Teachers as Writers: Part Three

In the previous two posts in this series I explored the reasons teachers might wish to write, and some of the ways in which teachers could increase their writing output. In this third and final post on the subject, I’ll explore the process of moving from teacher to author, and how to get published.

Calling yourself an author

It wasn’t until my published work was up in double figures that I felt I could comfortably add “author” to my LinkedIn profile (bracketed by those compulsory | lines which don’t seem to exist outside of LinkedIn bios). Getting to that stage was a reasonably lengthy process, much of which didn’t actually involve writing at all. In fact, the actual writing is just the tip of the “author” iceberg. You have to have something to write about, plus the confidence that what you’re writing is accurate, or at least entertaining. You have to work hard to build an audience if you want a readership, which sometimes includes stepping well out of your comfort zone. The point of any kind of writing, after all, is to have someone read it. If, like I suggested in previous articles, your writing is limited to diaries and journals, then you only have one reader to impress. If, on the other hand, you want to scale beyond reading your own night time scrawls and towards other actual humans reading your writing, then there are a few things to do along the way.

Step one: Just write

Everything is clearer in hindsight. I can track back my writing history to 2008, two years before I moved to Australia. The writing at the time came first in the form of a travel diary, and then at the first heavy-handed attempts to write a science fiction novel. The novel never went anywhere, although early chunks of it still haunt my hard drive and occasionally bubble up through short stories and other pieces of writing. The important thing was the process. You can’t try to write a novel without committing to volume. A novel isn’t a few thousand words – you’re looking at at least 50,000, and probably more like 80,000 words plus. All of that writing – even though much of it was later discarded and never read again – was practice. Countless authors – including Stephen King, Margaret Atwood, and Jack Kerouac – extol the simple advice of “just write” as the key to becoming an author.

Your “just write” doesn’t have to be a sweeping (read, overwritten), dramatic (histrionic) work of science fiction (had a robot in it). It could be the aforementioned journalling, or a commitment to write something, anything, daily. I have a daily minimum of 1000 words across anything I’m currently working on, which I generally stick to. Those habits were established early.

Step two: find your niche

Once you’ve committed to writing in bulk, you’ll want to start carving out a niche and building expertise in one particular area as a way to focus and refine your writing.

Switching over to my educational writing, the first piece of work I had published as a teacher was an article in the Victorian Association for the Teaching of English’s magazine Idiom. It was a reflection on the Community of Practice in which our school researched reading, and the early stages of what later turned into Practical Reading Strategies. Specialising in one element of your teaching allows you to develop confidence and “career capital” in that area. As part of the CoP, we worked with other schools and academics, and presented at the state conference on what we discovered.

Here are a few examples of places you can look to present your work once you’ve discovered your niche. Many of these actively seek teachers to demonstrate their expertise in an area, and others will be open to unsolicited emails from teachers looking to get published:

  • The magazine, email circular, or journal for your subject area associations, both state and national. For English, that’s organisations like VATE and AATE.
  • Online publications like Teacher and The Educator Online . These publish both subject/discipline specific writing – such as writing about teaching practice in Mathematics, or literacy – and writing that is more broadly about education and pedagogy.
  • Op-eds. The Age, The Sydney Morning Herald and others accept submissions from teachers and school leaders, either as a sole contribution or as part of an article written by one of their journalists.
  • Education associations and journals, such as ACEL and AARE. If your work has more of a research-based or leadership slant, you might want to submit to journals which extend beyond subject disciplines.

Step three: get noticed

You’re writing in quantity, and through specialisation you’re targeting quality. Hopefully, it shouldn’t take long before you’ve got a few pieces published here and there in association journals and online magazines. The next step is to leverage that writing and use it to get noticed. This doesn’t have to mean flooding social media channels with links to your writing – this won’t be effective anyway if your writing is hidden behind a paywall or association membership.

The way to turn your writing into something that grabs attention is to present. Use your writing as the basis for conference talks, workshops, professional learning, or online videos. This is the part of the writing process that actually ends up being the most useful. Writing demonstrates your knowledge, but relies on the right people reading it. In the constant onslaught of information online, things you write can easily get missed. But at a conference, presentation, or PL, you can highlight your work in front of people – either face to face or online – and make it much easier to get noticed.

Conferences are also opportunities to get talent scouted. It’s common for members of bigger publishing houses to attend keynotes, plenaries, and panel discussions looking for people with good ideas to add to their list of authors. If you take your hard work and your writing, turn it into something worth presenting, and pull a decent audience, you may get approached shortly after by a publisher looking for a new writer.

Step four: get paid

This step might seem a little cynical. After all, there’s every chance that if you’re teaching, you’re not in it for the money (though given the ongoing teacher shortages, a little more would be nice…). But as much as it’s important to have your work published and noticed, there comes at point at which it’s unsustainable to put a lot of time and energy into writing without getting some form of payment.

This doesn’t have to mean getting a six-figure advance and a five book deal. In fact, even with royalties and advances it’s unlikely that writing will be your primary source of income. It’s the elements of step three – the conferences, presentations and professional learning – that generate the real returns. Writing kickstarts a virtuous cycle. The more you write, the more you think deeply about your subject area. The more you think, the more ideas you have for the kind of content you’d like to put out through speaking and running workshops. These interactions will then spark more ideas for further writing – perhaps in response to a particularly spiky question from an audience member, or through a connection with another teacher-writer who you can coauthor with, or by falling down yet another research rabbit hole.

Getting paid for writing is never really the goal. It’s the flow on effects from the writing that generate the real benefits.

The process

So, in summary, here’s the process from start to finish. This doesn’t have to be the way you do it. You might stumble into writing accidentally, perhaps by getting asked to put some thoughts down on paper after a successful program. You might fall into writing through your research, moving from academic writing to writing for a broader audience. You might – like me – start with a desire to write fiction, and then spend more time than you expected in nonfiction before eventually circling back. But this process worked for me, and it has worked for many other teacher-writers I’ve spoken with over the years.

  1. Just write. Write in bulk. Write anything. Journal, write fiction, write opinion pieces no one will ever see. Just get words down on the page.
  2. Build your subject matter expertise and carve a niche. Take part in research projects, communities of practice, and professional learning, and write about your reflections.
  3. Publish through journals, articles, and magazines. Approach publishers directly and ask if they accept teacher submissions.
  4. Present. Speak at conferences for your teaching association, or education more broadly. Run professional learning, seminars and workshops that reference your writing. Get noticed.
  5. Publish commercially. If you’re lucky enough to be approached directly, and the publisher aligns with your values, seize the opportunity to get published. If you have a great idea and a body of work – including writing and presenting – approach publishers directly.
  6. Create a virtuous cycle. Write, present, and then write some more.

Why write?

In the ongoing debates about teacher shortages and the proposed solutions, one thing keeps coming up again and again: the perception of the professionalism of teachers.

In the first post I wrote about the benefits of writing on a small scale: in the classroom to model for your students, or on a personal level as stress relief and a way to organise your thoughts. Now, I’m talking about the impact of writing on a larger scale.

Teachers who write give themselves another platform to demonstrate the professionalism and expertise of the vocation. My final point is that we need more teachers to demonstrate their expertise, their understanding of the system, and their advocacy for other teachers through writing and speaking.

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