When I left Duke University in 2014 after a failed stint in public relations, I said two things: I would never work for anybody ever again, and I refused to spend my days in an office.
Those are tough requirements, so I began freelancing and calling myself my own boss. That’s how, in December of 2014, I found myself at a local coffee shop talking to Mebane Rash. A mutual friend had told me a new organization was starting up and would need freelancers. They were focused on education, which I didn’t know much about, but I was undeterred. A freelancer seeks work where it is found, and a journalist has no fear of new topics.
Meeting with Mebane, she informed me that there were freelance opportunities available, but she also said they were looking for a full-time legislative reporter. It was a throwaway line and the rest of the conversation strayed far from my professional interests. She was interested in who I was, what I believed, how I thought, what my interests were, and, most importantly, the way in which I approached the world. It was the strangest job interview I’d ever had, made all the more weird by the fact that I didn’t realize it was a job interview.
At the end of the conversation, I told her it was nice to meet her, and she asked me if I would have any interest in being a full-time legislative reporter for EducationNC.
I had to think about it. In the plus column, the organization had no offices, so I could work from home. In the minus column, I would be working for someone, though Mebane stressed that there would be no bosses at EducationNC. The structure was a flat hierarchy, where a team of peer experts collaborated and informed each other’s work. I don’t know if I bought that 100 percent, but it was intriguing.
I decided to give it a shot, reasoning that if I didn’t like it, or if Mebane turned out to be more of a boss than she let on, I could just go back to freelancing.
I’m still here four years later.
Education is fascinating. I grew up going to public and private schools in Raleigh. I attended both community college at Wake Tech and a traditional university at Chapel Hill. If you had asked me before I started this job, I would have told you I had a pretty good handle on education through my experiences. I was wrong.
I discovered that education is a microcosm of every issue facing us as a state and a nation: economics, racism, politics, and just the general strife and discord that has come to characterize policy discussion in the United States.
I started by covering principal pay and never looked back. I’ve sat in on local school board meetings where the antics on display rivaled that of a midnight movie. I’ve witnessed laws be pushed through the legislature despite explosive displays of discontent. I’ve seen battles at the highest level of education leadership over who should be in charge and what their responsibilities should be. I’ve seen how the decisions made by a few people meeting far from a school building can impact the youngest kid sitting in a classroom. I’ve seen the world writ small — through the lens of one issue that somehow still manages to capture everything that plagues and perplexes us about being human beings.
It has been an honor and a privilege.
Now lest this sound like a goodbye letter, let me assure you that I’m not going anywhere. There are big things ahead. The Republican legislature has lost its supermajority for the first time since I started this job, and I can’t wait to see how that impacts policy debates at the General Assembly. The State Board of Education has seen a great deal of turnover — leaning ever more Democrat — as it navigates a relationship with a Republican Superintendent of Public Instruction. The state’s school system has faced hurricanes, low performance, a struggle to find its way in the 21st century technology age, and more.
It’s never boring in education, and the fact that I’m still here four years later is a testament to that fact. I don’t deal well with boredom.
So, today I celebrate four years of EducationNC. Our staff has grown, but Mebane and I still remain. And, by the way, she is a boss after all, though she would cringe to hear me say it. It turns out I don’t mind answering to someone as long as it’s someone like her. I still avoid the office though. Some things never change.