When to say “No” (and “Yes”) to Opportunities: Finding Time for Creative Writing as a Teacher

Hiking on a recent vacation to Phoenix, Arizona while recovering from burnout

When I was in high school, I thought more was always better. More AP classes, more extracurriculars, more rigor. My overachieving may have helped me secure a spot at an elite college, but ultimately I had to unlearn the impulse to always say yes to opportunities. I might have looked successful on paper, but I remember times during high school where I felt so overwhelmed and anxious about all I had to do that I just kept my head down during class or during after school practice, for debate, Mock Trial, or any other number of activities I was signed up for. I was often short-tempered with people who cared about me, my friends and family, and took out my stress on them. I held it together though, in front of others, so I could keep up that immaculate image of effortless achievement.

In college, I continued the same pattern, double majoring with a minor while running a tutoring program and working a part-time job. One semester, I took on one activity too many and completely neglected one of my obligations, a role as a editor of an undergraduate journal. When it came time to produce the article the writer and I were supposed to be working on, both of us didn’t have anything to show for it. It was really embarassing, and one of the only times I’ve felt like an abject failure. I learned from that experience not to over-commit to too many things at once.

However, when you’re a teacher it’s hard to not over-commit when your job alone takes up more time than you have in a given working day. My first year as a teacher, I didn’t sign up to do any extra duties, but I was getting to work at 7:30 AM and staying until 6 PM on a regular basis. Of course, the first year is always exceptionally difficult because you’re creating most of the materials you’re using from scratch while getting used to having a full workload of students, but I definitely pushed myself too hard. I wasn’t drinking enough water, and at one point, I had to take a day off of work because I had vertigo so bad I couldn’t get out bed.

This year, my third-year of teaching and my first year back in-person since the pandemic started, I was concerned the same thing was going to happen, so I was hesitant to say yes to any extra duties at work. I knew this year would be extra stressful due to the challenges of COVID teaching: wearing masks, helping students who were out sick for weeks, etc. However, I surprisingly found that work was a lot more manageable then I expected, at least at the start of the school year. So I thought it might be doable to say yes to a few more duties: first, being part of the College and Career Readiness Committee at work, second, participating in the Grading For Equity initiative in my district, and third, trying to continue freelance writing in my spare time so I can work on my professional writing skills. I was able to keep up all of the above for months, though I was starting to feel the signs of burnout developing. I was often anxious and irritable, I wasn’t sleeping well, and I felt this constant pressure to always be working. Ultimately, it was the freelance writing and COVID stress that finally tipped me over the edge.

Don’t get me wrong– I really enjoyed the freelance writing that I was doing. I was writing study guides of books for an educational company, and I felt proud of the guides I was writing. However, in order to meet the deadlines, I had to take most of the free time I had after work and use it for freelance writing. This was simply not sustainable and also meant that even when I had put my teaching work aside, I had other work weighing on my mind, preventing me from relaxing. Although I benefitted from the extra income of freelancing, I realized I needed to take a break from it.

The past month, I’ve had time to reflect on what is worth saying “yes” to and what isn’t. I justified the freelance writing to myself for months, telling myself that I was learning valuable skills from it. I wanted to keep up the freelance position for a year so I could put it on my resume, but when the Omicron wave hit and I had to use most of my preparation time at school to sub for my colleagues, I realized it just wasn’t worth it to keep burning myself out with a second job. I had to focus on my full-time job, teaching, to make sure I was doing my best to support my students. Also, since I started doing freelancing, I barely had any time for creative writing. That lack of creative time went unnoticed at first, but then it started eating away at me. Without time to create freely for myself, an overwhelming sense of dullness filled my life. The world felt colorless and my tasks became tedious because I was living to work, not working to live. I was losing my sense of purpose and feeling unsatisfied with the work I was doing.

