Classes start for me next Monday and I am filled with my normal, beginning-of-the-year existential angst: am I doing a job that is making a difference or not? I believe I have touched on this concern of mine in past posts, but for some reason I’m really weighed down with it this year. It’s not completely that I think my current teaching lacks potential to make a difference in the world of education; rather, I have been preoccupied lately with thoughts of “Is this the most I can do? Be a college professor? Or could I go beyond writing and talking about paradigm change and actually start my own school that fully operationalizes my educational vision?”
I look at a person like Debbie Meier who has tremendously impacted our society’s education by working with others to start multiple schools in New York City and Boston. I look at someone like Elizabeth Baker, who interned at the Albany Free School when I was researching it for my dissertation, and the democratic school she co-founded in Colorado five years ago. I think about the teachers at all the unconventional schools around the country and ask myself – where’d they get the courage to step so far outside the norm in education? How do they make a living at these often shoestring-budget enterprises? What have they lost by stepping away from state pension plans and health insurance coverage? Could I possibly find the same courage to follow in their footsteps? Am I cut out to be such a leader? Does my local community have the resources and a contingent of similar-minded folks to allow an unconventional school to thrive? How does one even go about starting such a project?
I know that AERO offers a school starters class that might help me answer such questions, but it really comes down to courage to take some first steps. And my courage is significantly weakend by economics. I make a decent, middle-class salary as a college professor, healthcare costs are reasonable (in part because I don’t have children), and there is a pension plan for my future (assuming it does not go bankrupt!). While I do live rather frugally and have a good start on my own retirement savings, I just can’t seem to muster up the courage of potentially stepping away from all that. What if I quit my job to start a school and it goes kaput?
Clearly, I am fearful of the unknown and filled with self-doubts about my ability to truly be a change agent in a more hands-on way. Do I just not have what it takes? I have read somewhere that being a business entrepreneur takes a particular type of person. Is the same true for unconventional educators? Do they have certain personality traits, or did they have similar, powerful, early-life experiences that helped them to be the pioneers that they became? I remember reading the AERO-published Turning Points, a book about educational pioneers, and trying to find a common theme among their experiences that would help me understand the profile of the educational maverick. I was never able to discern one from that collection of interviews/autobiographies, but I still wonder if such a “profile” exists. What do you think? If you are such an unconventional educator (unschooling parent, teacher at a free/democractic school, etc.), what gave you the strength to defy the status quo and go in the direction you have? The professor in me wants this to be my next research project, but my self critic cries out, “CHICKEN!!!” as I recognize it might be easier to study than to DO. How do I work with this inner contradiction?