When Teachers Are Writers ...
'Teaching writing is arguably an artistic event, involving creativity and artistry, but if few teachers see themselves as writers or write alongside their students then the teaching of writing may be constrained by a lack of awareness of the complexities of composition and the significance of writers' identities.'
Teresa Cremin and Debra Myhill, 2012, 'Writing Voice: Creating Communities of Writers', p. 126
This piece is all about teachers as writers. Whilst there is now a solid and growing body of research that indicates the benefits of teachers developing and reflecting on themselves as writers, knowing about this and doing something about it are different things.
The growth in recognition about the benefits of Reading for Pleasure has been transformative in many settings. The inspirational goldmine that is the 'Research Rich Pedagogies' site serves as a gateway to research and examples of RfP classroom practice, and there is a thriving collection of work around 'Teachers' Knowledge of Children's Literature' and 'Teachers' Knowledge of Children's Writing Practices'. There are OU/UKLA networks for Reading for Pleasure around the country (more info here).
You can see how engaging with all this can have a phenomenal impact on a teacher's ability to teach reading. Teachers will return to their classrooms fresh with a wider and deeper knowledge about children's literature; they will have books to share, and stories to tell. I continue to find it an education in itself just seeing the conversations that go on on edutwitter about books - take a look at the talk around the ReflectingRealities and WilloughbyReads hashtags, as examples.
To develop teachers as writers may be more of a hurdle, and for individual teachers wanting to continue getting better for the benefits of their pupils (or for a range of other reasons), it may be more challenging in several ways.
Many teachers do not identify themselves as writers; perhaps we undervalue the writing we already do, in what is a routinely quite writerly role - writing on the board, modelling writing, writing emails and end of year reports - but there is often a lack of confidence too. To be able to teach writing requires not only that you can teach...you need to be able to write too. Young and Ferguson's 'Writing for Pleasure Manifesto' makes constant reference to the role of the teacher not just as instructor in a writing classroom, but as a participant in a writing community.
Being able to foster a culture of writerly exchange has additional benefits. When pupils and their teachers are writing together, and are doing so with greater agency and choice over content, a space opens up for more authentic understanding of each other. The words on the page begin to convey something essential about the writer; this is true of pupils and their teachers.
It is also advantageous to the teacher as it not only provides an insight into your children’s personalities and helps build relationships, it is also evidence when assessing children’s development as writers.
Young and Ferguson, Writing for Pleasure Manifesto, 2019
We do not operate in vacuums, and as they delight in reminding us, our children can be incredibly perceptive. Children absorb far more about us than just that which we choose to tell them. Cremin and Myhill's work gives vivid examples of some students' perceptions of the teachers as writers.
'Several of the older children observed that their teachers did not like writing: 'I think he finds it boring', 'She doesn't like writing and says she is no good at it', 'I don't think she would choose to write because she doesn't like it', 'He hates writing, he says we do too much of it...
Teresa Cremin and Debra Myhill, 2012, 'Writing Voice: Creating Communities of Writers', p.125
Many teachers lack confidence sharing their writing with pupils, and lack confidence more generally 'as writers'. The legacy (and unkillability) of boxticking systems of appraising children's writing have led us to a process that celebrates functional control of an arbitrary range of grammatical skills, irrespective of how bland and lifeless the resulting texts are, for the young authors composing them as much as for us as teachers.
It is painful to read the children's testimony above, of the joylessness of it all.
Teachers have enough people wanting to bash them with a standards stick, and I don't want to join the queue. Nonetheless, if the reality we have is that teachers do not feel confident in their abilities to write, and thus to teach children to write, then that is a huge problem and one that teachers and schools need to address with gusto.
We cannot click our fingers and get better.
Our identity as a writer, perhaps more so than as a reader, can be acutely personal. If our writing is an expression of our self, to be left feeling that we are an inadequate writer leaves us feeling like an inadequate person. This is worth remembering when we comment upon children's own writing.
