Changing Careers?

Be Careful What You Wish For

by Robin Bonner

Downsides of Publishing
I have no idea when the seeds were first planted, but somehow they put down roots and sprouted. At first it was annoying: I’d be slaving away at my job as a project manager with a “content management” service, sitting at my desk in my home office, checking email and answering authors’ queries, reviewing copyediting and proof, and doing billing for my publishing projects. Then, a little voice inside my head would say, “Wouldn’t you rather be standing in a classroom, talking to people?” “Wouldn’t you rather be explaining this to someone?” “Wouldn’t you rather be teaching—helping people learn how to write?” Soon, though, I found myself thinking, “Well, why not?”

Of late, I had become less and less enamored with my day job. After more than 25 years working for publishers, services, and nonprofits developing and producing the written word, I was finding it uninspiring. Working from home these last six years, I had little interaction with human beings other than by email, and I was bored with reviewing manuscript and proof. When I first began my publishing career, I was learning the business and actually editing the books; now I managed projects—“juggling plates in the air,” trying to keep all the various components of the projects on target to meet the deadlines, but without the office camaraderie.

The pay was good, but the work was no longer as challenging as it once was. When I was a senior in college and thought about getting into publishing, I loved the idea of being a cog in the wheel of the educational process. Today, I’m not so sure. Call me jaded, but now it seems to be just about the money—made by the publishers and by the businesses serving them, with not as much concern about the quality of the products, or even about the people involved. So, I was ready to do something different. Something challenging. Something I could believe in again.

The Path
It’s funny how when you look back at the path you’ve taken to where you are, you see that there was a path—that there were distinct junctures at which you made important decisions, usually without realizing it. My road to teaching was one such journey. While I was traveling on it, I was unaware of the road or the crossroads. Once I looked back, however, I could see that path clearly.

You have to imagine yourself as a teacher—and like what you see—in order to move forward into that profession. As a college senior, when I was trying to decide what to do with my life, I just assumed I would go to graduate school and then teach. (After all, what else do you do with a degree in English?) However, I couldn’t picture myself actually doing it—teaching, that is—for several reasons. First, I was basically shy; just the thought of speaking in front of a group scared me to death. Also, I didn’t trust my ability to memorize huge volumes of facts, as I thought I would need to do to teach. Finally, and this was the clincher: Something happened that put me on a different path.

During my last semester in college, I happened upon an article in a magazine for graduating seniors that discussed getting into publishing, and it ignited a passion I didn’t realize I had. Reading was so important to me—I knew that reading and getting an education had changed my life—and helping others do the same would be a meaningful profession. The article’s narrative outlined very clearly a number of steps to follow to secure a job in the publishing industry. I was happy to follow those steps almost precisely. Consequently, with some luck, I ended up with a job in publishing and have been there ever since. In fact, that magazine still sits in a trunk in my attic.

Life Skills
Over the next 15 years, my reasons for shying away from teaching began to fade with the experiences I accumulated. Not that I even thought about teaching, mind you. I was very happy with my jobs in publishing; they were many and varied, and they provided the challenges and flexibility I needed in that period of my life. Working as a freelance editor (in the city on occasion, but mostly from home) allowed me to raise my family while also staying involved in the industry, collecting additional professional experience, and continuing relationships with my new circle of publishing friends. During that time, I developed a great knack for problem solving and for getting things done, despite all odds. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t secure the continued work that I relished intellectually and that our family needed financially.

I also began to accumulate other related skills. As I raised a family and read parenting books and magazines, I picked up ideas on how to give my two daughters what they most needed for their own growth and well-being. Attending a “Raising Drug-Free Kids” workshop really opened my eyes to the need for self-esteem building for children to be happy and successful. I didn’t receive much of this in my own childhood, and we were careful to raise our daughters with a generous helping of it. I could see the difference it made in their lives. These were skills that I would take with me through life. I came to realize that children’s needs were universal: We all need to be surrounded by people who will build us up rather than tear us down and, in general, help us learn to help ourselves. We thrive on the positive rather than the negative. I found that my parenting skills were transferable: I would use them in my friendships and also while training freelance proofreaders and editors.

My volunteer work also helped me get over, or at least manage, some of my fears and also to develop some new insights. As a board member for the home and school association, I came to realize that speaking in front of groups was just part of life. Although my talent for spouting facts was limited, I found ways to manage compendiums of information for easy retrieval. In short, you talk about your passion and refer to notes for the details. I helped out in my kids’ classrooms and in the lunchroom and realized that because of different family situations, not all children are at the same academic level or develop at the same rate. My kids were two of the luckier ones, and I felt a responsibility toward those kids who needed more help.

Early Teaching Experiences
When my older daughter was about to enter high school (a private school, for which I was personally going to have to come up with tuition costs), a huge freelance job on my horizon fell through, and I had to find other work rather quickly. One week, I read the local paper’s want ads and stumbled upon one for a “theme reader” at a nearby junior high school. I called and was interviewed and hired. I would aid the eighth-grade English teacher by grading essays for five classes and conferencing with the students about their writing.

