I believe in the practice of teaching writing, which implies that I may not always know what I’m doing but mustn’t be confused with “I don’t know what I’m talking about.” The former implies I am committed to lifelong learning as a teacher, the latter, that I am hopelessly full of hot air. I am what you might call a practicing teacher. When I am about to teach a new class of writing students, I admit, “I don’t know what I’m doing.” (Initially, I wouldn’t advise saying this aloud – especially you new teachers – unless, of course, you enjoy undermining your tenuous authority.) By admitting I don’t know, I’ve already implied I am prepared to find out. I am going to share what knowledge I have picked up and adapted along the way as a writer, and I am going to discover my students’ individual writing processes as they discover them. And when I make a mistake, it’s o.k. I am, after all, learning. I will discover, encourage, and instruct in the writing process. It may work for only one student, maybe two. I will practice and develop strategies for the rest of my teaching years. That is what it means to practice – and to write, for that matter – to keep at something, to constantly conceptualize, create, revise, and re-create. I’m told practice eventually makes perfect. I am still practicing.
If my new writing student matter-of-factly states, “I don’t know how to write,” I am free to say, “Great, because I don’t know how to teach you.” I can say this because I will have already locked the classroom door and with no other option, the student is forced to listen to my next statement. I imagine it will have a John Wayne kind of drawl to it. “Now that we’ve cleared the air, how’s about we get down to that writing, pilgrim.” When both teacher and student are committed to practicing, whether it be teaching or writing or both, then they are no longer waiting for the hall pass, the badge, the passport, the moniker that definitively asserts and advertises “I belong in the world of writing.”
As I write this, in my entire life I’ve only taught a few undergraduate and high school classes combined. I’ve made mistakes. I’ve acted as an editor when I should have responded as a reader. I especially learned the art of practicing as I taught a class of typically non-traditional, mostly African American, with a few Latino and European descent, students at a local college. Most had children and time constraints, and all believed they couldn’t write because they didn’t know the rules. Together, we learned that only through practice and constant writing would our respective writing, and teaching, skills improve.
When my personal editors, permanently perched on my shoulders, are rolling their eyes because I have mixed my metaphors yet again, I have massacred yet another analogy (I can even here them whispering loudly enough for me to hear, “Oh brother, here she goes again!”), I am compelled to continue teaching, just as I am compelled to learn and write. What matters most is that I believe and continue to persevere. Teaching writing process, practicing teaching, and writing, itself as an act of expression, absolutely must be the staples of learning, along with the pen, notepad, and thick skin, found in every practicing teacher’s (and student’s) book bag.
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