Wednesday, December 18, 2013

My Next Career

Five months ago I started a new job. Five months is long enough to now have some actual opinions and thoughts about how things are going. But before I write about those, it feels important for me to at least recognize that something big has shifted in my life.

For 25 years I was a teacher. I taught English in Yemen for 2 years, I was a teaching Naturalist at Brandywine Creek State Park in Delaware for a year, I taught severely emotionally disturbed teens in Delaware for 4 months, I taught Outdoor Education in Massachusetts for a year, I taught preschool in Montana for 3 years, I taught teens at an in-patient psych ward in Montana for a summer, I taught carpentry, construction, backpacking, and rock-climbing skills in Montana for 5 summers, I taught Special Education in Upstate New York for 3 years, I taught English and Global Studies Upstate for 3 years, I taught fifth and sixth graders in Connecticut for 7 years, and then back to preschool in Ithaca for a year.

In retrospect, I can say that I was a good teacher.  I was patient.  I was dedicated to my students. I kept myself informed on many topics. I communicated well with parents. I was a good colleague. I taught by example. I was willing to follow tangents if they were interesting and productive. I listened to my kids. I helped them see that testing is a game adults make kids play, and test scores are NOT a valid yardstick with which to measure a child. In the end, it was a great run.  The highlight for me was getting to have my daughter, Isabel, in my class for a year. It was a pretty great year.

But after all of that, I have nothing tangible to show for it.  There is not one thing I can point to and say with certainty, “I did that.” The successes are invisible, as are the failures. I have the kind words of parents in the end-of-the-year cards they sometimes give to teachers, but they are not concrete, either.  If I reread them, I can feel good, but still I cannot hold in my hand one thing I have created as a teacher.

For 25 years, that was okay with me. It was a job full of rewards and I truly loved it. For the last ten years there was not one day where I said to myself, ‘I would rather not be a teacher today.’ I know that is hard to believe, but it is true.

As we moved to Ithaca 18 months ago I started to play with the idea of getting out of teaching and into something else.  I was not sure quite what I wanted to do, but I could tell that teaching was nearing the end of its rewarding life.  I was starting to feel a bit run down from having to always care so much.  As a teacher, I could feel the weight and power my words and attitudes had. When you are a teacher there is no room for casual remarks or jokes at the expense of a student.  There is no room for tuning out while a student tells you about something they find important. You have to care—all the time. And, in the end, I knew I was getting tired of caring so much all the time.  I wanted to be able to let my guard down, to tune out of boring conversations, to poke a little fun without worrying if someone was strong enough to take it.

In the end, I feel like I did a lot more good than harm as a teacher and I did not want to skew the balance of that equation by remaining in the classroom too long.  There is nothing worse than a bitter teacher.

So, now I am a writer! And I am loving it. I am working for Cornell Engineering in the Marketing and Communications Department and mostly what I get to do is find fascinating people and write about them. My boss took a real gamble and hired me with no professional experience. And because she did, I get to learn all sorts of amazing science, I get to talk to geniuses, and then I get to close my door, not care at all about anyone for hours, and write words. After a while, the words show up out in the world, on websites and in magazines. There is a finished product I can point to and other people can judge. It is so different for me—and so good—to be able to share something I have done for work.

It is good to have specific tasks, to have deadlines, and to get concrete feedback in the moment on how I am doing. As a teacher the feedback is clear as you watch your kids.  You know if they are bored, if they are confused, if they are getting it. But that feedback has as much to do with their internal states as it does with your teaching. The other feedback you get as a teacher is test scores, administrator evaluations, and that inner-voice that lets you know how you are doing.  None of these is a truly objective measure of your ability as a teacher.

As a writer, my bosses and editors can tell me if something is unclear, too long, too informal, wrong on the facts, or just plain NOT what they were looking for. And then I can go back and make it more clear, shorter, more formal, correct, or more like what they were looking for. And I can do this by myself, in a room, without having to take anyone’s feelings into account. I feel remarkably free in this new job. After 25 years without direct, in-the-moment criticism of my work, I find it refreshing and very helpful to get feedback right away.

Another thing I love about my job is that I have an audience. If most teachers are honest, part of the thrill of teaching is being on stage every day. You have a captive audience for your brilliance, your jokes, and your special insights. But it is a small audience, and it is also there when you are having a bad day. As a writer, my larger audience only gets to see my edited work after it goes through several drafts and several critics. The crappy stuff doesn’t make it onto the website or into the magazine. I get a real thrill out of seeing my name in the by-line.

Another huge benefit of changing careers at the age of 48 is that I get to learn all sorts of new things. And, as an ex-teacher, I know the value of learning new things.  It keeps a brain young and makes me happier.  I feel pushed and challenged and excited about work.

So, I am happy to report that I loved being a teacher for 25 years, and I am also very happy to report that I love being a writer.