Teachers Who Write
My apologies if you’ve heard this before, but I’ve been on a life-long campaign to encourage teachers to write about their work. The bulk of writing about schools and classrooms is the work of journalists or researchers, some of whom do a creditable job of representing what teachers do, but there’s nothing like the voice of the practitioner herself to capture the unique choices, dilemmas and rewards of life in the schoolhouse.
There are some shining examples of teacher writers. I’ll mention a few and encourage readers to respond with their own favorites. I need to be clear about the fact that I’m primarily looking at writers with long classroom histories. Others like Jonathan Kozol have made valuable contributions to the educational literature but touched down in the classroom only briefly. I’m more interested in teacher/writers who were/are in it for the long haul and have accumulated a depth of experience that grounds their writing.
I came across the work of James Herndon in the early 70’s when I was beginning to think seriously about becoming a teacher. Herndon wrote several teaching memoirs, the best of which are The Way It S’pozed to Be and How to Survive in Your Own Native Land. The latter still resides somewhere on my chaotic bookshelves, but its pages, victims of overuse, are now barely held together by rubber bands and are approached at your peril, so I’m working totally from my faulty memory.
Herndon’s appeal for me lay in his wry sense of humor about the crazy things that kids do – I think his were middle schoolers – as well as the small victories he’s able to achieve, a combination of resourcefulness and desperation. In one memorable sequence, he battles his students’ preference for doing nothing rather than engage with any of the choices he offers. He decides to focus on what he’s interested in himself, which is photography. He brings his camera from home and initiates his own projects, which eventually pique the students’ interests enough to join him in the work. Herndon died in 1990. I credit his honest accounts of the teaching life as playing a role in what drew me to the classroom.
One of my favorite contemporary teacher/writers is Greg Michie whose seminal book, Holler if You Hear Me, was reissued recently by Teachers College Press in a 25th anniversary edition. Full confession: Greg is a friend and we frequently exchanged notes about our work and about the perilous state of education. Greg’s writings about his teaching are inspiring in their honesty and in their resistance to donning the mantle of the superhero teacher. Greg has lost students to gun violence and mourns the losses without ever becoming inured to them. It would be an honor if anyone noted any similarities between Greg’s writing and my own teaching memoirs, which I will leave to someone else to describe.
I’m this far into my posting and I still haven’t gotten to what actually inspired me to write about teachers who write. We recently returned from our annual stay in our former home state of New Hampshire. When we’re there, we never fail to visit the Toadstool Bookstore in Peterborough, currently celebrating its fiftieth anniversary, which is arguably one of the best bookstores in the country, all the more astonishing since it sits in a town of only 6,000. Near the entrance there is a shelf of works by local authors – of which there are a surprising number. Among them this summer was a book by Tim Clark called Beginning Educator: Navigating a Second Career in Teaching.
Tim had an illustrious career as an editor for the New England favorite Yankee Magazine, but at age 50 he decided to teach in the local high school, Conval, where my older daughter spent her freshman year before we decamped for Houston. After we left, we continued to subscribe to the local newspaper, where Tim began to publish a twice-monthly column about his teaching experiences. I was hooked by the frankness of his accounts about the joys and frustrations of a teacher’s life – bomb scares open houses, faculty meeting, the challenge of remembering students’ names, the kids who refused to do any work. And here were those same columns gathered up in a single volume for me to savor once again.
Tim died suddenly at age 71 last year so I was glad that I had once taken the initiative to write him a fan letter and ask if we could meet for lunch on our next return to New Hampshire. When we sat for lunch on the porch of Fiddleheads Restaurant in Hancock, NH, Tim had already retired from his classroom and was embarked on a third career of sorts, acting with the Peterborough Players, a local summer theater group. He was as engaging and lively as his writing and it wasn’t difficult to recognize the wellsprings of extraordinary creativity which infused the accounts of his work at Conval.
One of my favorite columns appears close to the start of the book, as a way of explaining Tim’s reason for changing careers:
“Of all the reasons I decided to become a teacher, the most macabre was this: I wanted a teacher’s funeral.
This was the result of attending a funeral for John Sullivan, a longtime Conval High School English teacher who was killed in a bicycle accident the spring before I joined the faculty. The church was filled to overflowing with young people, students and former students of the tall spare man with the wicked sense of humor who taught them about semicolons, sonnets and Scott Fitzgerald. He taught them more than that, of course: Who would grieve over a semicolon?…
I looked around all these people and thought: Look at the lives he touched. Look at the difference he made. I edit a magazine that reaches two million readers. When I die how many of them will weep for me? What difference have I made?”
And, dear reader, I can confirm that Tim got his wish – a big teacher’s funeral and other later celebrations of his life and work when this book was published.
I could fill many pages with excerpts from Tim’s writing that rang true to my own teaching experience. They might help non-educators understand the important work that teachers do and the odd allure of the profession for people who could be doing work more profitable and less stressful than teaching. I will leave it to you to track down the book and savor its pleasures on your own.
The reputations of teachers like Tim Clark have limited signal strength. Travel twenty miles from Conval High School and the mention of his name will be greeted with a quizzical stare. His writing amplifies that signal some, and I’m attempting to kick it up another level. There are probably Tim Clarks scattered across the country whose names and words will never reach me. Let Tim stand as their representative and as a model for the wisdom that teachers who write can impart to their colleagues and to their fellow citizens. Dear Teachers, I know you’re overworked and stretched to breaking already, but the extra time you devote to writing about your work is what we need to counteract the negative impressions of teachers and teaching that have been planted in the public mind.