THEN I BECAME A TEACHER: Changing Careers, Figuring Out Life

(This interview was first published on Sept. 14, 2010.)


Miriam Silver grew up in the Philadelphia suburbs, graduated from UC Berkeley and Columbia University and worked for more than 20 years as a newspaper reporter at such publications as The Press Democrat and the Hartford (CT) Courant. After her arrival at The Press Democrat, I got to watch Miriam skeptically interview a  news business manager who originally came from New Jersey. Watching the two of them go at it was for this laid-back California boy a lesson in East Coast smack-down journalism. And Miriam was amazing, a little like Tina Fey portraying a streetwise roller derby queen.

Silver left newspapers in 2001 and eventually got her teaching credential. For the last five years she has been a secondary school English teacher. She now works at Twin Hills Middle School outside Sebastopol.

THE INTERVIEW

What did you like best about being a newspaper reporter?

I loved so much of it. I loved interviewing people, people I would never get to meet otherwise, who graciously allowed me into their homes, their lives, their businesses and trusted me to tell their story accurately. I loved the challenge of having to quickly understand and interpret and make clear an emotional or complex, technical subject that was outside my experience. I developed tremendous respect for all kinds of people, most of whom were outside my experience or culture. I loved writing and I loved making sure that what I wrote brought a reader as close to the real experience as possible. To me, good reporters help us all become more empathetic, putting ourselves in the shoes of that person on page one, hearing their story, developing an understanding that is beyond simple judgment and prejudice.

Why did you make the switch to teaching?

At the time I left the newspaper, I was working long, demanding hours there, as was my husband. We had a young son and me, dying, older parents 3,000 miles away.  I would look at my son, then 5, and think about getting back on that plane to see my parents, not knowing if either of them was able to hear or understand me – and I started to add things up. I had also spent a good deal of time covering the tragic story and aftermath of the kidnapping and murders of a mother, her teenage daughter and their family friend’s teenager daughter from South America. I sat many hours and days and even weeks with the surviving family members, awaiting the tragic news and viewing extraordinary dignity and unfathomable fragility. To me, this all added up for a change in my life. I thought the time was right to devote more time to being available to my son, knowing that life changes, in a instant, and you don’t get things back.

What was the hardest part about changing careers?

I loved the people I worked with. We understand each other; we laugh with the same kind of humor; we all felt like a fun smart bunch of folk. It wasn’t until I got myself in a classroom and started teaching that I began to find some of the same aspects in school that I saw in newspapers. It seems ironic that recently, when my students asked me what I would ask of them, I responded: to laugh with me.

Did you ever wonder if you had made the right decision? If so, tell us about it and what enabled you to persevere?

It has always been the right decision. Again, I miss the camaraderie of newspaper folk and a newsroom, but I think a lot of that has changed and it is time to let newer people form their idea of what a newspaper/newsroom ought to be. My students give me so much energy on a daily basis. They keep me on my toes, they keep me laughing, they challenge me, they make me think, they force me to understand, to listen, and to learn. And because of that, my decision still feels like the right one.

What skills or lessons did you bring from the newspaper to help you as a teacher?

All of the above! Listening, respecting, interviewing, caring, learning, writing, being fair, looking at all sides.

What lessons did you learn from making the switch in careers?

The lesson I learned is to do it! Figure out what makes sense for you and go after it. Keep the negative voices away and see what fits, what makes you dream, what makes you happy to do the work. I am thinking for the next career (!), I might find something a little more lucrative, but, well, I will be 80 by then, so maybe, instead, my son can build me that house with a lot of big windows near the ocean.