Tuesday, January 19, 2010

A Teacher's Lessons from Writing, Part 2

My cell phone rang when we were deciding which package of paper towels to buy.

“Kevin, this is John Paine. Do you have a few moments to talk?”

I had both anticipated and dreaded this call, and the paper goods lane of Publix was not my ideal setting for the conversation. My wife, sensing it was the call I’d been waiting for, dug through her purse to find a beat-up memo pad, found a page with about an inch of clean space, and thrust it into my hands along with a pen. I think she waved as she headed for the frozen foods section.

“Um, sure Mr. Paine, this is fine.” I found some clearance between a package of paper towels and the shelf above it. Voila! an impromptu desk.

“I’ve read your manuscript in its entirety and will send you specifics, but I wanted to discuss a few general things with you by phone first.”

“Okay.” (Note the high intelligence of my response. I was a bundle of nerves.)

I found Mr. Paine, no lie, via an internet search, and I never expected him to take on my manuscript. A professional editor, he’d worked on books I recognized by authors I recognized. He’s on the speed dial of several major publishers and is called for emergencies, such as a book still needing editing on the eve of its print run. When he requested the rest of my manuscript after reading the first hundred pages, I thought it might be so he could have a non-example to share with colleagues for a few profession-related laughs.

“I think you’ve don a good job to this point,” he said. “In fact, I wish my teachers had taught this way.” Even though it was my writing he was editing, his comment on teaching caught my ear.

“Really?” I asked. (Again, note the deep intellect represented in my response.)

“Yes, I would have learned much more and it all would have seemed far more interesting and relevant.”

This was a gift. Even if he then said that the writing should never accost a reader’s eyes, I would have floated out of the paper goods aisle.

“There are some things you can do that I think will make your message even clearer,” he continued. “One thing that editors help writers do is see a manuscript from a reader’s perspective. That’s my job, so here are a few general suggestions.”

Like a good paper towel, I absorbed all I could from Mr. Paine’s comments. I won’t bore you with the details, but this conversation launched one of the greatest periods of learning I’ve experienced. I needed to step away from my investment in the project and view it from a different perspective. As I worked with Mr. Paine through the following weeks, I grew in my understanding of seeing from a reader’s perspective. I needed more examples. I needed to use fewer technical terms. I was at my best when I allowed my examples to become short stories that entertained and informed. I was at my worst when my writing failed to touch the ground, when its theory remained theory without practical applications. I needed an editor, a teacher, someone to say, “I know your intent. Here’s a better way to communicate it.”

As a teacher, I know that letting others see our work in the classroom can be intimidating. Many of us have experienced the administrator and clipboard fly-by described by Alan Sitomer, which was most likely followed by a brief discussion in the administrator’s office with the ceremonial placement of the evaluation in our personnel files. But, as I learned, there is value in having someone else redirect our perspective—not with a clipboard and brief observation. Instead, we need “editors,” coaches who come along side us and help us do what we do better, perhaps with more of the learner’s perspective in mind. We need professional relationships like those described by Derek Keenan in his excellent blog post.

Though I’ve written about coaching before, the value of such a relationship became clearer to me through my experience with a professional editor. This, I thought, is what I need in my teaching. Someone who respects my work, who sees its value, and yet sees how I could make it even better, how I could make it more effective. Someone who can guide me to see and think like my learners, not check a box or circle a number on a form. Someone who wants my work to be its best because of its potential influence, not someone who’s crossing a task off of their to-do list.

I need a professional editor for my teaching.

Image: 'Happy Buggy Wednesday' http://www.flickr.com/photos/10687935@N04/3946962619

1 comment:

Theresa Milstein said...

What an exciting call and great feedback. I wish you the best. I also teach and write, so your connections between the two make a lot of sense.

Good luck editing.