Those who can, do; those who can't, teach. The oft-repeated idiom that can cause any otherwise reasonable teacher to lose her freaking mind if some idiot speaks it in her presence. I despise this phrase as much as any other teacher. Except for when I agree with it.
As a teacher of writing, I'm concerned by how many of us take ourselves out of the "doing" of being a writer as soon as we step into the role of teaching writing. That's a monumental problem. As soon as we distance ourselves from the role of Writer and place ourselves into the more common Judge of Writers role that English teachers occupy, we sever part of the magic of teaching writing. Any moron on the Internet can judge writing; just look at the comments sections on any widely circulated piece of written material. Growing writers need their teachers to be writers.
There are so many reasons not to write as an English teacher. We have to read and comment on hundreds of papers. We don't only teach writing, we also have to give equal time to develop reading, speaking, and listening skills. Writing takes a lot of time, something teachers will constantly remind you that they are always short on. We have personal lives in addition to being teachers.
And yet, as true as all those things are, they are still cop-outs.
Teachers are busy, but so are students. We don't allow their busy lives to be an excuse for not writing, and many of them have far more packed into their schedules on a nightly basis than adults do. If being busy isn't an excuse for students, then it can't be an excuse for adults. Being busy is a false excuse anyway. Workload isn't what really stops writing teachers from writing.
Vulnerability and fear of failure stop teachers from writing.
The act of writing, whether it is a personal narrative that bares your darkest demons to the world or a research paper you poured hours into constructing, requires vulnerability. Many teachers, many adults in general, are terrified of being vulnerable in front of kids. For the record, I am too. Middle school kids are hilarious and sincere and awkward, and they are also one hundred percent completely freaking horrifying. There are times when writing in front of my students, or sharing my previously written work with them, makes me break out in a cold sweat because I am so honest-to-God scared of their judgment. And that's a good thing. Because that's exactly how kids feel when they have to turn in work to an all-knowing-Grammar Nazi-English teacher. Writing teachers need to write and share our writing with our students so the vulnerability of writing stays fresh in our minds, lest we forget how even the shortest paragraph released to the world takes monumental courage.
Fear of failure in writing is different than failing a test or a project in another class. Writing is our thoughts on paper. It is the purest translation of what goes on in our brains. When we fail at writing, we aren't just failing at basic knowledge or memorization; it is personal. There is no way to separate the writer's ego from the writing. So it's easier to not write than it is to risk exposing our inner selves as failures. This is true for reluctant writers who say they don't care or hate writing in order to cover up their insecurity. This is just as true for writing teachers who have turned into editors because judging doesn't require the risk of failure that accompanies creating. Writing teachers need to write and share our writing so that we face failure and overcome it. This is the way we become champions for our growing writers instead of villains with red pens.
I write with my students regularly. I can do better by participating in all parts of the writing process, not just the ones I enjoy. I write here for a public audience. I can do better by being more consistent. NCTE's middle-level publication, Voices from the Middle, has a new call for manuscripts that's asking for submissions from teachers who write. I'd be a hypocrite if I didn't try to write and submit something, even though my chances for publication would be slim. I encourage my student-writers to seek publication whenever possible, and I need to risk vulnerability and failure to do the same. I am currently leading an initiative for ICTE that encourages Iowa English teachers to write for our website. I was originally frustrated by the slim number of people willing to write. I need to focus my energy instead on encouraging the voices who are ready to share, in hopes that we will reach more of those reluctant teacher-writers.
Writing teachers have to write. We are cheating our students and ourselves if we don't. Vulnerability and failure are far better risks than ending up as teachers who can't practice what we preach.
After spending the first week of summer break in a sloth-like existence, I've buckled down over the past two weeks to work on my 7th grade curriculum. What's wrong with what I do in seventh grade? Nothing, really, except that after ten years of teaching, I'm still not satisfied with it, and that means there's work to do.
Eighth grade is easy for me. Maybe it's the age or the content, but I've always been more satisfied and enthusiastic about what my class holds for eighth graders, and I know that impacts their learning. I don't think there will ever be a time when I don't prefer eighth to seventh, but I owe it to myself and my students to keep trying. It's become a standard part of my summer work to come up with changes to seventh grade. This year, I finally have a plan that's bringing me closer to where I want to be.
