Thursday, April 25, 2013

The Logic Behind Volunteer Teachers

Over the last few weeks, I've been discussing my hypothetical school I'm considering opening. I'm still in the very early planning stages and have been soliciting feedback from as many respected sources as possible. 

Some ideas have been very well-received. Others have been met with a degree of skepticism. One such idea is the exclusive use of volunteers. The logic behind the idea gets muddled in my school because I also erase the distinction between students and teachers. This makes the issue somewhat difficult to discuss... so I'll lay out the logic by assuming there ARE designated teachers in my school.

Where the Idea Originated

The seed for this idea was planted by John Gotto. He used the descriptions of the Sophists, which were paid educators in ancient Greece, as written by Socrates and Aristotle. I took his basic ideas and applied various psychological concepts to arrive at the volunteer teacher idea for the school as it stands today.

The Logic

The use of volunteer teachers solves a surprising number of problems related to the education field in general and the teaching profession in particular, including:

  • It requires intrinsic motivation as the fuel for teaching. I cannot place enough emphasis on this point- getting paid to do anything eventually decreases our motivation if the pay becomes a focus. This effect is amplified when pay is increased. Alfie Kohn discusses this idea at length in "Punished by Rewards", and Daniel Pink adds even more fuel to the fire with "Drive." The lesson is simple- there's a high cost associated with extrinsic motivators. Seeing a once-passionate teacher succumb to burnout is one of the great tragedies of modern education. Furthermore, our collective society simply does not understand the pitfalls of using extrinsic motivators. 
  • It keeps teachers from becoming "trapped." Once a teacher has been teaching for a few years and income increases, they do what every other middle class white collar worker does- they buy crap. The buy a house, a car or two, and a crap-ton of IKEA furniture. They rack up debt. The become addicted to the daily Starbucks mocha latte. And they use their teaching paycheck to maintain this lifestyle. It's fine... as long as they're happy in their current situation. If things at the school start to go south, they're trapped. They usually can't move to a new school without taking a significant pay cut, which they can no longer afford to do. They can't leave the profession because it would usually involve  starting an entry-level job elsewhere. Again, they can't afford it. To make matters worse, few teachers develop alternate income streams while teaching because the early years are spent in survival mode. Also, continuing education requirements take significant time. The net result is an inability to leave a bad situation. Volunteering eliminates that problem.
  • Volunteers keep the school budget at a minimum. This sort of goes without saying, but it's FAR easier to fund a school that's organized around volunteers. Personnel usually takes 70-90% any organization's budget. If that expense is eliminated, the organization becomes a lot more flexible... which is exactly what schools need- the ability to adapt to a rapidly-changing society.
  • There is no intra-school friction caused by conflicting groups. School boards, superintendents, administrators, teachers, and teacher unions, by design, are based on an adversarial model. All are fighting for their share of scare resources (usually money.) This conflict has absolutely nothing to do with the goal of education and everything to do with maintaining or increasing power, status, income, or benefits. This forces all parties to focus on the extrinsic elements of the education system (see #1.)
  • The volunteer requirement self-selects the types of personalities I want to attract. Most people respond to the idea of volunteering with statements along the lines of "There's no way I could do that!" A few people have an entirely different answer. They respond with "Hmmm... that would present an interesting situation." Those are the dreamers- the people that can see a problem, assess the variables, then go about overcoming the problem. They don't see the idea as a problem that would threaten their lifestyle; they see it as an opportunity to develop and build something cool. It's okay if people fall in the former group. This idea isn't designed to appeal to everyone.

In a society where we expect to be compensated for anything and everything (including many supposed "volunteer" activities), the idea of an entire organization built on intrinsic motivation seems completely foreign. It's a dramatic departure from the behaviorist-based society we've built. We can solve many problems that plague the teaching profession if only we're willing to sacrifice the associated income. 


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