Writing and Teaching: The Struggle is Real

Today I completed the last requirements of my California Single Subject English Teaching Credential, wrapping up one of the most challenging school years of my life. I managed to survive student teaching, taking a full-time load of classes, passing CalTPA (which is the California Teaching Performance Assessment), and finding a job for the next school year. All that while, I barely had any time to write. I didn’t forget about this blog, and it’s been my goal to write more about the unexpected connections between writing and teaching this whole time, but I simply have not had time. All the responsibilities I’ve had this past year have really drained most of my energy, and while I have written creatively here and there, I haven’t written anything substantial at all in 2019. But I haven’t given up on finding a way to be a teacher and a writer. I’m determined to keep trying, even though I know that it will probably be even more challenging to find time to write in my first year teaching while I’m also earning a second masters degree in education (I’m an overachiever— I can’t help it).

If I’ve learned anything so far about trying to strike a work/life balance, I’ve found the key is to try to leave lesson planning, grading, and teaching things at work. As I take on more responsibilities as a full-time teacher, that will become more difficult, but I still think it’s doable. That frees up mental space for when I come home to relax, clear my head of teaching things, and warm up my writing brain. Easier said than done of course, and most of the time when I get home I just want to read or watch TV, not actively create.

When I’m trying to switch between teaching and writing, sometimes it does feel like I’m using two different operating systems to toggle between them. Although teaching requires constant creativity and adaptation, it’s an incredibly social experience. Writing can be social too, but it primarily requires working alone for long periods of time. Nevertheless, I’ve already started to see how my experience with writing can help support my teaching and vice versa. Over the next few posts, I will explore some of the parallels I’ve noticed between creative writing and teaching

Similarity # 1: Both teaching and writing require radical empathy- but different types.

When you’re writing, you need to be able to get inside the head of any of your characters, even the ones whose thoughts you don’t see directly, even the ones who you find despicable or laughable. You have to be able to see their point of view in order to depict their actions in a believable way. You have to imagine characters’ complex desires and fears and be able to show how characters deceive others and themselves. I believe that the better you know your own characters, the more their humanity will shine through onto the page.

But it’s one thing to do complex psychological manipulations of characters in your head. You don’t have to try to teach them anything, and you can let them run amok as they please. Now put all of your unruly characters into a classroom and try to teach them a lesson. You can no longer write any of your characters off as morally irredeemable or fatally flawed. They are children in your classroom now, so you need to care about every single one and make sure they get what they need from you. When they make careless mistakes, or goof off when they should be paying attention, or say cruel things to you or to the other students, it’s not your job to judge them. When you write, you do so much judging, whether it’s from one character’s perspective judging another, or it’s a snarky narrator. But when you’re a teacher, you have to observe, find out what makes students tick, and figure out how to nudge them in the direction of kindness, curiosity, and determination, whether it’s through praise, rewards, or that dreaded word, consequences.

Characters aren’t so different from students. They come to us with a past, perhaps undisclosed traumas or idiosyncratic habits. I don’t really make characters; I shape the ones that already exist in the world around me and pass through the filter of my brain. Writing lifelike characters is all about exploring potentialities— how would they react in this situation? What are their desires? What are their fears?  Often the decisions I make about characters don’t come from me, or at least not my conscious brain. They arrive as glimpses, smells, colors, feelings. But I still have a decent amount of power over them. After all, I have the ability to breathe them to life on the page, or to toss them in an old drawer in my mind indefinitely, until the point at which I rummage through the drawers and pull them out again, dust them off, and hurl them into a new, unfamiliar setting to see what they do.

I don’t have nearly as much control over my students. And in all honesty, sometimes it can be harder to feel empathy for a real-live human who is frustrating me than it is for a character. But it’s a radical act to see the best in them, even when they seem bent on showing the worst, and to teach them to see the best in themselves.

With my student teaching classes, I think I succeeded at this, always remembering the humanity of my students every day I taught them. I never had more than 30 students at one given time, so it wasn’t that hard to do. I worry that when I have so many more students— five times as many— it will be harder to connect to them on an individual level. It would be like keeping track of 150 different characters in one novel, all at once. But that’s what will be expected of me next year during my first year as a public school teacher. I want to get to know each of my future students, and help them find their own voices. It sounds corny, but as a writer I know there’s no greater gift and no greater challenge than being able to chart your own path through the narrative of life.

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Is it possible to be a writer and a public school teacher?

Is it possible to be a writer and a public school teacher?

