The Five Buddha Families – Livelihood

I was first introduced to the Five Buddha Families by my teacher Roshi Bernie Glassman: Buddha (Spirituality), Vajra (Study), Ratna (Livelihood), Padma (Community), and Karma (Social Action). Together, they constitute the Mandala[1] of our lives.

The five Buddha Families are a way of thinking about our lives, and we can use them to assess our individual balance. Bernie also used them as a tool for organizational design. I was and am inspired.

In this second installment of a five part series, I explore the  relevance of Livelihood to both my practice, and to Integration Charter Schools. 

I retired from NYS Office of Mental Health on March 31, 2000, encouraged by Bernie to find out where my Peacemaker path would lead. Livelihood was an issue, as early retirement provided only a small pension. Dee, (my wife Diane)  had a good job which eased the pressure. And I was happy to have some time to be Mr. Mom. Jamie was not yet two years old.

Paco Lugovina, fellow Peacemaker and student of Bernie and Jishu, and I decided to try to create a consulting business — in Paco’s words, “to do good and to do well.” We had a proprietary team-building and problem-solving methodology, the “Leonardo Process.” Mostly, Paco was the rainmaker and got us the consulting gigs. I did most of the facilitation.

South Beach Psychiatric Center, where I had worked for many years, became my anchor client. In fact, The Verrazano Foundation grew out of my consulting work at South Beach, and was the midwife for our first charter school, Lavelle Prep. The school grew directly in response to the Verrazano mission.

We created Lavelle Prep really with sweat equity, although we finally got some start-up funding from the New York City Charter Center which eased the financial pressure for the final months before opening.

Starting out, our revenue was barely sufficient. We paid school leadership minimally (although we paid teachers competitively); and even before the school opened, I gave myself a 10% salary cut. Even so, we barely squeaked by. We finished our first year by the skin of our teeth, $47 in the black. It was years before we could afford to pay me what board members felt was a fair salary. But I was paid enough so that I didn’t have to worry too much.

From the beginning, we were committed to paying our faculty starting salaries 3% above what they could earn in the NYC public schools. We wanted top teachers, and we could not compete with most civil service perks, particularly public employee pensions. While we offer an attractive 401(k), our schools are on Staten Island, a community of civil servants in which pensions are what parents dream of for their kids. As we have grown, we have continued to offer competitive salaries and opportunities for rapid growth. Our best teachers can earn much more than they would working for the city. And, most importantly, our schools are an environment in which teachers are truly provided with continuous opportunities to learn and grow.

In our faculty recruitment efforts, we probably put too much emphasis on salary, certainly more than we would like to. We are having difficulty extricating ourselves from an education culture in which teachers treat themselves as a commodity — selling themselves to the highest bidder, counting the days until retirement, often for years.

Perhaps this is best illustrated in a story told by Ron Gorsky, founding principal of New Ventures, our second school.  In attempting to recruit a former colleague, a culinary arts teacher whom he had worked with in the DOE, this became clear. Her program had been eliminated, and she had been left in a civil service limbo in which she reported to a different school each week, arriving each morning to be told which subjects and grades she would be teaching that day. A miserable existence, and she hated it. So, Ron pitched our new culinary program which was scheduled to kick off that Fall, a chance to get back to teaching what she loved in a great work environment with smart, dedicated colleagues.

“I can’t,” she said. “I have to hang in there for my pension.”

“How much longer do you have?” Ron asked. We have sometimes waited months for teachers or leaders to become available.

“Eleven years,” she answered.

“That’s not a pension,” blurted Ron. “That’s a prison sentence.”

Too many teachers have sold their professional souls for the pension. By the time they are ready to retire, they often have little energy left for anything meaningful. It’s not just in education. I have seen the same thing many times among colleagues in mental health.

I was very lucky. With a push from Bernie, I got out years before most of my colleagues. Those who hung on for years longer did leave with larger pensions, but often were unable to do anything else with their lives. I am very lucky. I have had a wonderful second career.

The choice which teachers are forced to make now is destructive and unnecessary. Choosing between doing good and doing well. We can do better. It is a national tragedy that half of the bright, young people who graduate from college and enter the teaching profession quit within five years. And of those who remain, a very high percentage spend the most productive years of their lives counting the days until retirement. We must do better.

Evelyn Finn, the founding principal of  Lavelle Prep and now our Vice President for Academic Affairs at ICS, has been asking me since we opened in 2009, “Are we still having fun?”

Yes, we are still having fun. We are learning and growing. And the young people who have joined us on this journey are learning and growing, often much more rapidly than would be possible in the security-oriented civil service bureaucracies. In fact, amazingly, five of the six core subject teachers who opened Lavelle Prep are already principals or assistant principals, three in our schools, two now working within the DOE.

Livelihood, yes. And livelihood which is more than money, although salary remains important. Regardless of salary, how are we really living? Doing good? Learning, growing? Doing well? Having fun?

Livelihood is critical for all of us, and it is critical for our students as well.

Over 85% of our students are eligible for Free or Reduced Price Luncheon, the federal standard for student poverty. Of course, they pay no tuition in our schools, but most will require student loans in order to pay for college. Paying these off can be  a terrible, unforgiving burden.

When we were reminded by John King, at the time the Commissioner of the NYS Education Department, that national student debt had surpassed national credit card debt, we realized that we needed to address this issue, and quickly as possible.

Someday, we hope to raise endowment for a scholarship fund which would guarantee our graduates funding through their Bachelor’s degrees without relying on loans. But until then, what can we do?

The strategy that we’ve chosen is to provide our students with the job skills which will enable them to earn while attending college, — to be college and career ready, not one or the other. Our goal is to give our students choices: to postpone college, going to work at good paying jobs immediately after high school graduation: to go to college without working,: or to actually work while continuing their education, earning enough to reduce their dependency on student loans.

In our most successful initiative thus far, Lavelle Prep students graduated from high school and entered college having acquired certification in phlebotomy, EKG  and medical records. Last year, New Ventures initiated a culinary arts program in which students are earning high school core curriculum credits while working in real restaurant kitchens, learning the primary skills which will enable them to be employed in a variety of food service businesses, all while earning their high school diplomas at the same time.

The new Nicotra Early College Charter School has developed an alternative approach to making college affordable, an accelerated high school program: students can begin high school in 8th grade and complete their high school graduation requirements by the end of 10th grade They will then be eligible to begin taking college courses at Saint John’s University, and over the next two years they will be able to earn as many as 60 college credits by the time they graduate from high school. All without taking a penny out of their pockets. In effect, their actual cost for a Bachelor’s degree can ultimately be reduced by 50%.

Paying attention to livelihood. Part of a balanced life, part of a balanced organizational design.