Days go by when I have no contact with folks who share my passion for print. But that all changes when I log online to teach my writing seminars or grab my briefcase and head out for a class I'm leading at the local college. Teaching not only breaks my isolation, but it also compensates me, inspires projects and gives me an audience for sharing my books. Hearing those three little words—"I got published!"—after I've helped others begin their writing careers is also incredibly gratifying on a personal level.
What follows is a crash course on how to get started on your own teaching track.
Adult education has been growing steadily, according to a recent report from the U.S. Department of Education. There are opportunities for experienced writers to teach college courses as adjunct faculty, classes through parks and recreational facilities, seminars for business and trade schools and programs in public schools. High schools and colleges always need yearbook and newspaper sponsors, as well.
Corporate workshops typically pay a much higher teaching fee than adult education. Workforce development departments frequently operate out of two-year colleges, addressing a particular deficiency (such as writing) among employees when companies lack in-house training. You might also serve as a writer-in-residence in a retreat setting, typically for a week at a time. Check with the National Endowment for the Arts and your state arts council. Most adult education is conveniently held in the evening and on weekends.
Distance education is also becoming quite popular as Web-based training and e-mail correspondence courses (such as those offered by WD's www.WritersOnlineWorkshops.com) fit into busy schedules and make participation possible from outlying geographic areas. Sometimes, students simply prefer the convenience of online lessons and individual pacing. You coach and correct via e-mail, online chats or bulletin-board posts.
You can find these teaching opportunities through colleges and universities that have online divisions. In addition, search the Internet using "writing classes," "teaching writing" or any derivatives thereof. The popularity of a particular Internet program is no guarantee that it's reputable or pays instructors on time, but if you examine the longevity and affiliation, it's a better benchmark of quality. Is it affiliated with a well-known writing organization, or does it boast solid academic affiliation? Many sites offer student testimonials. Using search engines, track down these people and ask them to share their experiences. Get on the course's mailing list to receive notices. Quality often reveals itself over time. Most online programs have links for potential faculty, with applications online, while others ask for an attached rèsumè.
The credentials you need vary with the academic level, but some real-world experience and/or publishing credits are important. Evaluations I receive state that students really appreciate first-hand insights from a published author. Even if you don't have a string of credits, present at writing conferences or serve on panel discussions, you may still find opportunities where you're a few rungs higher on the experience ladder than most of the students you'd be teaching.
Colleges and universities rely heavily on advanced degrees and publishing credits. Adjunct teaching—that is, a nontenure-track position—is a good way to start out. Here you can often get by with only a master's degree and relevant experience. These spots aren't always easy to come by, but contact the department chairpersons periodically to express your continued interest.
Boosting your credentials can broaden your horizons. For me, there was no better way to learn the principles of adult learning than by becoming an online student myself. So I completed a graduate course from a major university where the subject matter was just that: distance education.
There's no need to develop an entire course proposal before you land a position. Start by writing up an intriguing class description that would excite students enough to register. You'll need a brief cover letter that outlines any teaching or group leadership experience, plus a rèsumè saved as a Word or text attachment for online prospects. Most school brochures or Web sites have instructor bios, which can help you craft a description that sets you apart.
After submitting your rèsumè and brief proposal, call after about three weeks to set up an appointment or, if it's an online program out of state, to talk by phone about their needs. When you go for an interview, take along a packet of any ancillary materials (previous student evaluations, writing samples) that might sway the hiring your way.
The course proposal
Your course proposal becomes your primary publicity tool, and it should include the class's objectives and a detailed curriculum outline, as well as your credentials. Talk directly to the student ("You'll discover how to ...") and don't be afraid to sell it a little. But don't promise results—your students' talent and hard work will make success happen, but your course description can spark their enthusiasm and hope, which they'll bring to that first session.
Note any materials students will need and equipment you'll require to instruct the class. If you offer a book as a required or suggested text, give your students added insights during the lecture that they won't find in print. The readings you assign should reinforce your lessons.
Distance education tends to be very hands-on, but for other models, a 70/30 lecture-to-writing ratio is about average. One thing I've learned: Adults don't appreciate busy work, so keep assignments pertinent, quick and fun, if possible.
Structure your course to fit the program, with sessions spanning six to eight weeks for continuing education and the standard 12 weeks for collegiate schedules. Even one-day seminars can be very successful. Online courses vary in length. Prospective students will factor time and money, child care, transportation and other practical matters into their decision to register.
Making it popular
Many courses must attract a minimum number of attendees or face cancellation. Post fliers at libraries or around campus, and put notices on relevant Web sites, cable-access channels or the community calendar in your local newspaper. If you earn a percentage of the take, you must promote if you want to pad that paycheck.
Becoming a popular workshop instructor is a matter of being genuine, and I see the payoff when my former students write months, even years, later to thank me. Two of my students published books with major commercial publishers. This more than balances the occasional complaint, but I've learned that student expectations don't always match what's offered. One woman enrolled in writing because the antiques class got cancelled. Another complained that I wasn't "entertaining" enough. Learn from constructive criticism and let other remarks slide. Overly enthusiastic students may expect you to critique their work even after class has ended. Set clear boundaries with the class, because if you fill your hours with their work, you'll never meet your own assignment deadlines.
Earning a regular paycheck
When you teach a class, you're almost guaranteed timely payment. That's because teaching programs or higher educational institutions pay monthly, bimonthly or even weekly, anywhere from $15 per hour to $75 per hour and beyond. Credit-based teaching may pay a lump sum of several hundred to several thousand dollars. If you begin at the lower end, keep track of positive evaluations, save praise and feedback and, in time, use them to negotiate a higher hourly rate.
By offering and hosting your own seminar, you set your fees at what the market will bear, but you also incur the costs of registration, promotion and securing a location. Schools, churches, libraries and hotel conference rooms are all possibilities. It's tough to pick the perfect date but steer clear of holiday months and bad weather. You'll have to arrange for product sales (if you have books to sell), money collection, credit card processing and at least coffee on site, so having a set of extra hands helps. Are the added efforts and expenses worth it to you? If yes, go for it!
Beyond writing, look to the subjects you regularly cover for future ideas. What else do you know? Teach a class on how to select a computer or how to use the Internet. With a little ingenuity, you'll be on your way to additional income, as well as secondary gains-which are often just as good, if not better.