Take my word for it, writing works

10th August 2012 at 01:00
Putting pen to paper can benefit your teaching and your well-being. And it's not just for English teachers, writes Francis Gilbert

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 their 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. I had to find other outlets to satisfy my 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 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.

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 taken off in London.

Ms Smith and Mr Wrigley have a "do it yourself" attitude, encouraging any teacher to team up with fellow professionals and set up a group. It is an 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.

"I do a lot of work with primary school teachers: they're multi-talented people who teach right across the curriculum," says Jeni Smith.

"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.

However, both Ms Smith and Mr 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 Mr 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."

His 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 he 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," Ms Smith says. "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.

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 Ms Oakley - appears to be at work when teachers write with their pupils in the classroom and share what they have written.

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.

If there is so much evidence that writing can be this effective, perhaps it is time that all teachers took themselves seriously as writers.

Tips on getting 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.writersand artists.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, TESS 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.localschools network.org.uk), which is always interested in teachers posting articles or comments.

Getting started

- 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.

- 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.

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