Cremin and Myhill's research points out that many of the teachers who have a confident and positive outlook on themselves as writers are standing firmly on a platform of their own positive experiences as a pupil; many of the teachers for whom writing is a challenge may well have a catalogue of negative experiences in school which hold them back.
Reflecting on our identities and histories as writers is a great starting point for this. Creating a 'River of Writing' (Bearne and Reedy, 287-288) can be a fruitful way to reflect and consider how your own experiences have brought you to the point you are at.
Thinking of this now, a few specific instances and moments rush back to me from being in primary school, or being of primary school age.
I remember the joy of my writer alter-ego in Year 4 'Ian the Illustrator' - somehow we had a magazine tied to our little football team, with each of us making a page, and I had a comic that I created, unnecessarily under the name of Ian.
I remember how perfectly neat and recognisable my Mum's handwriting was (is!) and how it was so distinctive that other people could recognise it instantly.
I remember being really pissed off when we had a competition to see who could write their full name five times in the quickest time; the injustice of being a Jonathan sitting beside a Lee was too much to bear.
I remember spending so much time queueing up at the teacher's desk because I did not want to spell a word incorrectly in my work, ultimately because I didn't want to have to do it all again.
I could do the same for secondary school - writing a biography of Osama Bin Laden the week after 9/11, researching and writing about the history of stand-up comedy, starting my first blog 'The Daily Ditty of a Troubled Teen' aged 12...
Even just from juggling these initial anecdotes and memories, I can see how my earliest writing has led me to find joy in writing now; whether it was the encouragement of parents or school or peers or myself, I cannot remember, but it feels as though I have never had a reluctance to entertain myself with writing. I have always enjoyed playing through writing, and have felt empowered enough to take the decision to reinterpret tasks that were set in school, and to write in my own time.
This maybe sounds smug, and I know that I am fortunate. I am lucky that I have had the privilege of being able to retreat into writing during my darkest times, particularly in the self-denial of adolescence. And for all the retrospective cringeworthiness of my love poetry and my 14 year old existential crisis essays, I know that they gave me an outlet that not everybody had access to, and kept me buoyant when I might otherwise have sunk.
This connection to writing does not necessarily make me a good teacher of writing, of course, but it is a helpful platform, especially if I can reflect on what exactly it was that helped me when I was younger. Maybe some of this can be injected into my work with young writers?
I have friends who are very caring and intelligent teachers who struggle with writing; the struggle is worth the effort though. It would be easy for those of us for whom writing feels natural to be sniffy about the struggles that some others have with writing in the classroom, and to my discredit, I have been guilty of this in the past.
The person who benefits most from writing is the writer. This is true for the pupils in our school who find themselves through verse, who assert themselves with words and who can relish the opportunity to be heard and acknowledged as somebody with something to offer. This is also true for the teachers who can face up to some of the challenges that may have badgered them since childhood, and enjoy the same personal benefits as their children do, when emerging from the chrysalis.
Every single person has something to say (and most of the married ones do too).
Writing is a way of leaving your mark on the world. Whether you invite the world to come and see it, or whether you keep it for yourself, the mark is there. Some of us, no matter what age, need the encouragement to pick up the pen.
If you are a teacher reading this, please feel free to be my penpal about writing - I know it seems a bit peculiar, but I have a network of strangers who I enjoy writing with, and would gladly add you to the address book. Looking at 2019-20, what are you going to do to develop yourself as a teacher-writer and as a writer-teacher?
If you are a school leader thinking about 2019-20, what are you doing to support your teachers to develop the confidence and the pedagogical approaches that will enable them to teach writing in a way that is effective, empowering and enjoyable?
Teresa Cremin and Debra Myhill - Writing Voices: Creating Communities of Writers
Eve Bearne and David Reedy - Teaching Primary English: Subject Knowledge and Classroom Practice
Ross Young and Phil Ferguson - Writing For Pleasure Manifesto