Teachers Should Be Writers
By Tom Rademacher
Writing isn't that hard. We can all do it, one word after next, little baby steps until a whole thought is complete. Writing so people will care is pretty darn difficult though, especially in an age where we are constantly besieged by words and ideas on email, social media and whatever news sources are best at forcing themselves in front of our eyes.
Still, the need is there. In fact, there has perhaps not been a more important time for educators to share their stories.
I've been writing about teaching heavily for the last five years, and I've learned things. I've learned the things that have been the difference between having a few people read a piece and a few hundred thousand. I've learned about the honest desire from many to hear directly from teachers as well as the desire of some to use teacher voices for their own needs.
I've learned about haters, and I've learned how amazing it is to hear how you've impacted or supported a colleague you've never met before.
So, then, here are some quick lessons to think about when you are ready to share your stories and ideas more broadly, whether you are thinking of submitting to a website, starting your own blog, or sending in a letter to the editor. Let me know when they're done; I'd love to read and share them.
Things to do:
Keep it short. Educators have a lot to say, which is a good thing. We also tend to try to say it all at once, which is where we get ourselves into trouble. Think about your own reading habits when considering length for any piece online. How long do you last before you start skimming? In general, your goal should be to write a piece so that people will read every word. Any time I see my word count creeping over 600, I start to keep a very close eye on sections, secondary arguments and stories that can be cut.
Keep it honest. Working in schools is really, really ridiculously hard. It's impossible to feel like you're perfect at it, and very often hard to think you're even all that good. When writing about your experience, it's OK to be vulnerable. In fact, being honest about what your day feels like, what you see and feel in your work, will often make a piece more interesting, more relatable, and ultimately more powerful.
Honesty isn't easy, not always, but ignoring the good or the bad in a situation because it's politically expedient to the point you're trying to make will weaken your argument, not strengthen it.
The hard truths are the most important to tell.
Tell stories. We don't do this enough, not nearly enough. As educators, the primary thing we can offer that no outside expert, no politician, no advocate can offer is stories about what school was like yesterday. You are an expert of your own experience, and, as an educator, your experience is often a result of decisions being made far away from you. Writing about those experiences is an important way to impact conversations and decisions around education, as well as the help everyone remember why we care as much as we do about the students we serve.
Things to avoid:
Don't write what people want to hear. The organizations and people you want to impress have communications people that write those things for them. Repeating the same sorts of ideas and slogans that you've already heard 100 times isn't going to make your piece more impactful to anyone who is reading it.
Don't get yourself in trouble. Even if no one you work with or for has ever mentioned anything you've written to you, believe me, if you talk about any of them in a piece, however indirectly, they will see it.
If you write about your students, be extra careful. Respect their privacy to carry their own stories and their own secrets. If you currently frustrated by the way your students are acting or learning, walk away from the keyboard. We all get frustrated, so it's understandable, but there's no excuse for teachers who would use the internet to trash the kids they're supposed to care for.
Don't give up. I wrote regularly for a year before anyone started really reading anything. Slowly, a few pieces caught on, and then a few more. A few years and a few hundred thousand words later, I am a better writer than when I started and have a lot more readers.
Your first piece may go viral, or may just mean the world to your two closest work friends. Either way, your first piece is just your first, or your first this year, or your first about a new topic. Give yourself time.
There will always be reasons not to write. There won't be a lot of time. There will be commenters who don't get it or who don't like you. There may be weird looks from coworkers because teacher culture does not often award speaking up or calling attention to yourself.
There are lots of reasons not to write, but we need you. We need your stories and your experience, we need your passion and your inspiration. You are an expert, and what you have to say is important. We're waiting to read it.
Tom Rademacher is the 2015 Minnesota State Teacher of the Year and a member of the National Network of State Teachers of the Year (NNSTOY). He teaches English in Minnesota. His book, It Won't Be Easy, An Exceedingly Honest (and Slightly Unprofessional) Love Letter to Teaching, is now available. Reach him at [email protected].
Photo credit: Free Range Stocks Photos //freerangestock.com/photos/40573/writing-in-a-notebook.html.