A month ago, I paused my freelancing, hoping that all the time I was able to put into my freelance position, I would be able to devote to creative writing. However, it wasn’t that easy to transfer time from one activity to another. First of all, I needed to reclaim some of that time for myself, just to exist, without being productive at all, so I haven’t been able to write creatively every evening the same way I was plugging away at my freelance job under a deadline. Second of all, creative writing requires a greater amount of energy and headspace than writing something formulaic, and I can’t always muster that after working a full day of teaching. I’ve started to accept that I will have to find time to write here and there, schedule it into my calendar, and treat it like a second job if I want to make sure it happens, but it doesn’t always have to happen as quickly as possible. Taking a pause and moving through a project slowly also has its benefits.

It’s taking me a while to get back into my creative writing, but the last month of only focusing on my teaching job and my creative pursuits has left me feeling refreshed and energized. I was on break this past week, and it felt so good to actually be able to relax while I wasn’t teaching. I hadn’t felt that relief during Thanksgiving or Winter Break because I had freelancing deadlines hanging over me.

I recently found out that I will be receiving a fellowship for creative writing this summer, the Jack Hazard Fellowship for Creative Writers Teaching High School. I feel really honored by this opportunity because it means I will be able to focus on writing this summer instead of trying to make money from a second job. I also feel excited to have my creative writing taken seriously. I am going to be paid for it, so I will treat it like a job: I will create a schedule for my writing time this summer, create deadlines, and hold myself accountable for writing a certain amount each day.

In the two and half years I’ve been trying to pursue creative writing while working as a public school teacher, I’ve learned that it’s hard to not put professional opportunities first all the time, whether it’s opportunities to be a leader at your school or freelance writing gigs. Since I don’t make as much as a teacher as I would in another profession with my level of education, it’s tempting to always pursue extra income whenever possible. We live in a hustle culture that convinces us that working more and being more productive is always better. But it’s not better if it means you can’t have time to do the things that are important to you. I’m lucky to make enough as a teacher that I don’t actually need a second job; however, not all teachers have that luxury. I’m in a position right now financially that I can say “no” to things and give myself permission to have time for myself and my passions in my free time. I hope I can maintain that balance for years to come, although I know it won’t be easy. Finding balance between teaching and creative pursuits require you to contantly reflect on how you are using your time and find ways to carve out the space you need for yourself.

When I first started out teaching, I heard from veteran teachers that as I got more experience, the demanding hours of teaching would lessen as I was able to re-teach materials I already created or find more efficient ways of working. While I have found this to be true, I don’t think I’ll ever fully find that holy grail of work-life balance because there are always forces constantly tugging on me to do more at my job; meanwhile, I never am completely satisfied with the free time I do have. It never feels like enough. I’ve accepted that I’ll always be caught in this constant vortex, feeling pulled between different obligations. If I have children in the future, that will be another element pulling me in yet another direction. It feels daunting but not impossible to find a way to balance my time between the things that are important to me. I just have to accept that I will have to savor the bites of time for myself here and there that I do have and make the most from them.

My Summer Adventures in Freelance Writing

Image: Raw Pixel Ltd

After my last Zoom call with students ended past June, I checked out more than I have any prior summer while teaching. I was so fatigued from a year and a half of teaching online during a pandemic that I decided that this summer I wasn’t going to think about teaching at all. Of course, that’s not really how it works. If you are teacher, you know that as much as you can promise yourself to not think about teaching, it will inevitably sneak into your life. However, I was able to not think about the logistical aspects of teaching for a while, which was a nice break. Instead of attending a bunch of teacher professional development workshops during the summer, as I have done in past years, I decided to work on developing my own professional skills, specifically my writing skills.

I consider myself a decent writer who can adapt my writing to many different purposes and audiences. I write creatively to satisfy my own desire for storytelling and craft, I blog to share my experiences or to participate in the online literary community, and I journal for myself. The role of teacher, especially English teacher, also involves a fair amount of writing— lesson plans, lesson materials, emails to parents, emails to colleagues, etc. But I didn’t actively pursue much paid professional writing before this summer. If I got paid for a funny satirical article or a short story here or there, I was pleased that someone liked my work enough to pay me for it. However, this summer I realized that I have the skills needed to make some money on the side writing professionally.

