This Is the Story of His (Teaching) Life

The following is adapted from my portion of a forthcoming recent AWP-PDX panel presentation entitled, “Good Gig? Teaching Creative Writing in Secondary Schools.” Its insights are offered humbly and in good faith, and they are (necessarily) informed (and limited) by my own experience. I’ve made an effort to cull the spurious generalizations. If a few slipped through the editorial cracks, please take them with a grain of salt.

Hope to see you in Rip City. If not, here’s hoping you teachers—aspiring ones and veterans alike—find something of interest in the post itself.

My Background in CW Pedagogy

I learned how to write in college and grad school, almost by accident. In my first year of undergraduate studies at my local community college, I had excellent English teachers who encouraged my writing. I wrote my first poem as a college sophomore at a public land grant university, in a workshop led by the poet and novelist Lucinda Roy. She, too, is an excellent teacher. I studied under lots of other excellent teaching writers in the process of accumulating (supposedly) professionally untenable degrees—a BA and MA in English, then an MFA in CW. I’m forever indebted to the writing instruction of Tom Gardner, Bonnie Soniat, Ed Falco, Robin Behn, Michael Martone, Bruce Smith, and Joel Brouwer, not to mention all the scholar-writers who taught the literature classes I took.

I first learned how to teach writing in college classrooms as well, only now I was the teacher. It was mostly trial-by-fire, trial-and-[lots of] error. To be fair, my graduate programs offered pretty good teacher training: pedagogy classes in rhetoric and composition, structured mentorship from experienced teachers. But—to be fair—it’s nearly impossible for anyone to prepare for the daunting experience of walking into a college composition classroom as a 22-year-old graduate teaching assistant who is the sole teacher of record for the course.

I spent the better part of my 20s, then, learning to teach and write in the world of Higher Education—an environment I now, in my less generous moments, sometimes refer to as the “Literary Industrial Complex.” For a long time, though, I expected that to be the locus of my teaching and writing life. I wanted (more desperately than I cared to admit) to work within the system that produced me, to follow directly in the tenure-track footsteps of the teaching writers who had such a profound influence on me. That was my default definition of vocational success for a teaching writer. I wasn’t aware of any alternative option.

Teaching Advanced CW in a Secondary Setting

That is not exactly the teaching and writing life I have enjoyed for going on two decades now. I use that verb—“enjoyed”—consciously, conspicuously. I have enjoyed my vocational life (teaching, writing—their special brand of symbiosis) in no small part because I have pursued it in an environment that was utterly foreign to me when I first encountered it nearly seventeen years ago.

Since 2002, I have been a full-time faculty member in a Creative Writing program situated in a statewide, semi-residential, specialty magnet school for 7th – 12th grade students. For the past four years, I have directed that program. The school is public and tuition-free for state residents, but admission is competitive. Students navigate a rigorous application process for admission to one of six specialty programs—Creative Writing, Dance, Music, Theater Arts, Visual Art, or Math & Science. The school day is long and demanding—eight hours, all told, with a three-hour afternoon block designated each day for advanced, intensive instruction in our students’ respective specialty areas.

Our CW “majors” take workshops and forms courses in various genres; give regular public readings of their work; teach workshops in a WITS program for local elementary students; produce and edit an award-winning, perfect-bound literary magazine; write and defend a senior thesis of their own original work—among other writing-related activities. This is in addition to their academic core coursework at the school, much of which is taught at advanced levels as well.

Three-fourths of our student body lives in the metro area surrounding the school, which is located in the heart of the most populous city in the state. These students fend for themselves when it comes to transportation, some of them (and their parents) enduring daily round trip commutes of two hours or more. Those that live too far away to commute live in a dormitory on campus, which is its own culture-shocking endurance sport for many dorm students.

And it bears repeating, for full emphasis: our students can enter our program in 7th grade, though a few enter as late as 11th grade, and most enter in 8th or 9th grade. That means most of them spend four to six years with us—the bulk of their adolescence. It’s a relentless life of eight-hour school days usually followed by a few more hours of homework each night. For 180+ school days per year, they are immersed in an academic, creative, and social environment that few people ever experience. At any age.

All that’s to say: it’s singularly intense.

For the right student—and the right teacher—that’s (mostly) a good thing.

Teaching in a Specialty School: Challenge Meets Opportunity

DISCLAIMER: I suspect the following observations aren’t unique to my school or to specialty schools in general—teachers in Higher Ed and other settings have likely had similar experiences. Paradoxically, maybe, I’m also not comfortable making the claim that these observations are applicable to any other schools, other settings, or other teachers. In other words, my experience is surely not utterly unique, but it has been relatively peculiar. The observations that follow, then, may well be either (1) too obvious or (2) too obscure. Or both (but let’s hope not). Let’s hope, instead, that they provide at least a little something of use to someone considering teaching creative writing in a secondary school.

Thus, at my school, I have observed the following:

The Hogwarts/Breakfast Club Effect. Many of the students in our school have experienced what it’s like to feel out of step with the dominant cultures surrounding them: school, family, community. With us, they discover what it’s like to experience a dominant culture that fits them better—one that validates who they are and what they do. It is usually transformative, this transition from an environment of emotional, intellectual, and creative scarcity to one of abundance upon abundance.

They also find themselves surrounded by an abundance of people whose backgrounds, temperaments, and abilities are different (and exceptional) in ways they haven’t experienced before. And they’re thrust together in an intense, extended, singular, shared, immersive experience at a very formative time in their lives.

