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Returning the fruits of education

Thursday, October 29, 2015

This quote by Lady Bird Johnson, wife of the USA’s 36th president Lyndon B Johnson, “Education is a loan to be repaid with the gift of self”, captures what being an Alta tutor is all about. Almost every volunteer who comes to Alta says “I want to give back”. This is a great start—but not enough. This anecdote captures why. 

Five parrots were in a tree. 

Four said, “I am going to fly off.” 

How many parrots are left? 

Five. Why? 

Saying is not doing.

Many of us have good intentions, but these only count when we act on them. Alta faced this issue early—people training to be tutors, then not teaching others to read. On one of the early training courses for volunteer tutors was a very competent lady from Sangre Grande. She was enthusiastic about teaching reading in her community, explaining that God had called her to do this. Surely she would not abandon Alta after her training. But … after the course, God changed what he was saying. She reported that God was now calling her to do something else. 

Empty promises like these are not neutral in their impact—empty promises come at a cost to non-profits. A cost in time and energy organising for and training the volunteer, tracking them down to find out if they are going to do what they said they would, and reorganising to fill the hole they leave when they fail to deliver. At Alta, a no-show tutor means another tutor has to be persuaded to disrupt their own schedule so students’ needs are met—to put the students above self. Volunteering—at least with any serious agency like Alta—is more than doing what you feel like doing, when you feel like.

Early experiences like the Grande lady taught Alta the important lesson of testing what people say. Every prospective tutor must observe eight consecutive lessons at an Alta class of their choice. You must show that you can do what you say. If for one month you can’t attend a two-hour class twice a week, then what hope is there that you can do this for an academic year? And this is the contract all our volunteer tutors sign before training—the tutor contract says: I will teach for two hours, twice a week for one academic year. 

So as we enter the season of giving, think about the gift of self. But keep in mind that giving back involves work. There is a view that if you are not being paid for work, you don’t have to put much effort in. The attitude of: “They not paying me so whatever I give them, they should be more than happy with.” 

If “education is a loan to be repaid with the gift of self”, then unfulfilled commitments to give back put you further in debt. If you say you are going to do something, do it – whether you are paid or not. 


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