This was the question I asked a number of people while I was deciding what to do with my life while finishing my master’s in creative writing program last spring. Unfortunately, no one could give me a straight answer. My creative writing professors, wonderful as they are, had no experience or interest in teaching in the K-12 world, and most of the English teachers I know like to write as a hobby but aren’t committed to creative writing. I even looked for role models online, people who have published books while also teaching through talking with people on Facebook groups and doing google searches. I didn’t come up with a whole lot. I’ve seen some isolated examples of teachers who also have published novels, like Roxanne Elden (whose blog I adore), but no one was talking about the challenges of trying to write while also teaching. Most people who have taught secondary English told me that as a teacher I would not have time to pursue my own creative projects and that I would be buried under the enormous workload of lessons to write and papers to grade. Still, I knew I had a calling to teach in public schools because I’m drawn to the idea of helping to shape the minds and hearts of young people.

I know I love teaching since it’s the only job I’ve had that fires me up in the same way that writing does. In the second year of my M.A. program in Creative Writing at UC Davis, I designed and taught my own introduction to writing fiction course. It was an incredible experience to see my students’ writing transform in just a few weeks. I enjoyed teaching college, but I was worried it wouldn’t be a sustainable career. I would have to work as an adjunct and perhaps go back to more school since I would need an MFA or a PhD to qualify for most full-time positions. Plus, I haven’t written a book, published any academic articles, or won any prestigious awards, so I would not be competitive on the academic market. Instead of going into academia, I chose to pursue a different career, teaching at the secondary level. I entered a teaching credential program to obtain a single subject credential in English for grades 6-12. I still am not sure if I chose the right path, and I don’t know if I’ll stay in this field forever, but I am learning so much from teaching younger folks.

Hot air balloons in the distance at my student teaching placement added a sprinkling of whimsy to the school

It’s been 6 months since I started my teaching program, and I’ve barely had any time to write. I’m hoping that this is just temporary, since I have so many things on my plate. Once I get my own classroom and teach for a few years, I will have more time to carve out for my own personal writing. In the past few months, I have met at least one teaching mentor who keeps up writing. She told me she does it by writing on her phone while she’s on the treadmill, jotting down any ideas that strike her at any time, and setting aside time to work deeply on projects during the summer. I am glad I found one person who told me that it is possible to continue writing while teaching, although her whatever-it-takes methods did not do much reassure me that a work-life-writing balance is possible in the future. It’s very discouraging to go from writing every day in grad school and receiving regular feedback from professors to only having time to write if I sacrifice time that I should use to sleep or go to the gym or prepare my lessons. I’m still in the process of figuring out if it’s really possible to pursue my dueling passions— writing and teaching— without tearing myself apart. I decided to start adding posts to my blog to document this experience.

Along the way, I hope to investigate how my writing can help fuel my teaching— and vice versa. As an English teacher, I think it’s important to model the writing process for students. If I’m telling students that they need to write to keep learning, improve their skills, expand their creativity, and grow connections in their brain, shouldn’t I be doing the same?

I don’t really do New Year’s Resolutions. I’m a perfectionist, so there is always a ticker tape running in my head of things I should be doing better— working out more, eating healthier food, getting more sleep, and WRITING MORE (it shows up in all caps in my head too.) But I do want to renew my commitment to writing this year, even as I venture further into the rip tide that is the public school system. I’m not afraid I’ll every give up on writing, but I hope to not go so long without it that when I do write it feels like I’m gasping for air after nearly drowning.

After writing a whole collection of short stories for my master’s thesis, most which will never see the light of day, I wrote a total of one new short story that I’m even close to satisfied with during the second half of 2018. I’m proud I wrote as much as that. Right now, I’m struggling to find the mental space to write when I come home exhausted beyond belief, frustrated with my ineptitude at teaching. It’s hard to remember how to be a novice at something, but teaching reminds me over and over again of how much you can learn from failing repeatedly until you get it right. Writing is like that too most of the time. I’m trying to learn how to recover from a stressful day of teaching by writing, and how to dive into teaching while letting my writing brain still whir in the background. In the long term, I don’t know if I’ll succeed at becoming both a good teacher and a better writer. But I’m willing to bet that it’s possible, as long as I don’t give up.

If you’re interested at all in following my journey, subscribe to my blog, and I will post more about my dual identity as a writer-teacher in the upcoming months.

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The view from one of my favorite cafes in Sacramento during one of the few opportunities I had to write these past few months

The Best Way to Procrastinate

Welcome to my personal website. My name is Molly Montgomery, and I am a writer, teacher, and blogger, currently completing my M.A. in English- Creative Writing at UC Davis. You can find out more information about me on the about page. Please also feel free to contact me if you have any questions or would like to get in touch.

My thesis for my M.A. is due in two weeks. Naturally, this seemed like a great time to make a personal website and start a new blog. Once I finish my thesis, I will start posting on this blog with reflections on writing and teaching. In the meantime, check out my publications page to see my portfolio of published work. Thanks for stopping by, and stay tuned.