On Writing and Teaching During a Pandemic

My cat, Lady Sybil, has been a constant source of inspiration and comfort during this turbulent time.

One of my 2020 goals for the year was to post more to this blog. I know, I know, it’s August, but in my defense, for the first few months, I was very absorbed in my first year of teaching, and then a pandemic happened. After really struggling with time management and burnout my first semester as a teacher, I felt like I had just hit my stride when the pandemic hit. I had stopped working as late and had started taking care of myself more. I had developed strong relationships with my students, made major progress with classroom management, and was engaging my students in rigorous learning by incorporating social justice topics into my teaching. Then everything was put on hold. I’ve written more about this sudden transition to distance learning as I’ve reflected on the experience of the past 4 months. In fact, I wrote a whole essay on this topic, which I still hope to have published. That’s one reason it took me so long to return to this blog. I wanted to amplify the story of ending my first year of teaching in a pandemic on a different platform, but thus far I haven’t had much success with my submissions. I’m still hoping I will be able to get my essay on being a first year teacher in this turbulent time published before the end of the summer, but if that doesn’t happen, I will publish it here.

I’ve realized that trying to write timely articles and pitch them to places that pay writers money takes a lot of patience. It can be frustrating to submit something you think is timely only to be told it’s not quite the right fit, or that the publication has already received too many submissions on a similar topic. I have a lot of respect for people who are freelance writers for a living since they must have to hustle constantly to survive on pitched pieces. Many freelancers have been seriously impacted by the plunging economy, since the loss of advertising revenue is causing many magazines to cut back on publishing articles and paying writers. I feel especially grateful right now to have a job where I can earn a steady paycheck with health insurance.

 This fall, I will be teaching at a new high school, after my contract was not renewed at my previous school due to budget cuts. It broke my heart to leave the school where I was first hired, where I had spent a whole year getting to know my students, colleagues, and the community. I knew all along I had been hired on a temporary contract, but no one at the school ever treated me as temporary. At this point, I’ve come to terms with having to change jobs. It took 11 interviews over zoom to find a new teaching position, but I managed to find a job at a school not far from where I live that has a very tight knit community and where I have a lot of control over the curriculum I teach. I am excited to work there, although I am a bit daunted by the prospect of figuring out how to navigate distance learning with students I’ve never met before. I still have a few more weeks to plan for this strange new school year. Since my county is on the California state watchlist, we will start in distance learning, and we will eventually return to the classroom for hybrid classes once the state says it is safe to do so. I feel fairly confident in the county and state’s ability to determine what a safe classroom environment looks like because I live an area that has maintained strict restrictions throughout this entire pandemic. I just hope all the safety precautions will be enough.

I have been really privileged to be able to use the time I’ve been sheltered in place at home to work on writing, and I know that many people who have been directly affected by the virus or by the economic consequences of the shutdowns have not had the same opportunity. It took me a while before I could get back into writing even though I was staying at home all the time. At first, I was overwhelmed by the demands of distance learning, and I was too anxious to do anything in my free time but watch TV, read a bit, and listen to podcasts. Now, in the last few weeks of the summer, I’ve gotten into the habit of writing almost every day, sometimes for several hours. It’s a luxury I know I won’t be able to maintain once the school year starts in earnest, but I’m hoping that at the very least I can carve out the forty minutes or so I would have spent commuting if I were working on campus to devote to personal writing.

One of the positive experiences I’ve had during quarantine is having the time to participate in writing communities, whether they are online or in my neighborhood. A few weeks into quarantine, I saw a flyer about a new literary journal in my city started by a neighbor. I submitted to it and had the opportunity to be published in it. It wasn’t a prestigious journal, but it was nice to contribute to a community project and feel connected to the other writers in my city.

