This is the first post in a three-part series focusing on teachers as writers. In this series, I’m going to explore why and how teachers should write for themselves and for an audience – whether that’s an audience of students or an audience of published work.
There are many great reasons to pick up a pen and start writing, whatever your teaching method. As an English teacher, it makes sense that part of teaching writing would include understanding the craft. What I’m talking about here though goes beyond just the benefits of writing in the English classroom. Writing helps you to organise your thoughts, clarifying the gaps and inconsistencies in your knowledge. Writing can also help you to focus and pull together disparate ideas, making new sense out of the jumbled contents of your mind.
Teachers, like our students, lurch from one period to another at breakneck speed, sometimes barrelling through six periods a day without pausing for breath. Writing can be a meditative act, forcing us to slow down and take stock of the day. For me, the act of writing produces a calm, focused feeling which is often lacking in other parts of the day.
Writing also brings career benefits ranging from recognition to extra income. Teachers have a wealth of expertise, both in their subject area and in broader contexts such as classroom management, communication, interpersonal skills and leadership. People want to hear what teachers have to say. Trade journals and online magazines such as Teacher, ACEL’s Resources in Action, and teacher association publication’s like VATE’s Idiom are always calling out for genuine voices from the classroom. Some of these – like the offering from ACEL – will pay you for your writing. Others, like Idiom, offer you an audience of like-minded teachers and school leaders who will appreciate what you have to offer.
Finally, your students will benefit greatly. The more you write, the more confident you will become with communicating your ideas and subject knowledge. You’ll find that writing helps you to put structure behind complex thoughts about your own best practice, and in doing so will become more critical of your pedagogy. In some subjects – like English – the benefits are obvious and immediate. The new VCE English and EAL Study Design, for example, has increased the amount of original and creative writing required of students dramatically, and students will need extra support and modelling. But being able to confidently write long answer responses, live in front of a class, has advantages in many subject areas.
The history of teachers as writers
It might sound intimidating, but over the course of these posts I’ll explore how teachers can learn to write and publish across many different forms. My own writing has increased dramatically since around 2017, when I first began publishing articles in Idiom and elsewhere. Since then, I’ve been a co-author and then lead author for the popular Jacaranda English text books, I’ve written many Year 12 text guides for publishers like Insight Publications and Neap, I’ve written a book for teachers on Practical Reading Strategies, and I’ve had several science fiction short stories accepted into magazines. I’ve currently got three books under contract, and half a dozen ideas on the table.
And I’m not alone. There is a long history of teachers who have decided to write in both fiction and nonfiction. Some of the most famous – like JK Rowling, Michael Morpurgo, Phillip Pullman, and popular YA author Eoin Colfer, wrote while they were still in the classroom. Dan Brown, author of the international bestseller The Da Vinci Code, gave up teaching to write. William Golding drew on his own experiences as a teacher when he published one of the most studied texts of western classrooms: The Lord of the Flies. And in the nonfiction arena, many of the books used by teachers every day were written by teachers. I’ve mentioned already that publishers like Jacaranda, Insight, and Neap use teachers to produce or co-author many of their texts. My publisher, Alicia Cohen at Amba Press, actively seeks out teachers and educators, resulting in great books like Simple Tools by Martin Jorgensen (AP of Virtual School Victoria) and Seriously Fun Maths by Dr Laura Tuohilampi (Mathematics researcher and pre-service teacher trainer at UNSW).
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Where to start?
If you’re not accustomed to writing it can be daunting to even imagine putting pen to paper: imagine how it feels for our adolescent students. Start simple. Keep a daily (or even weekly) journal or diary where you scribble down your thoughts at the end or beginning of each day. It doesn’t have to be pretty, and it might never get published, but it will help you to start to develop your own writing groove. It might sound counterintuitive, but looking back over about 10 years of diaries I can see clearly that I produce the most writing at times when I’m incredibly busy. It looks like if I am in the middle of writing a book, or if I’m under the pump from the day-to-day operations of the school, then the amount I pour into these little notebooks – at the end of the day for me – increases exponentially. At other times, I don’t write anything for days or weeks. These ‘black spots’ in my writing seem to coincide with periods where I’m also not publishing much in the real world. I haven’t examined it enough to know if it’s chicken-or-egg: does journalling more lead to more creative output, or is the journalling some sort of spillover from increased writing in my daily life? Either way, I can use one to kick-start the other.
Don’t worry about joining creative writing courses, writer’s clubs, or workshops just yet. I haven’t done anything as formal as that since I was at university, and frankly there’s not much you can’t learn about writing by simply reading and writing lots yourself. It is helpful to get advice occasionally, but that’s what editors are for – I’ll write about that more in a later post.
Get a decent pen and some paper that doesn’t tear when you look at it. Find some software you like (I’ve used Google Docs, Scrivener, Notepad, and Microsoft Word, but usually return to Docs or Word). And, most importantly, start writing!
In the next two posts I’ll talk more about how and where to find opportunities to publish your writing, how to build confidence writing in front of students, and my process for writing anything from blog posts to books to science fiction short stories.
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