Show Me The Way

A few days ago I sweated to a podcast episode of This American Life on the treadmill at the gym. I had planned to go only 3 miles but ended up doing 5.5 because the episode I was listening to, titled “Show Me the Way,” kept me engaged for a whole hour. You might say it moved me.

RunKeeper screenshot showing 5.5 miles in just under one hour

The story moved me. (RunKeeper app interface)

“Show Me The Way” (original air date July 27, 2012) is about people who go looking to others for advice, with unexpected results. I especially loved the story about a teenager who runs away from home to meet his favorite author. You can listen by clicking here (the audio download is 99 cents but you can read the transcript for free).

The author story reminded me of a Show Me The Way moment in my own life that resulted in the launch of my publishing career.

diverging trail (Effie Yeaw Nature Center)

When my career path abruptly diverged

Inconveniently, the knowledge that I was on the wrong career path–I had certified to teach English and Spanish in grades 6-12–crystallized during a job interview. The middle school chair of St. Mary’s school, Ruth (not her real name), leaned in toward me and said, “So Susan. Tell me why you want this job.”

“I don’t.”

Ruth skipped a beat.

But then, instead of getting angry with me for wasting her time, she thanked me for being honest. Better that I discover the job is a poor match now, rather than in February of the school year.

“So…what is it you’d like to do?” she ventured.

I told her about the temp job I had started a few weeks before: proofreading standardized test items for a national publisher that was scrambling for contracts to help states comply with No Child Left Behind. Having just spent a year teaching at a private school that shunned the state tests, and having graduated from a Master of Arts in Teaching program that advocated performance and portfolio evaluations over multiple choice tests, I had to admit I felt a little like a traitor.

filling in bubble test form

Image by © Royalty-Free/Corbis

Still, my instincts told me the publishing gig was the better placement for me, and Ruth’s response validated that feeling. Though it was only later that I began to articulate the reasons why, I knew that where I wanted to be in August of 2001 was in business, and not in the classroom.

One reason was that as a teacher I had a lot of freedom, but very little authority. Within each 55-minute block there were choices in abundance available to me for how to deliver the curriculum. Contrasted with that freedom was the fact that I was accountable to everyone. Each student and parent was in some way my boss, in addition to my department chair and two levels of administration on top of that.

In business the relationship between freedom and authority seemed more balanced.

Second, in business, entry level jobs generally involve basic communication tasks that are factual in nature and limited to interactions with only a few categories of people. With experience, you can remain professional even when the topics at hand are more nuanced; the circles of people you communicate with gradually widen as well.

But entry level teachers have a lot of responsibility for communication right off the bat, and therefore many more opportunities for communication failures and emotional confusion.

Finally, I noticed that at my publishing job (Harcourt Educational Measurement, now a division of Pearson Education), I felt so relieved clocking out at the end of each day. There was certainty in the swipe of that time card: now I am beginning work; now I am stopping work.

Some teachers have excellent time management and personal boundary skills, even in their first years–but I was not one of them. I craved structure and segmentation.

Of course, all of the reasons I initially chose publishing over teaching have since been turned on their heads. I’m a freelancer now; I’m also a parent. The structure of my day is more flexible, even a bit gooey at times. I talk with editor colleagues, bloggers, clients, authors, parents, teachers, church friends, and others (including children and teens) without drawing strict lines between business and personal or even facts and emotions. I’m comfortable being both professional and real at the same time.

I don’t regret earning my teaching degree. As it happens, I work with teachers, either directly or indirectly, almost exclusively. To date, my editing clients have included K-12 educators, psychology professors, nursing school and fire academy instructors, trainers for software companies such as Microsoft and Autodesk, Christian educators, and more. I love editing and I’m glad someone, even if unintentionally, showed me the way to this career.