I’ve also been working on some shorter pieces which I have had the chance to share with a group of peers who joined me in a DIY online writing workshop that I organized this summer. I have really enjoyed the experience of interacting with fellow writers in an informal workshop setting. I have participated in writing groups before, but this was the first time I tried to create one that replicated the format of a workshop. There is something invigorating and inspiring about spending time in the company of other writers, whether it’s virtually or in person. When I first thought of holding an online workshop, I imagined creating a community similar to the ones I found in workshops in college and grad school. While it’s not quite the same, in some ways it’s better because there’s no pressure to impress a professor or to compete with the people in your workshop. I have more thoughts on creating a writing workshop with friends, but I will save them for another blog post or article once my group has wrapped up its last meeting.

The other main writing project I’ve been tackling is writing the novel that I’ve wanted to write since I was fourteen. It’s loosely based on my grandmother’s life growing up in the Ming Quong orphanage in Oakland. To write this story, I’ve had to do a lot of research, and I’ve been teaching myself how to do it as I go. I’ve mostly only read secondary sources, although I did have a chance to talk to my grandmother once before she died about her childhood, and the stories she told me in that conversation have become integral to the book’s plot. A couple years ago, I also interviewed Nona Mock Wyman, who wrote a memoir called Chopstick Childhood about growing up in the Ming Quong Home in Los Gatos (there were several homes for Chinese girls and women started by Presbyterian Missionaries throughout the Bay Area in the early twentieth century). I’ve also been reading The White Devil’s Daughter by Julia Flynn Siler which has given me excellent background knowledge on context in which these missionary homes were founded. Siler’s book has enlightened me to the repugnant history of sex trafficking of Chinese women in San Francisco Chinatown, which I never learned about in any history class in school.

On a side note, I’ve been expanding my understanding of systemic racism and the legacy of white supremacy in this country in order to be able to better enact anti-racism as a teacher and as a white-passing mixed-race ally.  I’ve found a lot of food for thought in Siler’s book. While it focuses on the experiences of women in the Chinese American community and does not address anti-black racism, I saw a lot of parallels in the book to the recent media coverage of widespread misuses of power by police across the country that have been highlighted by the Black Lives Matter protests. For example, in the late 19th century the police in San Francisco blatantly beat Chinese people in the street with little to no provocation while at the same time tacitly accepting bribes to allow brothels to continue to operate. The missionaries often operated separately from the police because if the police were involved, they might have tipped off the brothels and prevented the missionaries from rescuing trafficked women. Crazy stuff.

Anyway, I’ve realized that writing a novel is something I can do on my own, even though it feels like a daunting process. So far I’ve written about 24,000 words, over half of which I’ve been able to write since March. The hardest part of writing a novel when you are not part of a program or a fellowship is that you just have to believe in the power of your own storytelling without any outside validation. I know that the quality of my writing is probably not up to snuff since I can’t stop to second guess whether every sentence I write is warranted. Instead, I just plunge ahead, crossing my fingers that whatever I produce on the first draft will be salvageable, that I’ll be able to revise to make it good. It may never see the light of day, but I’m determined to finish this novel, even if it takes me several years. The legacy of my family history is one of the main reasons I wanted to become a writer in the first place. My grandmother never went to college, and she hardly talked about her life, the hardships she experienced or the joys. I am determined to tell a version of her story, a version very much mediated by my own literary interests and my own personal experiences. I don’t know if she would recognize herself in it, but I hope that if I am able to finish it and one day get it published, at least one of my readers will connect to her life through my writing.

Reflection on a decade of writing (and about 4 months of teaching)

As the decade comes to an end, I thought it would be fitting to reflect on my personal journey as a writer and a teacher. I haven’t posted a blog post in many, many months, partially because I simply haven’t had time to write and partially because when I’ve had time to write I’ve prioritized other types of writing, such as creative writing or journal writing, that are not visible to people. It’s hard to write about struggle on a public platform, so I haven’t been documenting every anguished feeling I’ve had about the challenges of teaching for everyone to see.

