Teachers Matter

This article is excerpted from Teaching and Literature with Children and Young Adults, May/June 1996. Alas, it is more relevant than ever.

When I was invited by a famous professor (hereafter referred to as FP) to join the faculty of a famous summer writing program for teachers at a famous university, I found myself in hot water almost immediately.

On the second day, the FP in charge of this famous program accosted me in the hallway, “Some teachers in your section came to me yesterday, wondering why you suggested a writing topic.” The FP paused and the continued, “Did you do this?”

I acknowledged that I had and started to explain the pedagogical base of that particular classroom assignment. The FP interrupted me, “Haven’t you read my book? I invited you here because I thought you understood the process.” The FP then went on to proclaim that teachers who flock to this famous program know about the process and are understandably upset when an instructor wanders off course, particularly a new instructor.

I admit this attack rendered me speechless–and not just momentarily. It has, in fact, taken me close to ten years to respond. I’m not the sort of person who is easily scared off by sacred cows or even sacred processes, but I am a teacher as well as a writer, and to be a teacher is, of course, to be plagued by insecurity and self-doubt. Daily, as a teacher and as a writer, I face the knowledge that there are at least sixty-three other ways to perform my every act. If I had to weigh the relative merits of maintaining dogged determination in the face of preposterous pedagogy and enduring humility in the face of great mystery, I’d find the scales pretty well balanced.

I had indeed read the FP’s book and although I thought it offered one interesting possibility for helping teachers teach writing to children, its method bore little relationship to the way I go about writing for publication . Prior to arriving at the famous university, it simply had ever occurred to me that there might be a problem, that only one method would be allowed at the summer writing program.

Naive me. Territorialism is the ruling doctrine of the people who inhabit schools of education. At the university, turf and pedagogy are inseparable.

Naive me, I thought I’d been invited by the FP to teach in the famous program at the famous university because I was myself a writer with considerable experience. After publishing over 100 articles in professional and popular journals while teaching in public schools, I had left the classroom and become staff writer at a leading education magazine. After five years of that, I had left the magazine to make my living as a freelance writer. So there I was, thinking I’d been invited to the famous university as a teacher who could provide some inside info about getting published in a variety of journals. If nothing else, I have some funny stories about the rather amazing practices and procedures in editorial offices ranging from New York Teacher to Education Week to The Atlantic, Washington Monthly, The Nation, USA Today, English Teacher, Phi Delta Kappan, and so on. Imagine my chagrin, on my very first day in the ivied halls of this famous university, to be informed that the FP didn’t think my opinions on teaching or writing are worth a mouth full of warm spit.

Because I am essentially a pragmatist, over the years I have found myself gradually bringing more of my own experience as a writer into my classrooms and relying less on the received wisdom of the ivory tower. I often suggest writing topics to students because that’s the way writing works in the real world. About 90% of my topics both as a magazine staff writer and as a freelancer have come from editors. A editor will phone and say, “Can you write an article on _____?” Nine times out ten I’ll reply, “Sure,” even while I’m cringing because it’s a topic in which I think I have no interest. Being a writer means knowing you can write your way into devotion to a topic. I would hasten to point out that I do not offer my students topics of the ilk recommended in the NCTE publication What Can I Write About? Here, chosen at random are a few of the seven thousand topics recommended in the book:

  • Is morality an effect on religion?
  • Why and how does an idea originate?
  • What causes leaking electricity?
  • How the IRS catches tax-evaders.
  • How to dental floss the right way.
  • Define an intangible of a concrete something.
  • Write on wheezing and sneezing.
  • Polk: Why is he considered one of our great presidents?
  • Enchiladas are the turkey of Mexico’s Christmas dinner.
  • Does a racehorse know it is a racehorse?

I’m not making this up. The wonderful thing about writing about education is that you never have to make anything up.

Any teacher who offers such topics to her students deserve to be faced with the chore of reading the results. Similarly, primary grade teachers who assign such cute “story starters” as “Pretend you are a pencil” or “Write about your day as the tooth fairy deserve a similar fate.

If some teachers doom their students and themselves to a writer’s hell by assigning inappropriate stock topics, writing process folk put entirely too much emphasis on insisting that inexperienced writers come up with their own topics. Experience tells me that it matters little who conceives of a topic. What matters is that the writer embraces that topic, worries over it, nurtures it, and nags it along. As a writer, I have never been assigned a topic that I didn’t end up liking.

As Paul Theroux has observed and the short life span of poets confirms, even at the best of times, “Writing is pretty crummy on the nerves.” Getting handed a topic reduces the initial tension, wards off butterflies allays panic, and may have a beneficial effect on planters warts. Knowing right away what you’re going to write about gives you a jump start on the agony of producing something. I’m always grateful when an editor relieves me of the job of searching the universe for something to write about. I will still dither and delay, finding lots of excuses for not writing, but at least I’m dithering about something instead of floundering in an abyss.

Some may carp that great literature comes from divine inspiration, not from an editor’s phone call or a teacher’s suggested topic list. But only in Kafka’s Amerika can everyone be an artist. We teachers must remind ourselves that our job isn’t to teach the great novelists and poets of tomorrow. Out job, popular pedagogy to the contrary, isn’t even to train great diarists of the future. The good news is that teachers can’t stop the poets, even if they try.