First, I took a class on Coursera called The Strategy of Content Marketing, since as a UC Davis alum, it was free. While taking that course, I realized that a lot of what I know about teaching academic writing also applies to professional writing. You’re trying to hook an audience for a specific purpose, to convince them to become your customer or to buy the product of a company you are promoting. Content marketing and copywriting employ a lot of the same techniques as classic rhetoric— convincing an audience to trust you due to your credibility, appealing to the audience’s emotions, and using logic and examples to prove your product or company is valuable (in other words, ethos, pathos, and logos). I realized that whether or not I ended up writing content marketing articles for a client, I could use what I had learned about marketing in the classroom. The high school where I teach recently formed a committee on incorporating college and career readiness skills into the classroom, so in the back of my mind while I was taking the Coursera class, I was thinking of how perfect a writing unit on marketing or advertising would be for demonstrating to my students the value of writing in the “real world.”

After I finished the Coursera class, I decided to try out my new skills by applying to freelance writing roles on Upwork, which is a platform where you can apply for all different types of freelance gigs. I soon realized that despite my previous experiences writing articles for some magazines, it was hard to stand out as a writer on that platform for general writing roles since there is so much competition. However, I noticed that there were some roles that specifically involved writing for education companies or writing educational materials. I started to apply for these positions and had some success. I also applied for some editing roles, too, because as an English teacher and as a graduate student, I’ve had a lot of experience editing other people’s writing.

Once I was able to land a few positions, I discovered that I really like writing professionally. Each gig came with its own rollercoaster of emotions, which gave me some insight into what it must be like for my students when I give them a challenging writing assignment. First, I felt elated whenever I was hired to do a particular task. Then when the client sent me the specific information on what they needed, I would start to second guess myself, feeling imposter syndrome. What if I couldn’t deliver what they wanted me to deliver? It felt scary to face the possibility of failure, even if failure only meant that I wasn’t going to be paid a relatively small amount of dollars.

 I soon discovered that a lot of companies will ask for you to do a “trial” for them if you are writing content for their website so that they can see how you do with a short assignment. Then if they like your work, they will offer you chances to continue writing for them. This way, they can test out if you are a good fit for what they need, and you can also see if you like the type of writing they want you to do. I like this system because at least you get paid a little for trying out the work even if you end up not being hired for a long-term role. This also helped ease my imposter syndrome a lot since I felt less pressure if I knew it was a trial run.

I imagine that my students must also feel overwhelmed at first when they encounter a writing task that they don’t know how to do. I think I can empathize with them more now in this situation because I now know what is feels like to have anxiety when approaching a new writing task. I found that it helped to see models of what the client was looking for, such as a sample article. It also helped to break down the steps of a writing task into more manageable chunks, such as creating an outline and then filling in the outline over the course of a couple days. This sometimes meant that I spent way more time on a task than would be suggested by my hourly rate, since most of the tasks I completed this summer were fixed price projects. However, if I succeeded at doing one task, the next time it was a lot easier to do a similar task. One aspect I had not considered as much about freelancing was negotiating pay, and I am still trying to determine how much money a project needs to pay to be worth my time. Ideally, I would be able to charge a high rate for writing since I have a decent amount of experience as a writer, but in practice it seems like it’s hard to find writing roles that pay well.

Some types of professional writing and editing I tried out this summer included creating reading comprehension questions for short stories, editing transcripts of a professional development podcast and turning them into articles, editing someone’s creative writing and helping them find venues to submit their work, and writing study guide materials. I found myself drawn to jobs that involved creating or editing educational content because I have expertise in that area and because it was fun to take on a different role in education than the one I usually play.

While I don’t see myself making a living solely from writing any time soon (though who knows— maybe I could in the future), trying my hand at professional writing expanded my own understanding of what kind of writing skills are necessary in the workplace. As a writing teacher, it gave me a chance to dip my toes into the “real world” of writing and allowed me to gain experience that I can share with my students. If students ask me why they need to learn a particular writing skill, I now can answer them with confidence, explaining not just why it’s important for future academic courses but also how it could help them earn money in the future. If you teach writing but have not practiced it outside of an academic context, I highly recommend giving freelance writing a spin. It will help you see how academic writing skills can transfer to other contexts, and you will be able to prove to your students the utility of writing.