When Writers Teach (and Teachers Write)

Sarah DeBacher | April 16, 2013

26teach1I told myself that I would never teach. Having come from a long line of English teachers (my mother, my mother’s mother, my mother’s mother’s mother), and being Of a Certain Age (read: in my early twenties and full of all-knowing and eye-rolling), I thought teaching was a terminal condition.*

What I wanted to be was a Real Writer. And real writers, in my estimation, didn’t teach. They wrote. They published. They got rich. (Right? Surely there would be some rich-getting in my writerly future.) No, real writers didn’t teach.

One of the reasons for launching this blog is to disprove that falsehood. Real writers DO teach. Or perhaps a more accurate way of putting it is this: real teachers DO write.

What I’ve come to know in my ten years of teaching writing and my many, many years of writing, is that, actually, it’s possible to be a great writer and a pretty lousy teacher, but you can’t be a great writing teacher and not write, yourself.

To borrow again from the great mind of the late National Writing Project fellow and teacher Donald Murray:

Teachers should write so they understand the process of writing from within. They should know the territory intellectually and emotionally: how you have to think to write, how you feel when writing. Teachers of writing do not have to be great writers, but they should have frequent and recent experience in writing. The best preparation for the writing class, workshop, or conference is at least a few minutes at the writing desk, saying what you did not expect to say. If you experience the despair, the joy, the failure, the success, the work, the fun, the drudgery, the surprise of writing you will be able to help understand the composing experiences of your students and therefore help them understand how they are learning to write.

I did not expect to say that I was once so young, so foolish that I thought I’d get rich from writing. I did not expect to say that I once looked down upon teaching in part because it was the work of my (amazing and wonderful) mom. I fear that I’ve failed in doing what I set out to do—launching the blog of the Greater New Orleans Writing Project in a way that will dazzle, inspire, amaze, and draw you, dear reader, back to us.

But I have written. And I’ll continue to do so here on this blog as a way not just of understanding the composing experiences of my students, but also of sharing the work of the Greater New Orleans Writing Project and of the National Writing Project—a network of real writing teachers who write.

*I don’t want to sugar-coat the difficulties of choosing the life of a teacher, as they are many, and they can’t be written into submission—at least not in this blog entry. If you care to be depressed, read this MetLife survey illustrating the precipitous decline in teacher morale, or this resignation letter from a teacher, or this caution against choosing to teach at all. Part of what I want this blog to do, however, is to create a space where the work of our teachers can be celebrated through writing. Let’s write!