Writing workshop runs smoothly in eighth grade because my students already know me and my classroom routines. We can hit the ground running with relatively few bumps along the way. The beginning of seventh grade, however, is a struggle for me and my new students. I know this is mostly my fault. I want them to adapt to my expectations as quickly as possible, and I'm not giving them enough explicit instruction on what a writing workshop is. In fact, if you asked my students, they probably don't even realize that they are in a writing workshop because I rarely use that term to explain it to them. Seventh graders enter my room having never participated in workshop before, and my frustration in the first month often shows. Instead of trying to force seventh graders to play catch up to where I want them to be (unfairly comparing them to eighth graders), I need to spend more time at the beginning of the year teaching them how and why my class runs the way it does. More focus on structure. More teaching them how to be productive, independent writers instead of throwing them in the pool and expecting them to swim.
As I've written in the past, I rely heavily on Kelly Gallagher and Penny Kittle as writing teacher mentors. On any given day in my classroom, you can find some idea that I've tweaked from one of their books, and no matter what changes I make to seventh grade, that won't. But now I'm adding ideas from Day by Day: Refining Writing Workshop Through 180 Days of Reflective Practice by Ruth Ayres and Stacey Shubitz to my arsenal. I'm only twenty pages in, and I'm already forcing myself to think about how often I've set seventh graders up for failure by not giving them enough structure to be successful from the start. It shouldn't have to be a trial by fire to learn to write in my classroom. I can ease them in if I take the time to plan ahead.
After a few days of work, I'm already excited for next year (is it August yet?!). I know this is the biggest step I've taken toward improving 7th grade, and putting in the work now will hopefully lead to a smoother transition once school starts. I want to look forward to seventh grade as much as I do eighth, and having this plan in place might be what helps me finally overcome the gap between the two.
This weekend was my town's annual summer festival, aka the weekend when everyone comes back for class reunions and other shenanigans. My husband had his fifteen year class reunion, so we ended up out and about, too. The street dance/ concert was unnerving for me for one major reason: roughly 30% of the crowd was now former students of mine from my earliest years of teaching. Some smiled and waved, some awkwardly avoided eye contact while still trying to stare at me, and some visibly sneered (all completely justifiable reactions). I've written here before about how much teacher guilt I have for those students from my first few years of teaching; how now that I'm an exponentially better educator, I feel like I didn't do them justice, or I caused them irreparable harm in some neglectful way. Which is why a moment from last night meant so much to me.
This is one of my original students. One of the very first I had for both seventh and eighth grade. He was an adorable kid then, and when we ran into each other last night, the smile on his face when he said, "Miss Springsteen!" was enough to make my heart melt into a puddle. We hugged, but instead of moving on after checking in on life, he stayed by my side to tell me three things that made my heart happy:
1. "Because you read Ender's Game to us, I realized that I love reading and I love science fiction and fantasy. When I read the Song of Ice and Fire books, I thought about how Miss Springsteen would love these!"
This is the definition of success for any English teacher: something I did made a kid fall in love with reading for pleasure for the rest of his life. And as a sci-fi/fantasy junkie, it's always gratifying to welcome a new convert to the fold.
2. "I still have my old journals you made us write, with your comments in them. I was just at my parents' house the other day looking through them."
Knowing that he kept those old composition notebooks gives me chills, because I still have mine from my high school Comp class. Yes, the writing is mostly terrible, but I still look back fondly on the ritual of it, the connection journaling created for me as a writer and human trying to process life. Him keeping the journals means (to me, at least) that he made that connection in some way, too, and that's what I want for my writers.
3. "Do you remember when you stood up for me in the hallway that time? Someone was picking on me, and you came over and told him to stop. When you did that, people stopped picking on me. That made such a difference."
As a middle school teacher, I've reamed out so many kids for bullying comments over the years that it's become second nature. Sometimes I worry that my involvement embarrasses kids, or might make the bullying worse. Hearing that I was a defender and protector when someone needed it reinforces that I'm not one of those teachers who doesn't notice when a kid needs my help.
He then went on to introduce me to his older siblings and family who were there. His brother even laughed and said, "Oh, we all heard about how awesome you were, Miss Springsteen."
Hearing such unabashed praise for how much of an influence I had on his young life was just the reminder I needed when surrounded by all those former students. My fear of failing them isn't completely dissolved; I know I'll always bear a certain amount of guilt for those early years. But knowing that I still did enough to make such a difference in at least one young man's life is enough to make me cut my younger teaching self some slack.
I teach 7th and 8th grade English in rural Iowa and hope to reflect, connect, and share with other English teachers. Iowa Council of Teachers of English Executive Board member. Iowa Writing Project superfan. UNI MA:TESS graduate.