My Turn: Selling My Skills to a School

How Toastmasters training helped a teacher in a tough spot. 

By Kealah Parkinson, ATMB

I sat in the parking lot of my doctor’s office with a lump forming in my throat: This wasn’t a health care crisis, but a simple case of speaking nerves, and I – an Advanced Toastmaster – was crestfallen.

Not only am I a Toastmaster, I’m also a professional writer, speaker and speech coach. But the simple cell phone conversation I was having at that moment was not going as expected.

A couple of months prior, I had answered an advertisement in my local paper, calling for instructors with innovative course ideas for the regional adult education center. I had a course in the can: “Speak Your Truth,” a communications class that highlights spiritual principles and conflict resolution skills. I’d subtitled it “How to Get What You Want (by Simply Saying What You Mean)” and had geared the curriculum toward interpersonal relationships. The ideal pupils I envisioned were spiritually aware, highly intellectual and willing to go deep into their inner selves in front of strangers. In short, they were just like me!

I submitted my proposal and received a cursory e-mail response (“Your course sounds interesting”; “We’ll phone you in November to set up an interview/learn more”). That convinced me I would reach these neighboring, like-minded souls, and that my course would be a major success.

As fate would have it, Hurricane Ike remnants rained fury over the American Midwest, damaging many properties in that area, including my home. I suffered from stress-related heart problems after that, and spent some time in the hospital, racking up bills that my husband and I could scarcely afford. In the wake of the November presidential election, the media buzzword became “economy” – but I soldiered on with faith in my fellow spiritual seekers, certain that there were others out there pursuing personal improvement, maybe with even more vigilance during these trying times. It seemed destined that we would connect, because we were so much alike.

However, it wasn’t going to be easy. My health care team slated a three-week intensive therapy program for me. The November dates were not flexible; I begrudgingly cleared my work schedule and social calendar to begin treatment. Halfway through the program, I received a voice mail message at my home office: The adult education center was ready to schedule my interview, and wanted it to happen as soon as possible.

The catch to this joyously expected news was that the center’s offices closed at 4 p.m. daily – while my therapy sessions lasted until at least 3 p.m. on the other side of town, a 30-minute drive from my home office. Panicking, I concocted a plan: I would phone from the parking lot of my doctor’s office, date book in hand, and schedule my interview then. Four days of “phone tag” passed before I finally reached a receptionist who muttered a complaint about not hearing from me. She also said interviews had been finished the day before. Then, while I was trying to process that bad news – and wondering why they hadn’t received my voice- and e-mail messages – she patched me through to the center’s director.

So there I sat in my car, pen poised over calendar, listening to the director explain that “due to the economy,” their enrollment rates were at an all-time low; and that the demographics were mostly blue-collar employees who were looking for practical courses aimed at gaining employment. Certainly, he was saying my course was no longer a good fit.

When he graciously asked me to tell him a little about myself, I seized the moment: This was the interview I’d been calling to get! Though nothing in my professional past had ever prepared me for an on-the-fly, over-the-phone, sitting-in-your-car-in-a-parking-lot interview, Toastmasters had prepared me to speak on any subject at any moment via our many Table Topics exercises.

I told him the truth: As an active member of my Toastmasters club and the group’s former public relations officer, I had tripled the club membership through a marketing campaign that included a monthly newsletter. I said little about my career or corporate success. But he hired me on the spot to teach a different class, asking me to craft a course description that addressed the needs of the center’s new market: the newly unemployed.

When I returned to my desk that day, I realized, as I began to write the course description, that my new class would still be filled with ideal students who were – as fellow job hunters in trying times – truly just like me

Kealah Parkinson, ATMB, is a member of Extreme Toastmasters club in Chicago, Illinois. Reach her at