A long, winding stream

August 27, 2005
Special to the Star-Telegram

Next week, I begin a new job. I’ve been invited by the Department of Communication Studies at Texas Christian University to teach a course in general semantics.

There’s a bit of irony in this.

In 1979, I was an Air Force lieutenant, navigating KC-135 air-refueling aircraft at Carswell Air Force Base. I successfully applied for a program in which the service would pay for my master’s degree and send me to the Air Force Academy to teach English.

To get a head start on my master’s, I took two graduate classes at TCU. That’s where I first learned about general semantics.

I never finished the master’s program. Life circumstances intervened. I resigned from the Air Force in 1982, moved back to the Metroplex and began a 19-year career in the defense electronics industry.

During that period, I learned to carve out a niche for myself as a generalist in an engineering environment. I completed a variety of productive assignments, from system engineering to marketing to cost/schedule planning to business strategy to program management.

But I wasn’t happy—somewhat in the way that a fish flopping around on an August sidewalk isn’t ‘happy.’ When the new millennium rolled around and the world didn’t end as predicted, I had to make a decision. I could not continue doing what I was doing. I wasn’t satisfied with carving out niches for myself.

I knew what I didn’t want to do, but I didn’t know what I did want to do.

A friend referred me to Helen Harkness, a career counselor-therapist-coach in Garland. I enrolled in her program and, during the next year, learned more about myself, my needs and my motivations than I thought possible.

At first, I wanted to do my own thing as a consultant, but consultants tended to be specialists, not generalists. Then I tried to put together a business plan for an Internet-based social center for single adults. I knew what was needed and had some great ideas on how to fill those needs, but I couldn’t figure out how to get someone to pay for it. That detail greatly weakened my business case.

By the summer of 2001, I decided that what I really wanted to do was teach. I was reverting to what I thought I had wanted 22 years earlier.

I knew I would have to make a financial sacrifice to teach, particularly in public schools. I sold my house, traded down cars and put all my household goods in storage. I was prepared to travel light and live Spartan. I’d find a small school in a small town with a small cost of living.

I spent hours each day on the Web sites for the 20 Regional Education Service Centers in Texas, scouring the job openings. I mailed more than 100 letters and resumes. I completed dozens of employment applications. I attended a statewide job fair in Austin where districts with hard-to-fill teaching positions pitched themselves like weight-loss products at the state fair.

I learned a lot during this process.

I learned how much bureaucracy is fed by paper credentials. I learned that it would cost me about $5,000 to “earn” (or is that “purchase”?) those paper credentials to become a “certified” teacher.

I learned that teachers are valued in direct relation to their pass rates on the TAAS (now TAKS) standardized tests. I learned about the district-to-district disparities in teacher salaries and medical insur-ance contributions. I learned that in the public education world, self-serving myths die hard and hypocrisy is usually scratching somebody’s back.

More than anything, I learned that although I wanted to teach, I really didn’t want to become a teacher.

So I pursued another path down a similar trajectory that, two years and several circuitous circumstances later, resulted in my current job as executive director for the Institute of General Semantics.

Now I have the opportunity to teach a subject I love at a prestigious university. It took four years, but there’s not a standardized test in sight.

Harkness has just written a new book titled Capitalizing on Career Chaos. I recommend it to anyone who might be feeling like a fish flopping on the August sidewalk.

Steve Stockdale is a member of the Star-Telegram’s community columnist panel. He also teaches in the Extended Education department at TCU.