Meet Karen Haller Beer – she’s a senior development editor for National Geographic Learning, a division of Cengage Learning. As the sole NGL employee in Pittsburgh, she covers a broad market around the world from her desk rental at Alloy 26. From Pittsburgh’s largest coworking space, Karen virtually travels the world as an “editor,” which for those unfamiliar with the publishing industry, basically means she masters many trades including writing, reading, researching, editing videos and e-books, book development, and creating user-friendly content. She’s a writer at heart, and appreciates how National Geographic Learning strives to make learning accessible to all.
As many of you know, March was (and still is) Women’s History Month. This year, Alloy 26 hosted its first International Women’s Day celebration, and we asked Karen what IWD and being a woman in business and a working mother means to her. She said this:
“The women in my life are the most important people. And women in this generation are actually killing it. There are so many women doing amazing work, and we’re not forgetting who we’ve always been in society – caring and kind. I think women have gone so far beyond their mother and grandmother’s generations when we see women in technology, female-run startup companies, women achieving success and fulfillment in their careers while balancing their personal lives. Now is an incredible time to be a woman. It’s an honor to be a role model to my children, and one of the best things that has happened as of recent was my daughter learning about my career and asking questions and then saying to me, ‘You’re such a smart lady.’”
We picked up our interview with Karen with the Q&A below… Enjoy!
Q: How did you get to where you are today?
A: For twelve years, I taught languages – French, Spanish, English as a second language, and subject matter (reading/literacy, Social Studies) in a bilingual classroom, where students were learning in both Spanish and English. I taught middle school up to adult level. I began my career at Schenley High School in Oakland, but spent the bulk of my teaching career working in Boston Public Schools.
In the summer of 2002, as an untenured teacher, I got laid off, as was the norm at that time. Summer would be stressful, and I’d spend it looking around at jobs. I saw a position for an editor of Spanish books and I applied, despite my lack of experience. I was hired to work on a Pearson (then Prentice Hall) Middle School Spanish series. Then, I got rehired for teaching. So, I did both – taught in the morning and worked at the publishing house in the evening. Once that book was published, I went on to work on many other titles for big academic publishing companies, including Cengage, Pearson, McDougal Littel, EMC publishing, etc. I would teach and then do writing and editing of academic titles on the side –working on everything from Preschool to Graduate level tests. I continued for several years: writing, editing, and teaching.
Once my daughter was born, I left teaching and moved back to Pittsburgh. I continued working as a freelancer while I was raising my two children at home. The freelancing offered flexibility, but it was hard to always manage childcare and work. I actually decided to accept a full-time job offer with National Geographic Learning in order to have less work and more structure for everyone in the family. So, in 2015, I began my current position at National Geographic Learning. I develop educational materials for primary level learners of English as a second language. The products I work on are sold in markets around the world – Asia, Latin America, Europe, Africa and the Middle East. There’s not a huge market in the US for the products I develop.
Q: What does a typical day look like? / Can you describe what you do as if I knew nothing about it or the market?
A: What I do: I develop textbooks, workbooks, videos, exams and all other learning materials for children learning English around the world. I write, edit, copyedit, proofread, do research for photos, etc. Basically, I take the content you see in National Geographic Magazine or on NatGeo TV, and I adapt it so that it can be used as a learning tool for kids. This way, they’re not doing some boring fill-in-the-blank grammar activity, like we remember from our high-school language classes. Rather, they’re reading about a fascinating topic – ice climbing, the history of emojis, space exploration, you name it! And we develop the activities and learning around these real-world topics.
In publishing, it’s all about the project. So, my typical day is dependent upon what project I’m working on. I spend a lot of time reading and writing, and I spend a lot of time supporting authors and other editors. Right now, for instance, I’m working on a brand new, seven-level series for grade school students. It’s a British English title, so I’m working with colleagues in the UK and Hong Kong, so my day starts early and ends early. Meetings are only about 1/3 of my time, but they all take place early in the day. Then, I read manuscript or look at PDFs of how the book will look. I give feedback or, if needed, rewrite things myself. Also, as a National Geographic Learning employee, I spend a lot of time researching photographs and videos. I am managing a video program right now, as well, so it looks like I spend my day on YouTube, but I’m actually researching videos that we can re-narrate for English Language Learners.
Q: What has been your biggest customer success story or company success story?
A: In an age of digital educational options, we’ve managed to break sales records all of the titles I’ve worked on. So, while many publishing companies are shifting models, our more traditional products are demonstrating that there’s still a demand for print, and they’re selling like hotcakes. Digital is great for older learners, but young children need to learn to interact with textbooks as well. (Of course, digital is a good supplement for young learners, and we do supplement our programs with online activities and app games.)
Q: What keeps you going when things get tough in your business?
A: Well, I try to avoid making things tough. I’ve got a great set-up. I’m remote, I’ve got a fairly flexible schedule, and I am usually able to keep my head down and plug along. Staying on top of my deadlines is key. For the most part, I’m pretty autonomous, so if there are problems, I can usually blame myself. However, I have learned how to manage my time and workload in a way that I am almost always able to stay ahead of the curve, and pitch in so that others on my team don’t fall behind. People will come to me and request changes at the eleventh hour, or some major error will be uncovered and things will need to be completely revised, or we might find out that we can’t license a video or photo that we’ve already developed around. I’ve learned to roll with the punches, fix the problem, and move on. There’s no use grumbling.
Q: What do you do when you’re not in the office?
A: I work at home three days a week, in a home office. I’m there to take care of my new French bulldog puppy, Frida! Once she’s trained, I’ll be back at Alloy 26 daily. As mentioned, I’m a mom of two children (6 and 9), so I spend a lot of time with the kids. I volunteer at their school and in their activities when I’m able. I’m on a nonprofit board – Pittsburgh Youth Philharmonic Orchestra, of which my daughter’s a member.
I volunteer in my community as the editor of our neighborhood newsletter, the Allegheny West Gazette. I love to read and cook. I’m taking cello lessons, though I won’t call myself a cellist! (Maybe in 5 years!) I love to travel, as well.
Q: What 3 things does anyone starting in your industry need to know?
Q: What’s it like working in a coworking space?
A: This coworking space has really been a great thing for me. I’ve been working from home for the last 7 years, with my kids. It is HARD. Unlike someone without little kids, I can’t just pop out and meet my friends for happy hour after a long day working at home. After I finish, I’m STILL at home, so I get very stir crazy. Coffee shops and the like are fine, but I don’t have enough time in my schedule to drive/walk around looking for one with just the right noise level, seating, electrical outlets, and reliable Wi-Fi. As such, Alloy 26 has been a total Godsend. It’s a wonderful work atmosphere, and even if I just exchange a quick good morning, it’s great to have some human interaction face-to-face, and not just through Skype or Webex. Working from home is convenient, but it’s great to feel like I “go to work.”
Q: Where do you see the future of your industry?
A: Educational materials are increasingly online, though I think there’s still room for books, especially at young learners. I talk about this above. I think that educational materials at the elementary/middle school level will always be a mix of print and online.
Thanks again to Karen Haller Beer for being our March Influencer at Alloy 26. If you know someone you think should be featured on our monthly blog, please reach out to Rebecca at firstname.lastname@example.org.