Take my word for it, writing works
All teachers are writers, but many do not think they are. Let us consider for a moment how much an average teacher actually writes in their career: thousands of reports; countless comments on and about pupils' work; numerous forms of communication (letters, emails, behaviour slips); and who knows how many worksheets, PowerPoints and sets of instructions.
When you add it all up it must amount to writing War and Peace several times over. Given this, why is it that so many teachers have such low opinions of themselves as writers?
Research by Teresa Cremin and Sally Baker of the Open University's education department suggests that teachers feel ambivalent about their identities as writers. They report that their research "highlights that (teachers') identities as teacher-writers and writer-teachers constantly shift and are emotional, relational and conflictual".
My own experiences, both as a teacher and a writer, certainly endorse Cremin and Baker's points. Having taught for two decades in various London comprehensives, I never perceived the writing I did in school as personally expressive of who I am; my educational scribblings never had much of "me" in them. Indeed, I had to find other outlets to satisfy my own personal craving to express myself. Since taking some time out of teaching, I have written heartfelt fiction and non-fiction about my teaching, more personal than anything I was permitted to do within the context of school.
I have enjoyed a degree of success with my books, including the best-selling I'm A Teacher, Get Me Out Of Here! And many teachers have written to me over the years, showing me their private thoughts and reflections about teaching. It has made me realise that there are two types of writing that many teachers do: the functional and the personal. Every teacher has to write functionally every day - usually boring, compulsory paperwork - but most want to write personally, to reflect on the extraordinary roller-coaster ride they experience in and out of the classroom.
Very few "official" programmes satisfy this craving to write more expressively; I have rarely attended a continuing professional development course that encouraged anything as dangerous and subversive as allowing teachers to write about their emotions. But there are a few knocking around, and some are very well established.
In the US, a group of Californian teachers set up a writing group for teachers in 1982 that became the National Writing Project (NWP). For decades, US teachers from all disciplines and backgrounds have joined summer camps at universities to improve their writing skills. Findings from these projects indicate that these teachers have not only become better and more confident writers, but also better teachers.
Richard Sterling, former director of the NWP, said in an interview in 2008: "When teachers start writing extensively, they discover things about themselves as learners that are almost an epiphany ... it engages them intellectually in their profession again."
'Do it yourself' writing groups
Inspired by the American NWP and the research of James Britton, who exhorted teachers to view themselves as writers, National Association for the Teaching of English members Jeni Smith and Simon Wrigley set up an English version of the NWP in 1992. It has always been successful, but recently, boosted by the support of the London Association for the Teaching of English, it has really taken off in London, with writing groups popping up in boroughs throughout the capital.
Smith and Wrigley have a "do it yourself" attitude, encouraging any teacher to team up with fellow professionals and set up a group. It is a very easy thing to do: teachers simply come together and write.
Having attended a number of the NWP's "teachers as writers" workshops, I can testify that they are great to take part in. The format is fairly simple. Teachers write what they want to write, usually prompted by activities such as writing about "found" or specially provided objects, reflecting on a particular theme or topic, or going on a "scavenger hunt" where they examine the world around them in close detail.
One of the aims of the NWP is to get all teachers - not just English teachers - thinking of themselves as writers. "Teachers as writers is open to anybody," Smith tells me. "I do a lot of work with primary school teachers: they're multitalented people who teach right across the curriculum.
"When people begin to write, they usually can't avoid writing the personal. If you say 'free write' - a frequent exercise we employ - you find the free writing is you remembering your grandmother's living room or thinking of your father's hands, and it just comes unbidden."
Research, mostly conducted in the US, has shown that this kind of writing can be very therapeutic. A number of researchers testify in The Writing Cure that a wide spectrum of people in challenging circumstances, from cancer patients to troubled inner-city schoolchildren, have benefited from writing about their problems. Perhaps it is not surprising, then, that many self-help programmes use personal writing as a crucial activity.
However, both Smith and Wrigley are at pains to point out that encouraging teachers to write expressively is much more than therapy; it is about "re-professionalising" pedagogues and empowering them to find their own authentic voice. "There are issues here of authority and authenticity that are tied up; they have a common root in the word 'author'," says Wrigley.
"We've found that teachers often talk about standards as if these are uncontested givens, and yet they don't have strategies for valuing authenticity as much as they do for chasing standards. Yet they are aware of this discord and they are looking for solutions.
"We think we have some answers, and also many more questions about what writing is. I think this is what the writing groups explore in their own ways. Many teachers are responsible for a process that they are not fully familiar with and they defer on lots of grounds to other people. That's dangerous."
Wrigley's argument suggests that if teachers do not fully engage with the writing process, they will struggle to be effective teachers because they will not have found their "authentic" voice. Being unconfident writers means that they have not fully seen what Wrigley terms the "affordances" - or numerous possibilities - of writing. Once again, this is not just referring to English teachers; it concerns all teachers who want to have real agency in the classroom.
"Writing has a potency that is not to do with writing stories and poems," Smith comments. "I think I really started finding my voice as a writer not through writing poetry but through keeping a journal in order to pin down what was happening in my classroom, because it was a very unusual school and it seemed chaotic. I started to write in order to pin down what was happening. And, in fact, if I look at my writing now, most of my writing is of that kind."
This, for me, is the key message of the project. It is a lesson that any teacher can learn, whether they attend the writing workshops or not: writing reflectively about your teaching and life helps you both as a teacher and as a person. Lots of research, entirely separate from the NWP's work, has shown that it is a particularly good activity for teachers.
"A very personal diary can provide vivid and flexible accounts of ideas and feelings. It can offer a safe place to express the emotional side of teaching, as well as more systematic attempts to analyse and reflect," Andrew Pollard writes in Reflective Teaching. "When a diary is 'unofficial' it may be a place to speculate, propose, theorise and generally enter into a conversation with oneself."
