Teacher-Writers: FAQs

If I can’t impress you with my quality, I shall impress you with my quantity

Emile Zola

With my new book, Teach Like Nobody’s Watching, at the printers I have started to get a lot of messages from people asking me about writing. How to do it, how to get published, where to find the time and perhaps most often, why do it at all. Having published a couple of books and a lot of articles in a number of different publications it seemed like a good time to try and answer some of these questions.

Why do teachers write?

Lets start with the trickiest question. Why do some of us bother to write at all? It isn’t really for the money. Most teacher-writers I know spend far more time and effort writing for free than they do writing for payment. Where writing is paid it is a nice little bonus that allows for a few luxuries but isn’t going to replace teaching as your main job. If you really want to monetise your writing then it would probably have to be as a way of promoting some form of consultancy/edu-speaker business. I certainly get a lot of offers to speak at various events where the organiser clearly hasn’t twigged that I am a full time teacher and not free to drop everything to travel across the country. This is all especially true for writing a book which may be the least efficient way of making money ever invented. You’ll make far more writing articles for publication and spend much less time doing it.

So, if not the money, what drives teachers to write? The exact motivation will vary according to the individual but for me, and for most others I talk to, it is about having something to say and wanting it to be heard. Education is a topic about which everyone has an opinion and over which many people want to have control. They have their own ideas about what schools should be for and about what should happen in the classroom. The voice that is too often overlooked in these debates is that of the teacher – the one person with real expertise in classroom practice. I struggle to think of another profession where the practitioners are so locked out of the discourse around what they do. Writing then is a way of staking your place at the table.

Most of what I write is about something I care deeply about; teacher agency. I write because I want to give power back to teachers. I try to think about the knowledge that was withheld from me when I started teaching that then held me back and I try my best to shine a light on these areas. It seems very unjust that some teachers can work in environments that allow them to work sensible hours, love their job and stay in teaching whilst others are still struggling with illogical marking policies, crazy expectations over classroom displays and are dictated to about how long they can talk for in a lesson and how to create the right kind of “buzz”. Many teachers stuck in these schools don’t even realise there is another way of teaching because these conditions have become normalised. I write to try and show that it doesn’t have to be like this.

Where do you find the time?

I’m a full time teacher but also a fairly prolific writer. I have a fortnightly TES column and regularly write things for their print edition. I occasionally write for other publications, write training resources and write talks for conferences. I am also training to run a marathon, and then an ultra-marathon, enjoy cooking and want to find time to read and relax. How is it possible?

One way I can do this is because I follow my own advice. I have made teaching a doable job that give me my evenings and weekends free. I also tend to know what I am going to write before I sit down at the keyboard to bash it out. I write in my head whilst I’m running, cooking or just sat watching the view. I also try to follow the advice to my pupils when it comes to revision and make sure that I cut out distractions while I’m working. It is amazing how much you can get down when you have 30 minutes completely undisturbed.

How do you get published?

This is an easy one. Step one: Write a lot and be very visible. Get a blog and just start writing about the thing you care about. Write about the last lesson your taught and why it was a success or failure. Write a post about your views on exclusions from the point of view of a teacher in the room or about how you deal with teaching five hours a day and juggling various demands. Just write.

Once you have started writing, make sure you are visible. I am sure there are many other wonderful geography teachers who could have written Making Every Geography Lesson Count but I am also sure that I am one of the most visible geography teachers on Twitter. When someone thinks “we need a geography teacher to write X” it is my smiling face that pops into their heads.

If you write a lot and are a visible presence then there is a fairly good chance that sooner or later someone will approach you about writing something. Writing something for someone else then gets you noticed making you more visible and it all snowballs from there. Don’t just wait to be asked though. Get pitching. Most education publication editors have their details in their twitter bios and an open invitation to be contacted with article ideas. They have weekly/monthly/termly issues to fill with content and need people to produce it. Send in your ideas. Keep it simple – what is your idea for the article and importantly why do you think it is something that their readers will want. i.e.

“Dear Jon

I would like to suggest an idea for an article for TES. Workload in many schools is spiraling out of control and this is leading to teachers leaving the profession in droves. I would like to write a feature where I give an account of a typical week and highlight the pressure on teachers and then show how I deal with these pressures. I think given the recent interest in workload issues at the start of a new term this would be a timely piece.”

If one publication doesn’t pick it up, send it to others, if no one wants it then write it up for your own blog. Don’t write the piece in advance and send it in before it has been commissioned. The editor will inevitably have their own ideas that they would like reflected in the article and their own house style.

Once you have had an idea commissioned then you are up and away. Now the goal is to keep being published. Be professional, stick to deadlines and produce something of quality. Once it is published, promote it (more on this later).

If you are determined to publish a book then the same advice goes. Just make sure you actually have a book’s worth of something to say. I occasionally review book proposals for publishers and see a lot of what should really be an idea for a blog post padded out to fill 200 pages or an intriguing idea for a book that quickly becomes little more than another how to teach guide.

How do you get people to read it?

I only write because I want to be read. I am always a little suspicious of people who say they don’t care if anyone reads what they publish or not. I am not sure why they don’t just confine these secret thoughts to a diary hidden under their mattress.

If you want to be read then you need to promote what you have written. People who follow me on twitter will know I am absolutely shameless about promoting books and articles. The education world can quickly crowd out one little teacher trying to make their voice heard so I learnt early on that it wasn’t going to work to be all shy and retiring.

Having said all that, there are few sights more tragic than writers following people on twitter just to promote their books, shoe-horning it into any conversation or turning up uninvited to someone else’s event with a carboot-load of their books to try and shift (true story). I think that promotion of what you write has to come from an honest place. I talk about what I have written because I genuinely think it could be useful and so mention it when relevant.

The best way to be promote something you have written is to be active in your readership’s community. Share ideas freely, give up your time to talk at conferences, help people when they need it. Don’t expect people to hand over their cash or time to read something you have written if you give nothing back in return.

Don’t you care what people think?

Nope.

I don’t know if it is arrogance, confidence or bravado but I don’t really care if people don’t like what I have said. I find it can lead to some interesting conversations with people where we can discuss our views politely and see if a consensus emerges or, if they are just rude, I block them and ignore them.

If you do worry about what people will think, and find this a barrier to writing, then I would suggest thinking about your ideal reader and writing for them. Think about a teacher who is starting out and wants to hear what you have to say. They are your audience and not the sneering “heard it all before” curmudgeons sat in their favourite seat of the virtual staffroom. Ignore them. They are irrelevant to what you have to say.

Conclusion

I believe that we need more teachers making their voices heard about education. If we don’t push forward we will be pushed back by those wanted to take control of what happens in our classrooms and in our schools. Be brave. Pick up a pen.

Teach Like Nobody’s Watching is available for pre-order and will be out some point in the next few weeks!

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