Being a Teacher who Writes: Guest Post by Author Matt Posner
Posted on July 17, 2013
Today, I welcome author and public school teacher Matt Posner to share some of the challenges of work/writing balance in a teacher’s life. Matt is the author of the School of the Ages book series, set in America’s premier magic school, and co-author with Jess C. Scott of the Teen Guide to Sex and Relationships. Read on to hear Matt’s thoughts on “Being a Teacher Who Writes,” and learn how to find Matt online.
Thanks for inviting me to appear on your blog, Summer.
I write books for ages 12 and up. I don’t know who my readership is — my reviewers are mostly adults who like YA books. I hope I have reached some teens also, because I have things to say that I hope they will be moved to read about. But I don’t write full-time.
Nope, I’m a teacher.
We teachers are bad guys these days. The media, the corporations, the politicians, they all say that we are the problem in American education. We don’t push the students hard enough, they say. We don’t have the proper skills. We make too much money. We need to pay more for our benefits. We should give up our job security. It’s a tough space that we teachers occupy just now, being the scapegoats for all social problems. And here, I thought I was using a wide range of skills, including the skill of keeping my head screwed on right when under pressure, to take care of kids who present a wide range of challenges, to do my best to advance them along the path to adulthood and give them some skills they can use, both technical skills and life skills. I didn’t know I was the problem. I thought I was part of the solution.
Being a teacher is pretty stressful, really. We are being harassed by a wide variety of political enemies. We have a challenging generation of young people to mentor. A lot of those kids feel like family and feel like our own, and their troubles can easily slide into our lives the way shadows join us on a forest path. We do extra for the ones who need more, as often as we possibly can. And like all skilled workers, we push ourselves to do better even as we have to push back against ignoramuses who want to tell us what to do.
Of course, we have families with their problems, and we deal with finances and we try to keep fed well and exercise and find ways to let go of stress. And sometimes we don’t even get along with each other. So how is it possible to be a writer under all these conditions?
Well, it’s rough. I can’t write every day. If I could, my output would be triple what it currently is. I spend a lot of time tired and I spend a lot of energy outside the workplace dealing with irritants and hassles rather than with creative work. I specialize in finding little nooks and crannies of time, only to discover that I am too distracted, irritable, or drained to do much with them. (I use those moments for marketing, if I have a computer available.) I write in notebooks between classes, or on the subway, or in the bathroom. I take notes on my phone. I listen to research materials in podcast form while commuting. I do a lot of creative problem-solving that way too, playing stimulating music on my iPod to trigger the flow of ideas while I am behind the wheel. I try to disappear during Winter or Spring Break to write undisturbed in an undisclosed location.
I hate that I am not producing more. That… sucks!! If writing full-time, how much more I would be able to manage! I could have a regimen — do activity A from this hour to that hour, then switch over to activity B from X o’clock to Y o’clock, and then break for lunch. (“Posner’s lunch is a 6 oz. skinless chicken breast, three Tbsp steamed vegetable, blah blah. Celebrity diet…) That would be a good life. Oh, for the wings, for the wings of a dove…
Time for a rhetorical turn. Yes, I hate the weariness, the wasted time, the frustration, but there is, of course, another side to the story.
To be a teacher is to care for other people, and that builds character. Working in an urban high school brings you into contact with innocence, sweetness, goodness, open and curious faces, all things that inspire you to do better for others, and give you a sense that you are not a waste of time if you try. But working in an urban high school brings you also into contact with some of the darker aspects of human life: poverty, madness, violence, rage, disease, teen pregnancy, untimely death. These are problems no teacher has the power to resolve; the teacher is just a fellow-traveler on the road through such troubles, trying to give some counsel and encouragement. This role, though overwhelming devoid of victory through visible change, is perhaps more meaningful than the other. I regretted it for many years, but now I have embraced it. I know I don’t get it, that I can’t fix it, that I remain fundamentally different from the troubled ones beside whom I walk, separated by age, experience, and other aspects of context. Yet I also know that for some child, at some moment, I may be the only fellow-traveler with the boldness to speak. I know that though I may not cause change, I may be remembered for trying; I may be remembered in later days. Kids come back to us and say, “I wish I had listened to you.” But at the time they say that, they have turned things around on their own. Perhaps the unheeded counsel had an unplanned effect — to help them understand that it was worth turning things around, that they were worth it.
This role as mentor, caretaker, fellow-traveler has to matter to a writer. If you write only, and don’t engage with the world, you miss the energy that comes from meaningful human contact. I’m no philanthropist or social reformer, but I don’t think I was nearly the human being in the past that I have become since I began to teach. If it’s my role to care for the troubled, so be it. In the end, the writer in me will grow more expressive, more concerned, more intense. And that … does not suck.
Matt Posner is the author of the School of the Ages series of multicultural young adult novels about America’s greatest magic school in New York City, and the co-author with Jess C. Scott of Teen Guide to Sex and Relationships, older friends talking straight to young people about caring for their bodies and their hearts. Buy Matt’s books at Amazon (linked on the titles above) and connect with Matt online:
Thanks for writing for us, Matt! This guest post is part of the new Writing Like a Mother schedule: Writing/Publishing on Mondays, Guest posts and interviews on Wednesdays, and Friday Faith Talks. See you Friday!