Research suggests that just engaging in the act of writing in this way and sharing selected bits of it with pupils can help to motivate as well. The feminist researcher Ann Oakley noticed this in the 1970s, when she was gathering data from interviews. She realised that if she told something of her own story, her interviewees were much more willing to open up to her. This process - dubbed "reciprocity" by Oakley - appears to be at work when teachers write with their pupils in the classroom and share what they have written.
Connecting with pupils
It is something I have noticed in my own research for the PhD in education I am currently working on. When I read out real-life stories about my being bullied at school, I find that I get very rich responses, and that pupils appreciate that I have made myself vulnerable in this way.
This key point about reciprocity could be applied to all manner of different lessons - indeed, it is something that many teachers do as a matter of course. It could be a teacher sharing a reflective account of a lesson that went badly in order to begin to address behavioural problems; it could be a science teacher sharing their write-up of an experiment or a history teacher reading out their own essay on a topic.
Any teacher who has done this knows that undergoing the same writing process as the pupils in whatever discipline enables you to talk much more coherently and honestly about the processes by which you arrived at a finished composition. I know when I have shown drafts of my work to pupils it has really helped them to see how my mind works to get to an end product. This is what forms the heart of a good education; showing pupils the processes by which different goals are achieved.
For the poet Ted Hughes, writing was a "road back to myself", enabling him to learn vital lessons about who he was. For some thinkers, such as Brazilian educational philosopher Paulo Freire, author of Pedagogy of the Oppressed, real education only begins when a teacher reflects deeply on the processes that have shaped him or her, critically examining the ways in which he or she is experiencing the world and thereby finding intellectual liberation. Freire, like many others, believed that writing reflectively could be liberating in this way.
If there is so much evidence that writing can be this effective, perhaps it is time that all teachers took themselves seriously as writers.
National Association for the Teaching of English: www.nate.org.uk
London Association for the Teaching of English: www.late.org.uk
UK National Writing Project: www.nwp.org.uk
US National Writing Project: www.nwp.org
- Research shows that teachers who write with their pupils on relevant occasions appear to encourage better responses.
- Teachers who write diaries about their teaching have a better understanding of what is really going on in their classrooms.
- Teachers who write with their pupils have a better understanding of the processes of writing and, as a result, are able to teach them more effectively.
- Writing a diary can have significant health benefits: it can lower stress and increase overall well-being over time (see The Writing Cure).
- Teachers who view themselves as writers are more confident in their identities.
- Children's authors: J.K. Rowling taught in Portugal while planning the early Harry Potter books. Michael Morpurgo and Philip Pullman were both experienced teachers before writing full-time.
- Poetslyricists: D.H. Lawrence, Robert Frost and Sting were reputedly all good teachers before devoting their lives to literature, poetry, and song.
- Novelists: both William Golding and Stephen King were school teachers before becoming hugely successful with their tales of brutality and horror. Wonder where they got their ideas?
Cremin, T. and Baker, S. "Exploring Teacher-Writer Identities in the Classroom: conceptualising the struggle" (2010). English Teaching: Practice and Critique 9 (3), 8-25.
Freire, P. Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1985, revised ed.). Penguin.
Holland, J. Blair, M. and Sheldon, S. eds Debates and Issues in Feminist Research and Pedagogy: a reader (1995). Clevedon: Multilingual Matters in association with the Open University
Lepore, S.J. and Smyth, J.M. eds The Writing Cure: how expressive writing promotes health and emotional well-being (2002). American Psychological Association
Pollard, A. and Anderson, J. et al. Reflective Teaching: evidence-informed professional practice (2008, third ed.). Continuum
Smith, J. and Wrigley, S. "What Has Writing Ever Done for Us? The power of teachers' writing groups" (2012). English in Education 46 (1), 70-84.
- Team up with colleagues who also want to write. Find a venue - a cafe, say - and write about what you see and what has happened to you that week. The NWP has an excellent page full of ideas: bit.lyEGwKi
- Write a diary about your times in and out of the classroom.
- Learn to free write: write anything, absolutely anything that comes into your head for five minutes without stopping. You'll be surprised what starts to come out if you do this a few times.
- Sign up to the National Writing Project.
- Start telling people you are a writer - then you may be forced to write when they ask to read something you have written.
- Keep track of your feelings by keeping a list of the different emotions you feel during the day.
- Write short stories or sketches about interesting pupils and teachers you have come across during your career.
- Turn some really tedious part of your curriculum into a wild story, poem or article, personifying the most dreary elements of the subject as mad-cap characters.
TIPS ON HOW TO GET PUBLISHED
- The opportunities for teachers to publish their work and enjoy a relatively large readership are very good now.
- Start a blog on a free platform such as WordPress (www.wordpress.com) and ask your friends to read it and make comments. Spread the word on relevant forums such as those on the TES website.
- Use e-publishing software or programs such as Word to make an e-book. Amazon e-books can be published very simply and you may be able to make some money out of them: amzn.toLbSlEQ
- If you want to publish through a mainstream publishing house, you should look at the Writers' and Artists' Yearbook for information: www.writersandartists.co.uk
- The local press are always keen to take stories from teachers, particularly if there are photographs. Listings of local press can be found here: www.mediauk.comnewspapers
- National press such as TES and daily newspapers are often interested in publishing new voices from the teaching profession commenting on the latest news. Look carefully at the relevant website and email the relevant editor with your ideas - but do not always expect a response, as they can be swamped with submissions.
- The media often picks up stories from popular educational blogs, which are generally easier to get something published on. I help to run a popular blog (www.localschoolsnetwork.org.uk), which is always interested in teachers posting articles or comments.