What It’s Really Like to Be a Writing Teacher: School Leadership Blog Series

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In this week’s series, school and district leaders will share their insight on ways to support writing teachers. Stay tuned this week as they share their thinking on how to support whole schools. Our first school leadership post this week is from Jen Schwanke, a principal in Dublin, Ohio.

On my path to becoming an educator, I held many different jobs as a way to pay the bills. Among other things, I baled hay, waited on tables, tended bar, transcribed play-by-play for sporting events, typed term papers, milked cows, and even—during one very long, ill-fated summer—was charged with yanking decades’ worth of poison ivy from a future city park. I always loved working, and I wasn’t afraid of working hard.

And then I became a writing teacher.

That, now: that was tough stuff.   

Make no mistake. I loved it. It was exhilarating and fun. It was delightful, hilarious, fulfilling, and inspiring. But also immensely challenging. And exhausting.  

Here’s the thing. Being a good writing teacher requires a complicated mix of character and skill. While working with our students, we have to think really carefully about each intention and purpose, and we have to react accordingly. We have to get inside each writer’s head and stay there. At the same time, we have to have a deep sensitivity streak, because we have to feel—and show compassion for—the frustration that comes when our students feel like stalled or ineffective writers. Meanwhile, we have to motivate our reluctant writers while simultaneously corralling the energies of our most enthusiastic, eager writers. It’s like being a waitress, realtor, business manager, mediator, and landscaper—all at the same time.  

Only by being immersed as writing teacher do you truly know what it’s like—which is why, if I were in charge of the world, I’d want every administrator to spend some time as a writing teacher. It is the only way to know how to support the people who are doing it every day.  

Oh, the things school leaders could learn from writing teachers! Here are just a few:

Formative assessment? Um… writing teachers invented formative assessment. Writing teachers can glance at a student’s writing and know exactly what to do next in order to improve and grow the student as a writer. For writing teachers, formative assessment is as natural as breathing.

There are battles to fight—and battles to surrender. We can’t catch and fix every imperfect sentence, misspelling, or erroneous wording. If we tried, we’d get too bogged down and never make meaningful progress. Instead, we have to focus on each child’s current writing and seek growth in one or two areas. The other stuff has to wait.  

Sort of. While we can’t fight every battle, we always know that some of the “small stuff” might really, really matter. A poor word choice or a simple, consistent grammar error can ruin the flow and intent of a piece of writing—not to mention lead to bad habits. So even though we let some things go, we still have to keep an eye on all of it.

Oh… and writers are sensitive. Every time we offer criticism to one of our young writers, we risk crushing their desire to write. We have to be careful, gentle, and kind. Always. Even when we want to moan, “Didn’t we just talk about this?!?!” we have to remain diplomatic and hopeful. We can’t stomp on their efforts, even if those very efforts stretch our patience to its very limit.

But mastery never really happens. The trickiest thing about being a writer is this: no matter how perfect our finished piece, it could always be better. It’s not like solving a complicated equation and getting an exact answer. Writing is never completely mastered. I know that when I read this blog post, I’ll grit my teeth because there will be things I wish I had written differently. When we teach writing, we have to know when to say, “There. You’ve done it. You’re finished—you’ve done your best writing,” and move on. Even though it’s not perfect. We have to keep on keepin’ on—always seeking that impossible point of mastery.  

That relentless schoolbag. All teachers have long days. There’s the teaching—and we all know how taxing that can be—and then there’s all the stuff that happens after school as we bustle around living our lives. For writing teachers, though—? When the day is over, there it is. The bag. Patiently waiting next to the couch. Stuffed full of student writing. So we fight our heavy eyelids, pull out the stack of papers, and re-focus: on our students, on the words they’ve given us, on the feedback they need to keep growing as writers. It’s an endless cycle, but we don’t wallow in knowing we’ll do this all again in a few days’ time—instead we simply turn to the first page and begin.  

Because…um… we have to actually read the stuff. We are committed to turning our students into strong writers, so we have to, well, read what they write. And think about it. And create a plan for the next steps for each student. Of course we love what we do, but let’s face it: sometimes that stack of student writing is not our first choice of reading material. Often, we’d rather turn to our novels and professional articles and beloved blogs. But we don’t. We read our kids’ writing first.

Because we are all in. Writing teachers prioritize student writing because we know how much it matters. Teaching young learners to communicate is more than a job—it’s a mission. And we throw ourselves into it with everything we’ve got.  

There are gobs of other things an administrator might learn from being a writing teacher; these are just a few of them. I have vowed to never forget them, though, because I believe teaching students to write is some of the most impactful, meaningful work happening in schools—and I believe it’s my job to support that work. And I can only do that well if I remember what it really feels like to be a writing teacher.

Jen Schwanke has been an educator for 18 years.  She taught middle school language arts for six years before moving into administration at both the middle school and elementary level.  She is currently a principal for the Dublin City Schools district in Dublin, Ohio.  Follow her on Twitter @JenSchwanke and on Instagram (jenschwanke).  She also blogs about her experiences in learning and leading at jenschwanke.com