I teach, therefore I write?

pen writing

Teaching creative writing can be a tricky business. Here, SBT staff member and ex-English teacher Chris Leslie shares his experience of teaching creative writing, and speculates as how he could have done it better...

When I was training as a teacher, I always assumed I’d like teaching creative writing. I enjoyed reading, and thought that this would be enough to make me a good teacher of story writing. Looking back, it’s easy to see the naivety of this: alas, I was younger and know less than I do now, and I subjected classes to some fairly unsatisfactory creative writing experiences.

My approach reminds me a little bit of Billy Connolly’s music teacher, and her instruction to “Appreciate, Connolly!” without ever explaining what appreciating might entail. There were gaps in my teaching which I assumed the pupils would fill. They were young, they had imaginations, didn’t they? If I taught them how to come up with a character, plan a story, and use the five senses to describe setting, then surely they could overcome any hurdles themselves, right?

Wrong. And the main trouble, I think, was that I didn’t do any writing myself. Since I’ve stepped away from the classroom, I’ve begun to write as a hobby, and although what I’m putting on a page is often embarrassingly poor, I don’t think that’s the point.

I wish I’d had the time to write as a teacher. I would have understood better why kids get stuck in the middle of stories, and maybe been able to help them more effectively. I would have been able (with some courage, admittedly) to show myself as a writer, and show how I’d learned from other writers’ advice when trying to overcome problems. Our former Teacher in Residence, Michael Stephenson, tried this with his pupils - you can check out the blog posts linked below for more on his experiences.

I interviewed Lari Don recently, who explained that once she has a character she cares about, she allows that character to drive the narrative to a large extent, not worrying too much about planning out the whole story in advance. Yet that’s exactly what I told the pupils to do: here’s your story plan, you need to know where it’s going so you don’t get stuck halfway through. Maybe if I’d spent more time on character with them, they wouldn’t have been in so much danger of running out of ideas.

There are a couple of problems with what I’m suggesting here, though. First of all, despite CFE’s introduction, a teacher’s job remains geared towards exam results to a large extent. So you work towards assessment criteria, which seems to encourage fairly superficial writing, with simile and metaphors shoehorned in and no space for experimentation or exploration. This approach to writing doesn’t resemble the process of a professional writer at all, but teachers aren’t given any room in a packed curriculum to encourage pupils to play around and see what works for them.

The second problem is that any teacher wishing to pursue creative writing has to contend with the fact that the job doesn’t exactly give you a lot of free time. Any opportunity to spend time with a writer can help: CPD opportunities are sometimes available, and you can invite a writer into the classroom (see this blog post by Mary Paulson Ellis). I generally found, though, that my evenings as an English teacher were full to the brim with marking/CFE planning/reports/etc. Time for a writing hobby really wasn’t there.

It might be the case that you read this and think it’s nonsense: there may be teachers who don’t write themselves but teach creative writing effectively. You might be pursuing your own writing and maintaining your teaching commitments comfortably. Whatever your opinion, get in touch with us via the comments section below or via email – I think it’s an important conversation to have.

Have a look at these other blog posts, in which teachers and writers share their experiences of teaching and modelling creative writing:

The Blank Lesson Plan

What would the world be like without writers?

Enjoyment and choice in writing