Wednesday, January 20, 2016

How Being a Teacher Helps Me Be a Writer

I've been a teacher for twenty years. That's a wonderful and horrifying statistic in itself. In fact, I've not done much of anything else in the way of paid work. I had a brief run as librarian and a secretary in small town Alaska. Otherwise, I've spent my entire working life in the classroom.

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There are occupational hazards in being a teacher. You tend to take over in group settings, trying to organize everyone (which is not always appreciated by your adult family and friends). You tend to over-explain, assuming that the listener will need to hear it multiple ways to get it. You correct people's errors, even when it would be more polite not to do so. You're chronically busy, stressed, and under-slept, which can make you a cranky-pants.

But as I've moved to being a teacher and an author, I've found out that there's a lot I've learned from my teaching life that serves me well in my writing life.

Comfort with public speaking. A roomful of people who voluntarily walked into your panel or book talk or reading is a far easier audience than a roomful of middle school children who are required to be there. But that doesn't mean they aren't intimidating. I'm grateful that stage fright is not an issue for me.

A lack of dignity. Sometimes you really have to be a clown to engage children. I've worn crazy hats, let people put pies in my face or dunk me in a booth, and done some pretty amazing role plays as a teacher. So far, I haven't been asked to go to those extremes as an author, but it does make it easier to put myself out there as part of an event. I'm difficult to embarrass.

Diplomacy. I deal with a lot of stupidity as a teacher, and I've learned to do so with kindness. It won't help most situations to make someone (a student, another teacher, a parent, an administrator) feel bad about whatever way they've just put their foot in it. As a writer, I have had to deflect weird responses and questions from interviewers or readers, too, and defend my artistic choices to beta readers and editors who seemed to just not get it. Not to mention participating in a critique group, where I need to kindly point out the flaws in someone's heart's work. Good thing I've got a lot of practice.

Ability to Work Alone, Unsupervised. As a teacher, I have a supervisor in the Firefly all day and only dream about being a writer.
form of a schoolprincipal. But she or he sees very little of what I actually do. In some cases, I could probably have read a book or shown movies for weeks at a time without my supervisor finding out. Luckily for my students, I have high standards for myself and a strong personal work ethic. As a writer, I am even less well-supervised. In fact, I often don't even have a clear deadline to finish by or any directions at all about what I'm supposed to be creating. Without that self-starter attitude, I could easily just play solitaire and watch

Able to Think on My Feet: No plan survives contact with the enemy. That includes lesson plans. No matter how well I think I've planned, I always have to adjust on the fly. And I'm good at that after all these years. Turns out, that happens on the page, too. No matter how well I've planned out my story, change will come. Characters will surprise me. A plot twist will blindside me. And I can roll with it, follow it where it goes and trust to revision to smooth it out for the end product. In the classroom and on the page, I've built more than one silk purse out of a sow's ear.

Listening: Any teacher will tell you how important it is to listen to your students. As much as state legislators and pundits want to make education into a nice, clean, easily measured objective process, it really isn't. It's a very messy, human process, as much about relationships as it is about expertise and technique. And you build relationships by listening. You also get a lot of writing material that way.

So, who knew I'd been in training all these years. Too bad teaching didn't make me insightful about marketing. Then I could afford to give up teaching!

6 comments:

  1. Your future students are thankful that you can't give up teaching just yet. Your future readers are lucky that you managed to find the time to write even though you are a teacher!

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    1. Thanks :-) I do still love the students; it's the rest of the job that wears me out!

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  2. Lots of recognition in these words!

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