Return On Planned Obsolescence (ROPO), I have recently learned, is basically the extra money Apple gets when people buy a new phone while their old still works perfectly fine, but just doesn’t have the newest bells and whistles. It can also refer to extra money netted by a manufacturer who purposely shortens the lifespan on a product in order to encourage more purchases faster. (If you are as new to this idea as I was, you might enjoy skimming this, this, or this.)

When I saw this acronym for the first time, it struck me that this idea is built into the tutoring industry, and that that’s a real problem. Now, I’m not talking about the version of ROPO where you make a disposable thing so people will buy more. The tutoring analogy of that would be giving students less-than-great help in order that they’ll need more.

To be clear, I don’t seriously think anyone’s deliberately doing that. But I am talking about quality control in a broader sense.

The fact is that it’s pretty profitable to have students — or better, for your tutors to have students — who keep coming back, week after week, for help. Every tutor has to eventually face the question “what if I help this kid enough that s/he doesn’t need me anymore?”

For me, the really interesting part is that I’ve seen a few different sides of this question now: I have been the tutor, I strongly suspect I have been the student, I have been the tutor manager, and I have been the finance guy looking at the firm’s metrics.

And I am here to report that this idea is more important than I ever gave it credit for.  I’ll explain why, but first, two more bits of context:

Recurring revenue is a very, very good thing for a business to have for many reasons that have been hashed to death in the blogosphere, such as here, here, and here. (Cue entrance, Captain Obvious!)

Owning a tutoring business often feels like serving two masters: you are an educator, and you are a business person. At least that’s how it can feel on a bad day. And if those two masters disagree on the best course of action in just about any situation, you as are in serious trouble, because you are likely to regret whatever you do next.

My big takeaway is that you can and should choose to be an educator first, which means that every single tutoring session with a student should feel to the tutor like the last. You aren’t ever doing the same old thing. You aren’t “working on an assignment.” You aren’t “making progress.” You are solving a problem, removing a barrier, addressing an issue. You are finishing, finishing, finishing.

You are fighting against recurring revenue, every single time. And suddenly, with that realization, comes an understanding of a choice that matters to me, and how I can move even farther in that direction: buck the trend, and keep finishing.

Let me try to illustrate why that isn’t actually bad business, even though it might sound that way:

I had a session with a remarkable student a few years ago. She was having trouble with a math class — well, really, with a math teacher. The teacher and the student had different expectations on a few levels, and neither “spoke the other’s language.” I felt I understood the student’s position and the teacher’s position pretty well, so I set out to teach the student how to see the class through the teacher’s eyes. It led to an energetic and enthusiastic high-level discussion in which the student originated a number of spot-on ideas for how to better give the teacher what she wanted, without watering down her own experience in any way. From the outside, I can’t imagine anyone would have identified that session as “tutoring.”  It was just what that student most needed.

The student never returned for math help, and when I later asked why, the answer was simple: she no longer needed it. Now, how much recurring revenue did I turn away that day? Answer: don’t think about it. It’s not the point. That kid is going to do great things; it was right and good of me to help her with no thought of holding back.  (If this doesn’t seem self-evident, then you may be interested to know that her father has been an enthusiastic referral source for years now, because, luckily for me, these folks are not only smart but also conscientious and mindfully supportive. And while that doesn’t happen every time, it does happen surprisingly often.)

Here’s the lesson for educators: don’t save a “big reveal” for next time. Don’t ever turn on the auto-pilot. Don’t be complacent. If you really want your education practice to last, you have to be a better educator tomorrow than you were yesterday. And that means giving it 100% (no matter what the business coaches may say).