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    John Warner is the author of Why They Can't Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities and The Writer's Practice: Building Confidence in Your Nonfiction Writing.


Just When I Thought I Was Out, They Pull Me Back In!

I just can't quit spending my time on education-related things.

June 17, 2021

Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in!

I’ve been searching for the right movie quote to reflect my return to full-time involvement in education-related work, which I suppose I’m publicly announcing here. Many should recognize the above quote from Godfather III, when an aged Michael Corleone, hoping to retire from the organized crime business, must get back into the fray to save the family.

A running theme throughout all of the Godfather films is a desire to go “legit,” for the family dynasty to make their fortune in ways that do not require the more than occasional murder. At the opening of the first movie, Michael is meant to stay out of the family business, having returned home after military service. His father, the don, dreams of a “Senator Corleone.”

At the same time, there’s a clear implication that plotting the downfall of his enemies is what Michael was born to do. It’s not just a matter of family loyalty, but a true calling. He may be more eager to re-enter the fray than he wants to admit.

I wish I knew how to quit you.

That’s from Brokeback Mountain, when Jake Gyllenhaal’s Jack delivers the line to Heath Ledger’s Ennis, knowing that their relationship is impossible in their world, but he is unable to sever ties.

Five years ago, I stopped teaching full-time as a year-to-year contingent instructor. As I said in my “not a quit lit essay,” I had no desire to stop teaching, but I could no longer reconcile my desire to do the work with the conditions under which I’d been doing it for the entirety of my career. There was literally no future in it. I had to stop because the work was so meaningful to me and I risked not burnout, but something worse, demoralization, the sense that you want to continue to do your work, but circumstances won’t allow it.

I left full-time teaching in May 2016 not knowing what was next. I quickly realized that one way to exorcise my frustration over the barriers between me and the work I found so meaningful was to write about them. In my files, the proposal for what would become Why They Can’t Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities is dated March 1, 2017. I delivered the initial manuscript in December 2017, the revised version February 2018.

The contract for The Writer’s Practice: Building Confidence in Your Nonfiction Writing was signed mid-September 2017, the first draft of the manuscript submitted toward the end of January 2018, with a final copyedited manuscript in July of that year.

The books were published in December 2018 (WTCW) and February 2019 (TWP).

After doing some contract work for the company in late 2018, I accepted an offer of a full-time job from Willow Research in February 2019, roughly around the publication date of The Writer’s Practice. I was attracted to the position by the quality of the people, the interesting work, and importantly, a chance at the kind of security a paycheck that issues a W-2 at the end of the year instead of a 1099 delivers.

And now, I’m leaving that behind for something else, something old and hopefully something new.

My time at Willow (pandemic aside) was as good as anyone could have hoped. The projects were interesting and challenging, my colleagues wonderful. I shook the rust off my research chops and found the skills still intact and even enhanced by the other experiences I’d had since I left that pathway behind the first time, over 20 years ago.

I also had the freedom to continue to write about education and writing instruction as an avocation. It seemed like I could move on from my passion while keeping some embers alive, like an ex-baller who goes and hits the playground every so often. My hope was that everything was all going to settle into a nice, sustainable life.

And then we had a pandemic. In the midst of the fear and uncertainty, I became convinced I had more to say about higher education. There also was not as much work for me at Willow as anticipated in a pre-pandemic world, meaning the security was not quite so secure.

I actually tried to talk myself out of writing Sustainable. Resilient. Free.: The Future of Public Higher Education, both because I’d have to do it in my spare time, and because it meant reigniting those passions at full intensity. I did it anyway.

I share that personal history and timeline above as a mechanism for personal reflection, and also for others who may be confronting their own desire for change. As we emerge from the pandemic, the difficulties of the last year have disrupted lots of status quos and spurred a re-examination of priorities.

I believe I did good work for Willow, and coming out of the pandemic, the work has been plentiful. I’m sure I’ll be working with them on a contract basis in the future.

I'm shifting gears anyway.

You had me at hello.

That’s Renée Zellweger to Tom Cruise in Jerry Maguire after he’s delivered a long speech about how he needs her as part of his new sports agency, conceived in a fit of self-righteous passion. Her response indicates that none of his pitch was necessary.

Willow’s work, as good and interesting as it is, is not my work. It’s not education. It’s not teaching and learning. It’s not figuring out how to switch students into the on position when it comes to writing and thinking. It’s not the thing I fell for instantly when I first stood in front of a classroom having no earthly idea what I was doing but knowing I wanted to get better at it. It had me at hello.

The truth is that no one is dragging me back in. My time on the planet is limited. Working the problems of education is what I most want to do. The struggle has been to find a way where that work is economically sustainable. That’s what I’m going to try to figure out next.

I’m coming back to this path with a set of skills and experiences that I think are pretty unique and allow me some fresh insights to what’s going on. I’m encouraged by the reception of all three of the above books and think that indicates there’s a need for someone like me who is willing to roll up his sleeves and keep trying to find solutions to the structural problems that plague our systems.

I wish I knew exactly what form this work is going to take, but for now, that’s still to be determined. I know that I’m going to be doing additional writing on educational issues at the K-12 level, particularly the disconnects between secondary and postsecondary education, for Educational Endeavors, a Chicago-based student support company founded by my oldest friend. You can find that writing at a Substack Educational Endeavors is being good enough to sponsor for me so I can keep it free to the audience. I hope anyone who is interested will go and sign up.

Educational Endeavors has also been using the curriculum from The Writer’s Practice for some of its programs for the last couple of years, and this year I’ll be overseeing that work as a supervisor and teacher.

Yes, I’ll be teaching again, soon-to-be ninth graders in this case. I can’t wait.

For others who are considering a reinvention post-pandemic, I don’t know that I have any advice other than it is possible, and that it also may require leaving behind one thing before you have the available bandwidth to figure out what’s next. If you’re confronting this problem, please feel free to contact me, and I’ll try to be of help.

When I quit teaching full-time, I had no idea that I’d sell two books inside of a year, but the quitting was necessary to make space for that. After finishing the books, I had no idea that Willow would come calling with an opportunity, but there it was.

Once again on my own, I’m trying to be as attentive and open as possible to find whatever is next.

Good luck to all of us!

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