My experience with the FP at the famous university went from bad to worse. I kept teaching instead of facilitating–and the FP kept hearing about it and catching me in the hallway to hector me about it. At the end of the first week, the FP invited me to pack my bags and leave the campus.

I was upset, unsure, and close to panic This was a new emotion for me. After following orders in my first green year and teaching Silas Marner to hapless ninth graders, I’d never toed the administrative party line again. In the ensuing years I’d had significant pedagogical disputes with a string of administrators, but I’d never been run out of town.

I phoned my husband, himself a teacher, a writer, and my best editor. I told him I was thinking of coming home. He offered some words of consolation. “Are you nuts?” He reminded me that I know how to teach and how to write. “You let yourself get chased off by some petty tyrant, and you’ll always regret it.”

When I refused to leave, the FP offered to come to my class and teach a demonstration lesson. I knew that the teachers in my class would be thrilled. People come to this famous university, after all, for the chance to worship at the feet of the FP.

The demonstration lesson was a surprise. While the teachers worked on their pieces, the FP bounded around the room, interrogating first one writer, then another, then another. “Show me the strongest sentence in this paragraph,” the FP accosted the oldest teacher in the room. I’d been impressed that this shy woman of thirty-two years teaching experience would spend her summer learning new things. “I want to prove that you can teach an old dog new tricks,” she’d told me.

The teacher dutifully pointed to her strongest sentence and her weakest. The FP pounced, “No!” The expletive filled the room, causing all the other teachers who had been pretending to concentrate on their own writing, to freeze. “This is your strongest sentence.” The FP jabbed the paper. “And this is your weakest.”

Oh. Thanks for sharing.

Demonstration done, the FP swept from the room, leaving me to pick up the pieces. Teachers were confused. They asked me to interpret. They asked if they should patrol the room, frequently interrupting students. They were worried that when one student is interrogated, all the others are listening. I resorted to the old teacher standby of protecting a guilty colleague. After all, these teachers were giving up a summer to sit at the feet of the FP. I said that a demonstration lesson can be difficult and even misleading when you try to compact a variety of strategies into one short lesson.

The next morning, when we attended the daily general assembly wherein the FP inspired the large group with poignant anecdotes, the FP offered a mini-lesson. “I visited a classroom yesterday and asked a teacher to show me the strongest sentence in this piece of writing,” the FP began. And that’s how a thirty-two year veteran teacher who had given up the summer to learn new things became the bad example in front of four hundred and fifty of her colleagues.

All these years later, I am still angry.

With my experience at the famous university in mind, when the Pennsylvania state education department invited me to lead a weekend writing retreat for fifteen teachers, I decided to set clear boundaries right from the start. I sent attendees a letter asking that they bring a piece of writing about some aspect of education to the retreat. I suggested a wide range of possibilities: commentaries, how-to pieces, across-the-curriculum themes, difficult student and/or administrator profiles, crystal moments, and so on. This, I told enrollees, is what I’m qualified to help with. I do education. I do not do windows. Nor do I do poetry, fiction, or self-help autobiography.

Entirely tongue in cheek, I wrote to enrollees, “In the best of all worlds we’d each arrive with a computer…” I soon learned not to make jokes. I was the only person who arrived at the mountain retreat without a computer. And I’m not talking notebooks or laptops. Earnest teachers arrived with full-size computers and printers. The state education department functionary who had organized the course drove twenty miles to a hardware store for a bag of adapter plugs. Even so, the building was not equipped for such a computer overload.

Not that it mattered. Even though this enthusiastic bunch of savvy teachers had each come with a piece of writing, only three of them seemed able to get into the difficult, often tortuous, process of rewriting, rewriting, and rewriting. The rest wanted to talk about “the process.” Talk and talk and talk. I will say there was some good talk. Talk about teaching, talk even about writing. But it soon became clear that this group was better at talking about writing than actually writing. One enthusiastic talker actually left the weekend retreat with less writing than she arrived with.

A second request that I made of these retreat enrollees that they bring along a copy of the publication for which they were writing their article. One out of the fifteen did this. The others had something they wanted to say but no notion of a specific audience which might be willing and able to receive it. And “audience” proved to be the Waterloo of the course. Although these teachers were much further along the road of writing for a purpose than those at the famous university, they had a singular disinterest in figuring out for whom they were writing. I had brought along stacks of journals that accept unsolicited manuscripts, along with the writer’s guidelines. I had brought along samples of my own articles that were prototypes for various departments in the teacher magazine that employed me, articles that follow a format that is formulaic and not difficult to learn. But the weekend writers weren’t much interested in audience or format. They had something to say and sailed blithely forth, trusting their words au naturel to find both a form and an audience.

I’m sure there are at least sixteen messages in all this. For one thing, all the people who support students’ variant learning styles might pay some attention to teachers’ variant teaching styles. After all, when everybody agrees, nobody is thinking very much, even when the subject is writing process. Uncertainty in the faculty room is regarded as admission of weakness. As teachers, we need to support our colleagues who are inclined to what Donald Schon calls reflection-in-action (The Reflective Practitioner). These are people who are not glib about proclaiming what they know how to do, people who are uneasy about proclaiming the quality or rigor of their work. These are people who know that to be a teacher is to be aware that at any given moment you may be wrong.