Teachers Write

Spring 2014

By Dane L. Peters

Editor’s Note: Portions of this article appeared in the Parents League Review 2014. It has been adapted specifically for Independent Teacher to speak directly to teachers and educators.

Do you write beyond what is required for work? 

Do you get satisfaction from writing?

Is it important to you for other people to read what you have to say? 

I cannot think of any profession besides teaching in which writing is so critical to the work done. Whether it is the cover letter of an application, instructions on a whiteboard, a letter to parents, corrections on an assigned composition, conveying the progress of a student in an assessment report, or helping another educator understand a concept through an article, as I am doing here, writing is the credibility fuel to a teacher’s work, life, and professional passion. 

Writing can come in the form of an article, report, letter, blog post, email, or 140-word tweet, but if it is not written well, an important idea, sentiment, or instruction can be lost. Throughout my career I have found that for many teachers, the process of writing can be a challenge while for others, pure joy; nevertheless, it is a skill we must use in our profession. Let us explore how we can make writing a joy so we can model it for our students and colleagues.

Writing is my passion. Let me first tell you how I began writing beyond what work requires, the satisfaction I receive, and what it means to me when people read what I write; then, we’ll talk about you as a writer.

Good Criticism is Necessary

Just when I thought I had a lock on writing, criticism brought a much-needed, mid-course correction. In 1980, I was a teacher laboring on my semester student reports. The headmaster got hold of my reports and made so many corrections and comments that I didn’t know whether to scream, do a total rewrite, or to quit. How dare he? 

However, it was exactly what I needed at that point in my career. He opened my eyes to the technical aspects of writing. Subject-verb agreement, active and passive voice, nominative and objective cases, punctuation, all of those things that can slide when you have a good sense of what needs to be said in a report, newsletter, or a story. Needless to say, since moving beyond my wounded ego, I have been forever grateful to him for getting me on the right track. It also pressed me to steel myself to the eventuality of working with editors, but most importantly to be a constructive critic of people who wrote for me as a head of school. I saw this repeatedly in the many student reports, school newsletters, board of trustees’ reports, committee minutes, professional development workshops, and correspondence that I had to read, reread, and push back to the authors.

Since that criticism comeuppance, I have often asked teachers and colleagues to write one student assessment report and pass it on to me for review before writing out their reports for the entire class. Teachers are always grateful to know someone cares enough to reach out, encourage, and take on some of the initial responsibility for their writing.

Encouraging Educators to Write

Over my career, and often by example, I have encouraged my colleagues to write and express what they know so well: curriculum, caring for kids, and parents. In the world of higher education, the dictum “publish or perish” may create a pressure that can be intimidating; but most of us are in an environment where there is no fear of “perishing” and the writing can flow without jeopardy. Besides, something that teachers are expected to do well is write. 

Understandably so, it is an assumed requisite of our craft. How can we possibly teach students to write or expect our parents to take us seriously, if we are not good writers ourselves? And there is something to be said for one’s investment in establishing credibility among peers, parents, and pupils. When presenting to colleagues, a board of trustees, teachers, or emerging leaders, it is helpful to be able to refer to a well-written published article to reinforce a point. 

I can remember attending an all-day workshop with teachers, administrators, and parents on communication. As we left the day’s event, I suggested—well, maybe pleaded—with a fellow teacher to write an article detailing what she had learned at the workshop. She looked at me with those eyes that said, “Yeah, sure on top of all the other stuff I have to do?” Yet, the professional that she is took over and she said, “Hmm, not a bad idea.” With encouragement along the way and editing back up by me, she collaborated with another attendee and relished the article when it was published in Independent School magazine.

A clear, thoughtful student progress report—something all independent school teachers must write—is one instrument in our profession that touches lives deeply. The student, parents, professionals, and other educational institutions are swayed and influenced by how and what we say about a student. If for no other reason, this is why teachers must dedicate themselves to good writing.

Professional development opportunities can often help educators overcome their resistance to writing. For example, I have helped to build a writing workshop through the New York State Association of Independent Schools (NYSAIS) led by Michael Brosnan, editor of Independent School magazine, and author Phillip Lopate. Those who attended could not get enough of the shared, diverse writing experiences. 

