Teaching is hectic. The combination of precision work and chaos theory can make the school year feel like an attempt to knit a sweater while riding a Tilt-A-Whirl. Most of us collapse on the couch at the end of another tumultuous day wondering, “What the hell just happened?”
Writing provides a way to clarify the daily jumble of triumphs, stumbles, joys, and miseries in ink on the page. Once we write down the intense experiences, ideas, and questions that frame our professional lives, we can disentangle them and make some sense of that Tilt-A-Whirl world of the classroom.
Reflective Writing for Yourself
Shanna Peeples, the 2015 National Teacher of the Year, recommends that every teacher take 10 minutes a day to do a quick-write on these three questions: What do I do well? What do I need to work on? What do I want to do next?
When I sit down to write, I often find one tiny moment from my school day—a partial thought, a fleeting question, a funny or insightful comment from one of my students—scratching at my mind like a grain of sand trapped in an oyster shell. Those gritty fragments won’t all turn into pearls, but it’s worth taking the time to figure out why, of all that happened in a wild rumpus of a day, that particular moment has lodged in my head or heart.
So much regimented professional learning is external: conferences, workshops, faculty meetings, and professional learning communities.
But when I ask great teachers how they continue to get better each year, they mostly talk about three things that are hard to capture in bulleted norms and numbered agendas: collaboration, mentoring, and reflection.
We have to build the internal, often solitary practice of reflection into our lives as teachers. Reflective writing is a way to create the space and time for that solitude.
Writing for an Audience: Blog Posts, Columns, or Op-Eds
Writing for an audience can be daunting. Impostor syndrome is rampant in our collective teacher psyche. That gloomy inner critic can shut down any hope of putting our words out into the world. “Why would anyone care what I have to say? If they saw what a train wreck my classroom was this morning, they’d know I have no business telling anyone how to teach.”
The truth is, our profession doesn’t need people who think they have it all figured out. We do need honest, vulnerable, imperfect teachers who care about kids and are willing to share their ideas and experiences.
If you have taught for even a single day, you have something to share. A student’s story. A question, a belief, or a little revelation about teaching. A momentary triumph or failure, and the learning that came from it.
Start your own blog (WordPress.com is the go-to platform, and the basic template is free). Write a Letter to the Editor for your local paper. Reach out to your school or an organization you’re a part of, and pitch your idea for a piece you’d like to write.
1. A student story
2. The bigger theme connected to that story
3. Your recommendations or ideas about that bigger theme
4. Call to action: What should the reader do as a result of reading your column?
Shape the Conversation
“Speak and speak,” writes the poet Dick Lourie in Reprimand. “We are listening.”
The people furthest from the work of teaching often seem the most certain of their opinions. They get those opinions—many of them damaging to children—into print, practice, and policy with alarming regularity. There’s a chronic dearth of perspectives, practices, and solutions written by actual teachers.
Maybe that’s because teachers are so incredibly busy. Maybe it’s because we know how complex the work of teaching is, so we’re hesitant to offer Tweet-length solutions. Or maybe we have internalized the message that teachers should be seen and not heard.
Whatever the reason, we need more teacher voices shaping the conversation about everything from true equity for our most vulnerable students to how to teach kids to read. We speak with credibility because we see the impact of district, state, and federal policy on our classrooms firsthand. We can often cut through slanted political talking points to offer pragmatic solutions that work in real classrooms with real kids.
It’s usually a good idea to give your principal or district communications person a heads-up if you have a controversial piece coming out in the local paper or an online publication. But don’t let fear hold you back. Speak your truth, no matter how small or simple a truth it may seem.
How to Get Started as a Teacher-Writer
1. Go to Barnes and Noble, Amazon, or your local bookshop and buy a journal that appeals to your eyes and hands.
If you prefer the glowing screen to the blank page, open a file for your thoughts in Google Docs or Microsoft Word. Create a place for your words to live.
2. Build writing time into your work week, the same way you allot time for grading or lesson planning.
Waiting to write until inspiration strikes is like waiting to grab your fishing pole until you see a fish break the surface of a pond. Remove the pressure to produce something brilliant every time you sit down to write. Just carve out half an hour, once or twice a week, to take a break from child care, bills, laundry, and lesson planning so you can discover what words flow through your fingers onto the page.
3. Read what other teachers write.
There are plenty of platforms like Education Week and Education Post that provide space for teachers to share their insights, experiences, and teaching practices, without harnessing that writing to any particular product or agenda. Educators with their own blogs are great, too—my personal favorite is Shanna Peeples.
When looking for a teacher-writer to follow, pay attention to how her posts or columns make you feel. Inspired? Challenged? A little less alone? Find writers who are good for your spirit and read whatever they write.
4. Pay attention to everything, within and beyond the classroom walls.
What I love about writing is that it makes me a more reflective teacher and human being—even during those hours when I’m not actually sitting down to write. I’m more receptive to things my students say or do, to why particular lessons work or fail, to all those momentary epiphanies that crash over us during the school day like little waves breaking and—unless we capture them quickly—are swept right back out to sea.
I asked a few of the most gifted teacher-writers I know to share their advice for this column. I’ll leave you with their insights.
“Be honest and vulnerable and true. Remember that we all love story. Avoid jargon. Turn down topics that don’t live in your heart.” —Angie Chaloux Miller, 2011 New Hampshire Teacher of the Year
“Try to offer solutions whenever possible. Consider the various perspectives. What would students think? Parents think? When reflecting on teaching, in what way have those reflections led to considerations for the profession as a whole? Tell the truth. Think about the pushback that may come from that truth and address that pushback within the piece.” —Monica Washington, 2014 Texas Teacher of the Year
“It doesn’t have to be perfect on the first draft. Just get it down on paper!” —Megan Allen, 2010 Florida Teacher of the Year