Reading the students’ papers gave me a glimpse into their lives, and I felt myself connecting with them. And, as we met and discussed their writing, I remember noticing something strange: I felt as though I was, perhaps, making a difference. These weren't my own kids; they were someone's else's. I developed a policy of always finding something to praise: Despite their writing level or number of errors, every student had something unique and interesting to say. I did everything I could do to help them become better writers, and I believe that instead of dreading the assignments, they began to enjoy them.

However, my new teaching adventure came to a rather sudden halt when I was offered a staff position in Philadelphia with the publisher I always worked for as a freelancer. (Theme readers were paid very little.) Several years later, I ran into that English teacher in a supermarket. She recognized me (I can’t say I recognized her), and after saying hello, she added that I was the best theme reader she had ever had. Wasn’t that nice, I thought? And, I nonchalantly file away the memory.

Graduate School and Beyond
As my girls entered high school and then college, I began to take an interest in getting that master’s degree I had always wanted. I loved to learn and wanted to get back into the classroom in an official capacity. So it could be that those seeds for teaching were further nurtured in graduate school. I certainly loved taking classes at Rosemont College over the six years it took for me to complete the coursework for an MA in English and Publishing. During that time, my interests evolved to encompass not only book publishing but also magazine publishing and the writing process. Further, I was intrigued by my professors, those people standing in front of the class leading us. Could I picture myself in their shoes? At times, I almost could.

While at Rosemont, I met an intriguing young woman in my nonfiction writing class. June was from Kenya and yet had attended college in the United States. Although she was an MFA student, she was interested in getting into publishing, and upon learning I was an editor, she struck up a conversation with me. I, in turn, had been impressed with June’s exotic stories, which gave me a glimpse into the culture of the Kenyan people. I knew that she would be going places. Soon, we were getting together outside the classroom, as not only did June want to learn about working as an editor with a publisher, but she also wanted to learn how to edit her own work.

So, I told June what I knew about the publishing industry and getting a job therein, and she hired me to edit some of her work and go over it closely with her—in short, to train her to do it herself. We set up an intense schedule for every other Saturday over several months. We both benefited intellectually from this arrangement because in preparing to tutor June, the grammar rules came to life for me once again. June was able to secure a communications job with a nonprofit teacher’s organization, which she eventually left to accept a teaching position in a private school. Through all of this, our friendship developed, and we remain close.

While I was attending classes at Rosemont College, the publisher for which I was working in Philadelphia was bought and sold, and eventually closed its doors. At the time, I was back on staff as a project manager in the production department. It was a period of heartbreak but also of opportunity for my friends and me as we scrambled for any available jobs. It was interesting to see where we all landed. I was hired by a small publisher's service as their editorial director, others began to freelance in production management (the industry was changing, and many publishers were outsourcing such jobs), and still others left to have children or to teach. At our holiday parties, which we continued over the next several years, we compared notes. At least one colleague told me, “Hey, you’re going to have a master’s degree soon. You can teach!” Right. I still couldn’t picture it. But that comment also lodged in my memory.

It was about that time that one of my close publishing friends, Ellen, decided to go back to school for a degree in elementary education. She was already freelancing and had been for years, but as her daughter, Dana, entered high school, she considered her options. She liked working with young people and wanted to do something "to make a difference," so she volunteered with a community literacy program and also applied to be a mentor at Dana's high school. As Dana went off to the University of Pennsylvania, Ellen was well on her way to attaining that education degree. We were having lunch every few months through all of this, and I was quite impressed witih her progress.

The Real Thing
Several years ago, as I finally received my degree from Rosemont (and created this magazine), I came into some free time and found myself even more attracted to writing. So, I began to attend writers’ conferences. At one such event at a local community college, I found myself chatting with one of the English instructors. I asked her about teaching—what were the possibilities for part-timers in the English department there? She said they used a lot of adjuncts, especially in the fall, to teach basic writing to students who needed to develop some additional writing skills before they attempted freshman composition. She said that with my master’s degree from Rosemont, I would be qualified to apply. By then, I was even more attracted to teaching as an alternative way to use my editorial skills; in fact, I had come to think of teaching as the holy grail of my career and was formulating a plan to make it happen. The following spring, I emailed Dr. Bonnie Finkelstein, my contact at Montgomery County Community College, about applying for a position.

In the beginning of August, I heard back from Diane McDonald, the Developmental English Coordinator. She invited me to apply for an adjunct position, and I jumped at the chance. Who cares that it was already well into August and just several weeks from the fall semester? Who cares that I had never actually taught a day in my life? I met with Diane, and we talked. I liked her: She was friendly, and she knew her stuff; I thought she'd be a good mentor. I took an editing test. Soon, the “if’s” in our conversation began to become “when’s,” and I thought, “She’s going to hire me!” All would depend on the dean’s signature, of course, but I left with a stack of books and an application to fill out. As we shook hands and I left, loaded down with my new reading materials, I thought, “Wow. What am I getting myself into? I need to be careful what I wish for!”

