By Jelisa Jay Robinson
Dear Teacher Writer,
I see you. Finishing manuscripts on holidays and summers. Attending See Jane Write meetings on Tuesdays. I see you finishing your grading so that you can steal a moment to work on your screenplay. You are the teacher that incorporates writing into your lessons. Letting kids know that writing isn’t a bore; it’s a major source of creativity, joy and a skill set that can make you money in the future. You are the Teacher Writer…Heavy on the writer.
You’ve been told that those who can’t do, teach. But you know that’s not true; those who teach…do…and they do it well.
Maybe you’re like me: after 8 years in education, you’ve got notebooks full of inspiration from your students. As they go throughout their day, the sentences they utter cause your brain to erupt into stories, fill in plot holes and think of article ideas. Students can be a source of major inspiration. And on your low days — because we all have them — when you’ve just finished dealing with THAT class or there are more tasks to complete than time to complete them, you find an atom of strength to keep going. You are the Teacher Writer…Heavy on the writer.
You are the artist who hits the pages of the work after work or on the weekend. You are the person who chimes in your manuscript whenever you can. You might plan to continue with your teaching practice and hope to be a dual citizen of both worlds. Or you might hope to transition to other opportunities while always advocating for the students, but whatever you decide to do it’s no question that you take your creative passion for writing into the classroom every day.
What is a teacher writer, anyway?
Teacher-Writer is not a new term. Many people have walked this road like legendary writer Toni Morrison, who taught classes at several universities including Howard and Texas Southern University. Another notable teacher writer was JK Rowling, who started writing Harry Potter while she was teaching English in Portugal. Even Hamilton creator Lin Manuel Miranda worked as an English teacher before the fame.
I’m pretty sure that while they were grading papers, mentoring students and redirecting behavior, they found time to write. Ajuah Europa, writer, middle school theater teacher, and founder of the blog The Rustic Newbie, says that a Teacher-Writer is “a person who is a teacher by trade and a writer by choice.” For Tené A. Carter, a veteran teacher and writer/actress/producer, the terms teacher and writer are not separate. The worlds collide. According to her, “It’s more like ‘teacher creative.’” She sees teaching as a tool for transformation for both the students and the teacher.
What inspires teaching writers?
Teacher writer, you can’t deny that one of your main sources of inspiration is your students. Whether it’s their stories about their drama or their curious questions during the lesson, your students’ breakthroughs, epiphanies, and humor keep you on your toes.
You might feel like Ajuah, who revels in total bliss when students totally connect with the lesson.
“My theatre two class is working on monologues, and I finally had a breakthrough. Where they were picking up what I was putting down. It was inspiring to see the light bulbs go off,” she states.
Pat yourself on the back. You’re preparing these students for the real world. Don’t you dare think that the work that you do in the classroom won’t stretch beyond the school walls.
Your students inspire you daily and I’m pretty sure that inspiration seeps into your work too. Crystal Rae, actress, writer and middle theater teacher, notes that her students are her beta readers for many of her plays. As you know students don’t hold back their unbridled realness.
“You have to be humble,” she advises. “Sometimes you have to have a strong heart. Middle schoolers will tell you the truth. I appreciate their willingness to share their feedback.”
What are the great things about being a teacher writer?
Teacher Writer, you know there are so many great things about what you do in the classroom and outside of it. You get to impact so many students in a positive way.
“I have an opportunity to provide a space to the kids who are labeled ‘the bad kids,’” Crystal says. “To make them feel that they are good enough in this class. A place where they can be celebrated.”
You are getting the chance to pour mentorship, positivity and love into the world. Tené speaks the same sentiment: “My students tell me that they found their confidence in my class.”
What are the challenges of being a teaching writer?
With everything, there are challenges! Ask any teacher and they will tell you. Teaching is not a simple “day job.” It’s pretty much impossible to leave work at work. So how do you find time to do your creative work?
Crystal Rae states that the biggest way to get these things done is to make a plan and set deadlines.
“Put money on the venue. Schedule the reading and make it real,” she says.
By putting a date and deadline, you hold yourself accountable to someone and it’s more likely to get done.
Are teaching writers masters at balance?
How do you balance it all? How do you go home and continue to be creative after a long day of teaching? Plus, let’s not ignore the fact that many of us Teacher Writers wear many hats like caregiver, parent, sister, [insert your own]. To be a well-planned teacher, you have to put in time. But on the same coin, to be a “successful” writer (whatever that means to you) you must put in the time.
As a playwright and theater teacher, I try to combine my creative work and my teaching practice by writing scenes for my students to perform in the classroom. Is this work going up on Broadway? Probably not. But my classroom can be used as a lab to feed my passion.
Jennine “Doc” Krueger, poet, playwright and professor at Huston-Tillotson University, says “Both require huge amounts of dedication and time, so finding a balance so both do not suffer is tricky. I have found that dedicating time for both in a schedule helps most.”
But you also have to understand that there will never be enough time. There is always something else to do. Even if you have the most supportive administration, students and parents, you will still have to figure out what takes priority over something else. You might have to use your lunch break to get writing done. Or forgo a much-needed chat with your work bestie during your planning to get that lesson plan in. Whatever choices you make, if you are doing your best, that is all that matters.
What other things do teacher writers do?
Teacher writers, you are more than a teacher. You are more than a writer. You are a full person. As we know teaching and writing can be all-consuming, but you make time for other things you love. You have to! You might be like Crystal who can be heard singing at church and playing her guitar. You might be like Tené who credits her spiritual life and a few self-care evenings curled up on the couch with Netflix laughing at her favorite shows. You might be like Ajuah who leans into her faith, creativity and the gym. For Jeannie, it’s hanging out with her grandbabies. Whatever you do, don’t stop doing you! Don’t stop leaning into the hobbies that bring you joy. Life can’t be all teaching or writing.
When I was growing up, I thought that all of my teachers just went home and graded papers. I had no idea that teachers lead full lives. Teaching and writing do not have to be separate; they can inform each other as they often do. So whether you are a disciplined diva cranking out pages every week, or someone with a book idea that came while you were teaching your 7th-period class, you are a teacher; you are a writer. YOU ARE BOTH.