The Practical Work

I wrote back in January about how I re-enrolled in college 20 years ago this winter, and about my master plan to abandon radio and become a high-school social studies teacher. Obviously that didn’t happen the way I planned it. The rest of the story is on the flip. Since it’s got nothing to do with the ostensible subject of this blog, you’re under no obligation to read it.

The student life suited me, because it was so different from what my working life had been. I enjoyed being a relatively elderly person in a place dominated by young people. I often found I had more in common with my professors than with my fellow students simply by virtue of age. A lot of my coursework was in history, so the readings and papers weren’t much like work, although they could add up after a while. (Not for nothing did I adopt “The Weight” as a theme song toward the end of my first semester.) My academic advisor, thanks to his liberal interpretation of the radio and TV courses I had taken at Platteville 15 years before, put me in position to add certification in speech, drama, and theater to my American history and government certification. (Technically, I’d be qualified to direct the school play, although my intention was to become more employable by teaching speech.) My education courses were generally pretty interesting, and it wasn’t long before I was getting into the practical work of teaching—first observing veteran teachers at work and later working with real students, writing and teaching lessons myself.

In the fall of 1996, I interned as a forensics coach, helping kids get their speeches ready for competition. The next semester I did my official student teaching, in American history and geography at a high school in Davenport, Iowa. My students asked me about the process one day, and they were shocked to find that not only was I not getting paid for the work I was doing, I was paying for the privilege of doing it. I met far more sweet kids than I did future inmates, and I still think about some of them all these years later.

I had heard it was difficult to get an A for student teaching, but I did, along with glowing reviews from my university supervisor and the teacher who was mentoring me. Trouble was, I didn’t love it. Teaching was something I could do, but I didn’t burn to do it. Nevertheless, in the summer of 1997, I took my licensing exams and set about trying to find a teaching job for the fall. I was offered a grand total of one—a Catholic school at which I would have been the only male faculty member, for the same money I had been making at my last full-time radio job. (I didn’t go into teaching for the money, but still.) The principal seemed less concerned about my teaching ability than about my willingness to lead the kids in prayer every morning, which I said I would do, thinking all the while, “Only until the lightning strikes.” I decided to hold off accepting the job, however, and it was a good thing I did. An educational publishing company in Iowa City for which I had done a little work while I was in school offered me a job developing social studies materials. In July 1997, I became a professional writer, and I never sought another teaching job.

Once the bills for my student loans started coming in, I consoled myself with the thought that I was in fact working in education, even though I wasn’t a classroom teacher. I paid those bills for the next 15 years, sending the last payment a couple of weeks after I’d taken the full-time radio job I held briefly in 2013. The irony of finally paying off my second-career education after being sucked back into my first one was delightful.

So that’s the story, such as it is. I could never have predicted turns my life has taken over the last 20 years—both the ones you have read about here and the ones I keep to myself. But I suppose that’s true for everybody.

One response

  1. Good tale well-told, Jim. It illustrates the cluelessness of the standard “where do you see yourself in five years” question, which supposedly is asked to give the interviewer some insight as to whether you have “goals”. Not many really sharp people can give an accurate answer to that “five years” question – because, as St. Vincent of Lombardi said, “luck is when opportunity meets preparedness” (or something similar), and smart people see opportunities which arise unexpectedly and take advantage of them.

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