The Blog: Where Teachers Write

After two years of blogging for NAIS, I decided to start my own blog (www.danesedblog.blogspot.com), designed to serve educators, school leaders, and parents. My blog’s main purpose is to serve as a beacon to larger resources that can help readers in their lives and work. When I have one of my published articles to share, I introduce it as a link; the reader can decide whether the title is inviting enough to go further. I post links to sources I have found helpful, such as what may be the best book on writing, On Writing Well by William Zinsser, and the great online grammar source, Grammar Girl (www.grammar.quickanddirtytips.com). My blog is also a library for me to readily reference favorite articles, videos, and resources. 

Lessons Learned: 40 Years as Teacher, Administrator, Head of School, and Writer

Here are a few notes that might be helpful: 

  • One of the most abused forms of writing is in emails. I often asked my school administrative team to share their tough-to-write emails with a team member or myself in order to have a second set of eyes read for clarity and tone. Too often when we are in the heat of the moment, responding to an irate parent, we end up hurting parents, ourselves, and, ultimately, students.
  • Make sure you activate the “undo” button; you know, the one that gives you a predetermined number of seconds to stop an email from being sent after you click the “send” button. I find myself reading and rereading my emails to catch the inevitable errors that come from rushing without thought or written in a hurtful, nasty tone. And, with shaking hand, clicking that “undo” button I can often catch my errant email.
  • Too often, I find teachers who are self-conscious of their writing, so they do the bare minimum, minimizing their exposure to criticism. Find a friend or colleague who will read your written work. I do it all of the time. It is essential; it is how we learn to write better.
  • Brevity is one of the most important characteristics of good writing. Finding the best words to describe your point in as few words as possible is something readers appreciate. So, go ahead, be pithy, and please your readers with well-chosen words. That is why reading (and listening to podcasts of) other good writers is so important. It is how you develop a vocabulary warehouse. Check out the podcasts This American Life and The Moth Radio Hour.
  • There is a form of writing you do where criticism can only come from you. This was eloquently expressed in the sensational hit young adult reader, The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. Much like Anne Frank’s diary, the book thief, German preteen Liesel Meminger wrote her World War II notes that only she read. In one of the final chapters, “Little Black Book,” Liesel writes

* * * THE BOOK THIEF — LAST LINE * * * I have hated the words and I have loved them, And I hope I have made them right. [Pg. 528]

Develop Your Own Passion For Writing

So, how would you answer the questions I asked at the start of this piece: Do you write more than what is required at work? Do you find satisfaction in writing? Do you like having others read what you want to say?

Some final thoughts for your consideration and inspiration as you develop your own passion for writing:

  • Never stop reading/listening to a variety of publications and genre, e.g., books, blogs, periodicals, podcasts, TED Talks, biographies, fiction, nonfiction, poetry . . . . 
  • Give writing a chance, whether it is a diary, a brief anecdote to share with family or colleagues, or taking minutes at a committee meeting. 
  • Writing should be for the reader. It is important to write from the perspective of the reader. For example, scroll up and read the title of this article. Did I mean “teachers write” (as in a command) or “teachers write” (something teachers do)? Care for your readers by using clarity.
  • It cannot be said enough, the way to get better at writing and increase your writing confidence is by writing.
  • Start out by writing for your school’s (or organization’s) publication. You’ll please the editor no end. Once that happens, stretch yourself to another small publication, and do not be afraid of rejection. A perfect publication for sharing your writing is Independent Teacher. Explore the publication and what is required for submission.
  • Heck, there is no law that says you cannot share your writing if it has not been published. When I feel like I have written a good piece, I pass it on regardless. I often find myself doing this to “beta test” an idea or article. 
  • Above all else, make a commitment to develop a passion for writing . . . and teachers write.
Dane L. Peters

Dane L. Peters is recently retired as head of Brooklyn Heights Montessori School (New York). He still serves as vice president of the board of directors for the American Montessori Society. He can be reached at [email protected] Visit his blog at http://danesedblog.blogspot.com.