You can’t teach writing when you’re just a teacher

The unspoken truth about teaching writing in schools is that few people doing so are published writers themselves.


I know I posted about this yesterday, but I felt the need to expand on this one sentence of Lisa Nielsen’s post “5 tips to help students write for career success” because I always welcome the chance to beat a dead horse I’ve been thinking about it since I read it a couple of days ago.

Is it really an unspoken truth or a deep, dark secret that quite a number of English teachers in the country are not published writers?

I mean, isn’t the rate of people who are published among those who write about as low as the success rate for your average restaurant?

Does being published automatically give a person authority, even though the traditional methods of getting published are incredibly antiquated and self-publishing while growing is still dismissed pretty easily by “established” writers?

Does one who has published and been successful have even more authority than someone who has published but not sold well?

To wit: if I get a $40,000 advance on my novel but you get a $180,000 advance on your novel, does that make you a better writer?

If I were published, should I even be passing my stuff out for students to read? We talk about a student-centered classroom but making my students read an article I wrote just because I wrote it seems like an exercise in ego boosting more than teaching.

Also, what if my writing, either subject or style, doesn’t fit the curriculum or is something that would be considered inappropriate for a classroom?If all I have ever done was publish poetry and I have to teach how to write persuasive essays, I’m only going to be so effective.

Have you ever been in the presence of a writer? There’s a reason I once advised my sister not to date one (see also: actor, musician). Some of them are absolutely insufferable.

Furthermore, have you ever taken a class taught by a writer? I have and in some cases I found myself aping that writer’s style just so I could get an A and get out of there.

There is a difference between writing and being a writer, just as there are multiple styles, genres, and purposes for writing. Some write for pleasure; others write for money. Furthermore, those of us who teach choose to because we have found that we have a greater skill for doing so or have a passion for guiding students through their own discovery of writing. I write all the time, but just because I don’t have a long resume of legitimate publishing credits (articles, essays, short stories, books, etc.) doesn’t mean that I’m any less qualified to teach writing. My father taught biology for more than 30 years and while he did have some experience working at Long Island Jewish Medical Center, I wouldn’t say that he wasn’t qualified to teach his unit on animal anatomy because he hadn’t worked at the Bronx Zoo.

Being an English teacher goes beyond teaching writing anyway. I do my best to show students that reading and writing are not mutually exclusive, but I also show them how you can write to examine and evaluate what you are reading as well as how you read to bolster your own creative writing. It’s a very comprehensive course that doesn’t require an advance from Knopf or an article published in the New York Timesto teach. Would it be cool if I and others in my department had their work published? Of course it would. But the statement that started this post about the unspoken truth in English classes serves no constructive purpose except to further marginalize my role and my profession.


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