I’ve only been teaching for 4 months as a full-time high school English teacher, and it’s been the most challenging job I’ve ever had. I don’t always love it, but I can see the value in sticking with it, and I hope that over time I will grow as a teacher so that I become more skilled at it. Right now, it’s mostly a struggle to survive each week, each day, each month, while trying to do the best job I can for my current students. I also have realized that as a first-year teacher it’s nearly impossible to strike a work-life balance. I tend to stay at work later than I should because I know if I don’t continue to plan, grade, or finish other responsibilities, I will regret it the next day. However, this eats into my personal time to relax, work out, and, most of all, write, so I’m trying to limit how much I work since I know that I need to have down time in order to stay healthy, mentally and physically.

Of course, by the time I do stop working, I hardly feel like writing. An idea might strike me, but I just don’t have the mental energy to explore it. I might jot down ideas here or there, but in order to really get into writing, I need to spend time easing into it by journaling or freewriting until I get into actually creating something that I feel has potential. I find that I lack the time for the full process, so in the past year I’ve written bits here and bits there, but nothing that has coalesced together. This is probably not a problem limited to people who work in education. I imagine that it’s a challenge for anyone working a full-time job who is also pursuing writing as their passion on the side.

I haven’t yet figured out how to set aside time for writing on a regular basis. I am absolutely NOT a morning person, and I don’t think I would be able to get myself up earlier than I already do for my job in order to write or exercise, despite people’s unhelpful suggestions that I make this a routine. It seems like my only opportunities to write are weekends or breaks, though I spend a lot of my “days off” working on grading and lesson planning. I know that I just have to squeeze in writing where I can for now and hope that as I improve as a teacher, I will become more efficient, which will allow me to carve out more time for writing, which for me is a definitively sprawling, disorganized process that I don’t want to restrict.

Despite the fact that I’ve barely written creatively this year, I am grateful that some of the seeds of my writing that I have planted over the years are coming to fruition. This year, I was published for the first time in two books, one a textbook on writing for college students, and the other an anthology of writing published by my alma mater, UCLA. My writing career may be progressing slowly, especially since my writing production has slowed to a crawl, but I’ve still come a long way since I was a senior in high school, ten years ago.

One of my first forays into the world of creative writing occurred when I attended the California State Summer School for the Arts (CSSSA) at CalArts in Valencia, the summer before my senior year. That summer, my teachers gave me tools to work on my writing that I continue to use to this day, and gave me the inspiration to keep writing through thick and thin. Since then, I wrote a play, helped produce it, attended creative writing workshops in college where I was fully converted into a short story writer, attended graduate school for creative writing, where I wrote a short story collection as my thesis but then also discovered creative nonfiction essays, and accumulated a handful of publications.

Along the way, I’ve been buoyed by privilege. I have had many opportunities others have not due to growing up in a upper middle class family, and I know that my path in life has been paved much more smoothly than others. Still the advantages I’ve had are only one part of the equation. I’ve also had to work hard on my writing to improve it and send it out places. I know that not everyone has the time, connections, or know how to do the same. One of the reasons I became a teacher in the first place is that I wasn’t satisfied with just letting my privilege lead me to an “easy” career. I wanted to use my privilege to break down educational barriers for others. How much I am actually able to impact my students for the better, at this point, is up for debate. But I’m trying at least.

So, here I am, ten years later, back in a high school classroom, but this time as a teacher. I don’t get the opportunity to teach creative writing that often in my current position, but I may have more chances to do so in the future. When I showed my students my first two book publications, I felt really proud. However, I didn’t just show them my published essays to have bragging rights. I did it because it was a way of connecting with them on a human level. They understood from what I showed them and discussed with them that writing is my passion, something that I do whether I get paid for it or not because I find it meaningful. While not all of them consider themselves writers or even enjoy writing, all my students are passionate about something. I want to be a role model for them, to demonstrate that you don’t have to be swallowed up by your day job, no matter how valuable that job is to society. I love teaching, but I don’t want to do it at the expense of my personal values. Maybe I’m asking for too much, especially under our ruthless capitalist system, but I’m hoping to prove in the next decade that it’s possible to have a career as a public school teacher while also writing for my own sake.

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.

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.