The Fun Begins
I began reading the textbook and instructor’s manual, hungry for information. How will this all work? What will a typical class in progress look like? How much lecture should there be? How much interactive work? What will the students need from me, and how should I prepare? As it turns out, I would teach a condensed section of Basic Writing II (ENG 011): two two-hour classes each week, beginning the first week of October and ending in December. So, I would have a reprieve from the usual September 1 start date, but I was cramming anyway, as my students soon would be. I would need to brush up on my grammar terms (and learn a few new things) and at the same time pick up tips on how to teach students who need remedial help in writing.

As the first class approached, Diane was good about fielding my steady stream of questions by email. Two weeks before I was to begin teaching, I sat in on one of Diane’s classes, to see how she “did it.” The students were respectful and responsive. (That was a good start, I thought.) They paid attention and tried to answer the questions Diane presented. I thought, “I can do that.” However, the week of my first class, I began to panic anyway. My older daughter, Amie, who was visiting at the time, said to me, “Mom, remember—you know more than they do.” True, I thought. I have to admit, though: More than once before that first class, I considered calling Diane to say she had the wrong person. Well, I didn't do that, and I’m glad. I wanted this, and I was going to see it through. Like any other new venture, I needed to go in there and just do it, and the rest would fall into place. And, if not, at least I would have tried.

So, I created a syllabus, adapting Diane’s for my more concentrated class schedule. I read the beginning chapters and the corresponding text in the Instructor’s Manual. I prepared the first class, figuring that if I could just get through that one, I could turn my sights toward the second one. I attended an information session for part-time instructors that divulged what the school expected of me. In short, I tried to stay one step ahead of everyone. I got through the first class—11 students of 16 showed up—and then the second and third. Before I knew it, several students stopped coming (too much work? I wanted to think it wasn’t the teaching) and I had a core group who seemed committed to making it through. Several came to every class (unless they called or emailed), and they did all the assignments. Several others were not as reliable, but I had hopes that they’d improve. Onward we went, one class at a time.

I developed a rapport with my students. The nameless, faceless group I feared before my first class had become seven friendly young people of different ethnic backgrounds and skill levels. In fact, they began to remind me of my own kids—fun to be with and eager to learn. I read their “sample essays” after the first class and I realized I would be getting to know them. I told them they were all individuals with important things to say, and it was our job to make sure they were successful in learning to write more clearly so those things (be it for another class, for a job, or for their friends or relatives) would be received in the most positive way. I was getting a kick out of them, and I enjoyed teaching them. And, they, in turn, seemed to enjoy the class. I really pulled for each of them to pass.

Did I mention that Montgomery County Community College has won awards for its teaching technology? (Things sure had changed since I was in college, and even since Rosemont!) That being the case, I am required to use a white board and markers (which replace black boards and chalk) and a smart board (a screen on which you project for the class anything you can view on your computer desktop—PDFs, Word files, websites, etc.); and yes, a computer console and monitor sits on the instructor’s lectern. There’s also Blackboard (a course-management program used to post announcements and documents for students and to track grades, which I’m sure has myriad other applications I have yet to discover) and WebAdvisor (which interfaces with Blackboard and is used for posting grades and choosing new classes, but I know that, again, I have yet to fully explore it). Whew! I definitely had my work cut out for me this first semester.

In addition to just planning a lecture and collaborative class work, I needed to utilize the available technology. So, I contacted the textbook publisher’s representative and was able to secure a subscription to the online version of the student’s textbook. That way, we could all look at the pages and work the exercises together. (I found that some students, to save money, refused to buy the textbook; I was trying to work with them.) Diane finds additional exercises online; I decided I’d try to do that next semester—right now, I’d stick to the basics.

Lessons Learned
When my first semester wound down, I could look back and see the progress I had made. I would improve on the content and style for my next class (and yes, there would be a next one—the school offered me a class for the following semester), but for the moment, I would be happy with the base I had created for future classes. I had learned how to teach, how to report grades, and that some students may have a better chance for success in an ESL (English as a second language) version of the same class. I also learned that students are allowed to attempt a class only three times before they will be required to take it at another college. Consequently, it’s a good idea to counsel ESL and second- or third-timers up front.

And, although not every student will pass the class (an idea that was difficult for me to get used to), I know each of them has learned a great deal during the semester. For some, it was just that they needed to come to class more regularly or actually read the textbook and complete the assignments. (I told them they’d need to do that to succeed, but evidently some didn’t believe me.) For others, it was how to organize their thoughts to write a logical, informative paragraph, and for still others, it was that a complete sentence has a subject and verb and expresses a complete thought.

Finally, my greatest lessons were these: If you want to do something, if only to see how well it suits you, then do it, and don’t let anything stand in your way. Especially don’t stand in your own way. And, if you have the chance to make a difference in the lives of young people, do it. Whatever you’re doing during your day job will pale in comparison. And, finally, be careful what you wish for. As for me, the time I now spend at my desk managing publishing projects is just the respite I need to recover from a wild evening of teaching basic writing . . .

Robin Bonner is Editor of Empty Nest. For more about Robin, see About Us.

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