What’s It Worth To You?

dollar eyesI remember a student at Alpine Valley School, some years ago, telling me something he owned was worth a lot of money. I can’t recall the object or the amount, but I remember thinking or saying that in order to be correct, he’d have to find someone who agreed with him and had that amount of money.

I also remember how, during the two years I worked a desk job at the University of Colorado, I was paid more than I ever got as a teacher for merely filing and purchasing things,  navigating simple computer systems, and providing basic customer service.

This won’t be a happy post, or a terribly practical one, but it touches on something fundamental: how we as a society determine what’s valuable.

Of course there are the obvious examples of professional athletes and other celebrities, people who draw outrageous sums of money because…why? Because we crave entertainment and distraction, false passions and empty causes (“My team’s better than your team!”). Then there are the CEOs and other corporate executives whose annual salaries and bonuses dwarf what most of us can expect to earn in a lifetime. Does their compensation really suggest that they’re so much more valuable? It angers me that some make more money than they could ever spend while others don’t have enough even to live.

As an educator for over twenty years, it’s always frustrated me that teachers get lip service as valuable members of society, yet not the monetary compensation to go with it. As a Sudbury advocate since the late 90s, it’s bothered me even more that this culture values maintaining the status quo far more than sincere attempts to make things better. It’s understandable, yes: skepticism toward change is an evolved trait; but that doesn’t make it any less aggravating.

All I want to do is give as many young people as possible a way to grow up that preserves their curiosity and drive, their unique gifts and creativity, and their selves, their intuition and joy. I want to establish an example for the rest of society of what’s possible and desirable in education, what we could and ought to do. I don’t need a basketball player’s or CEO’s salary to do this, but I do require enough to eat, live indoors, get myself about, and repair things when they break or wear out.

Is that too much to ask?

When I was growing up, it seemed every single group I was in wanted me to fundraise. I was constantly selling items of questionable value (e.g., Christmas wreaths, cheese and sausage, magazine subscriptions, raffle tickets) in order to continue participating in my favorite activities. Lately it’s occurred to me that, by going off the beaten path, I will likely be fundraising in one form or another the rest of my life. The mainstream simply does not value what I value, so I must be creative and thorough in finding ways to fund my dream, and in finding like-minded people.

Thankfully I have a cause in which I deeply believe. But for now, and possibly forever, I’ll have to seek out side jobs to pay the bills and donors to sustain my greater quest. I’m okay with that—this is my mission, and I do choose to accept it—but I will need your help, your ideas and your support.

Who’s with me? What’s it worth to you?


Filed under My Quest

3 responses to “What’s It Worth To You?

  1. Debbie Harbeson

    Hi Bruce, I’ve been following your blog for a few months, ever since I found a podcast of you speaking about Sudbury Schools. I am part of a group that is exploring the idea of starting one in Southern Indiana. Anyway, wanted to preface that before my actual comments on this post….

    Part of this post sounds odd, considering your passion for Sudbury style education. Since there is no such thing as a “teacher” in the sense of a professional paid to teach at Sudbury, you start off at a very different place in market economy terms. Staff members are merely members of the school group, equal to the students. The kids are taught as much or more by the other kids than staff members. So should there really be an expectation that staff members would get paid much? (For that matter, should the kids be paid when someone learns something from them, even during a day to day conversation?)

    The students are the ones responsible, the students are the ones who do the real work of learning how to live in the world, right? It’s really no different than an unschooling parent, who is often a stay at home parent. Society does not pay stay at home parents if they decide to devote their lives to their children in that manner. And really, should there be? I don’t know.

    Don’t misunderstand, I do truly get where you are coming from and definitely sympathize. To me if we really want to change this area of the world, then it would happen if there were actual consequences for the people in traditional education environments who claim to be able to educate a child and who DO get large amounts of money EVEN when they send the world kids who are not educated in any sense of the word. That is what makes me angry – all that waste of resources. I want them to pay consequences for not doing what they claim they can do!

    I think we’d have to see something like that happen before we could ever see a willingness to move resources to places that set up successful educational environments for kids to live, learn and grow.

    But again, as you know, the Sudbury philosophy is all about the student being in charge of his own life and education and that in itself automatically lowers any market economic value that exists for a staff member. I hope I am making sense. My real purpose is to just think and ponder these ideas right along with you. 🙂

    • Debbie, I’m sure I meant to (and probably assumed I already had) thank you for your comment back in June; I hope you don’t mind the delayed response.

      I don’t quite agree that Sudbury staff are “merely members of the school group.” Of course, we don’t have more rights than the students; yet we do have more responsibilities. We are role models as well as teachers, administrators, counselors, marketing specialists, facilities managers, etc. The schools wouldn’t exist without staff, and thus all the learning that the students do on their own requires a certain adult presence — and that adult presence deserves fair compensation.

      Apart from whatever pay might be deserved, the cold, hard reality is that without paying staff a living wage, a school is at best living on borrowed time. I don’t expect society at large to recognize my perceived value as a staff member, but if I can’t live off my Sudbury work, well, idealism alone won’t pay the bills.

      I don’t mean to suggest that you don’t already know this; I suspect we’re more in agreement than not. The real question — one that Sudbury students get to encounter themselves — is how to turn this dream into a viable reality. That’s the puzzle I’m most eager to solve.

      • Debbie Harbeson

        Hi Bruce, I had to re-read because I forgot what I said back in June LOL. You are right that we are more in agreement than not, like I said, I’m just pondering it all right now. You are right about the fact that the staff do have more responsibilities than the students, even if it’s not that of being a “teacher” in the traditional sense. I will continue to ponder how we can get people to see the value in staffing a Sudbury school so that it can be a viable reality.

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