we can offer and her family is willing to support us financially for the work that we do. Every dollar that we bring in is like a little affirmation of our beliefs and our efforts in a way that I don’t think is possible in school. It is incredibly rewarding.
**I don’t mean this in the way that most people talk about teachers making a difference in kids’ lives. I did. There are students I’m still in touch with who say that their time with me profoundly affected their outlook on life. I’m proud that I was able to be that person for them, but those students were the exception. For most of my students it was probably a slightly positive experience, for most a neutral thing (just putting in their time), and I guess there were probably some kids who couldn’t stand me.