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.