It’s this combination of abundances—common ground + radical diversity + intense / extended / singular / shared / immersive—that can be so life-changing for our students (and our faculty). By and large, it’s a change for the better. It can, however, be overwhelming. And draining. Especially when students are also trying to do something exceptional (and precocious) with their creative potential, and teachers are trying to help them do it. It’s a tough balance to strike; intellectual, creative, and emotional maturity don’t always match up perfectly. For the best of us. At any age. Suffice it to say, that disparity can produce some missteps, not a little heartache, and a whole lot of pure, unadulterated exhaustion.

The Osmosis Effect. I have found that my students respond dramatically to the influence of texts, forms, and authors they probably wouldn’t have found on their own at this early stage of their development as writers. It’s a remarkable creative accelerant for them, and it helps them quickly find a voice (or try voices on for size) that belie(s) their years.

They’re also dramatically influenced by the work of their peers. I remember feeling something similar as a grad student in an MFA program—a mixture of envy, inspiration, and even some desperation to write something as good as my workshop peers were writing. That’s a unique feature of being in a workshop where everyone has writerly instincts and talent. Is that kind of influence 100% “healthy?” Maybe not. But it does raise the creative bar, and such bar-raising tends to help serious creative-types accelerate their artistic development.

Of course, there’s nothing unique about the power of influence for “emerging” artists. That’s pretty much how it’s always worked. I’ve found it to be somewhat more pronounced, however, for the young writers I work with at my school. Helping them recognize, manage, and moderate such profound influences—at a time in their lives when they are so wide open to influence—is a big part of the job. It’s also a big responsibility.

The Power of Environments. As a result of these two “effects” I’ve enumerated, I’ve found that a lot of my work—as both a teacher and as an administrator in our school—involves attending to the culture. It’s the culture in our program, our school, that does the lion’s share of the pedagogical work, in my opinion.

Malcolm Gladwell, bestselling author of Outliers, Tipping Point, and Blink (etc), was asked why he thinks some people live up to their potential and others don’t. For him, it boiled down to what he called “the redemptive power of environments.” He went on to say:

My point is it’s almost impossible to know where the person ends and their environment begins, and the longer someone is in a particular environment the blurrier that line gets….What does it mean to say that a Marine is brave? It might mean that a Marine is an inherently brave person. It may also be that the culture of the Marine Corps is so powerful, and the training so intensive, and the supporting pressure of other Marines so empowering, that even a coward would behave bravely in that context.

All classrooms, all schools are “environments.” All teachers attend to the environments they create, consciously or not. That attention, I submit, is even more critical in the secondary classroom, and in a program like ours—where students spend so much time with us, in their formative years as writers and thinkers—its importance cannot be overestimated.

It Takes a Village. Teachers in a program like ours are not alone in creating the environment. There are quite a few cooks in that particular kitchen, and this by itself can make the experience of teaching in a secondary school fundamentally different from teaching in Higher Ed.

Here are a few of the various (adult) constituents:

  • Parents: This aspect of secondary teaching is a crucial difference between secondary vs. Higher Ed settings. As a teacher of middle school and high school students, you typically don’t have the option of simply disregarding parent interaction. There are some exceptions to that rule, but not many. Thus, when it comes to tending to parent-teacher-student relations, it can sometimes be tricky. That said, it would be too facile to say it’s always a challenging source of tension. It doesn’t have to be—and, in my experience, usually it isn’t. There are plenty of times when it can be a rewarding aspect of the job. An important place to start is to shed any sense that parents are adversaries. Start, too, with the assumption that they’re your (mostly) off-stage partners and that, in some respects, they, too, can positively influence (and be positively influenced) by the environment in your classroom/program.
  • Administrators: I’ve been lucky with administrators. I’ve worked for people who honor my autonomy in the classroom and our program’s autonomy generally. All have lacked cynicism, all have been true believers in the school’s cause. All of them have liked working with students. Without that as an administrative baseline, any efforts to create or maintain a redemptive school environment will be difficult if not impossible. Even with that as an administrative baseline, the “powers that be” in a secondary school will likely have a larger role in your teaching experience than they do in Higher Ed settings. Again: it’s important to start with the assumption that your administrators aren’t adversaries. Good administrators create a “climate of possibility,” and they’re somehow able to simultaneously advocate for students and teachers. Working with those sorts of leaders can be really inspiring and empowering.
  • Colleagues: Where and how you learned to teach will obviously shape your pedagogical philosophy. Those who have graduate degrees in Secondary Education or Curriculum & Instruction (or the like) often share a certain lexicon and set of values/experiences, as do those of us who learned to teach in college settings and who have little or no background in educational theory or research. Those differences don’t have to be fault lines—but they can be if you and your colleagues are not open-minded about different approaches to things like classroom management, curriculum development, learning styles, and assessment strategies. Frankly, it took me a while to learn which of my college-teaching strategies transferred smoothly and which had to be altered or abandoned altogether. Ultimately, though, I think this kind of pedagogical “code switching” has enhanced my teaching.   
  • Guest Artists: Specialty/arts schools often have funds (and, just as important, the inclination) to bring guests artists/lecturers to campus. A guest artist can say the exact same thing you’ve been harping on in class for weeks, months, years…and it will resonate with students in a way that it hasn’t before. That’s a tried and true phenomenon you have probably already experienced in your teaching (or parenting or friending…). It’s probably doubly true in a secondary school setting. In my experience, an added value of bringing guest artists to campus is it helps me feel plugged into the larger literary community—the aforementioned “Literary Industrial Complex,” which I can sometimes feel estranged/alienated from due to my position on (what feels like) its very outer periphery.

It’s important to remember that all of the adults listed above (especially the first three) are authority figures in your students’ lives. You know what’s even more important to remember (and perhaps more daunting)? As a teacher of secondary students, it’s next to impossible to escape the fact that you’re an authority figure in their lives too—whether you care to acknowledge or accept that role or not.

This can take some getting used to, especially for teaching writers/artists who have cut their teeth in Higher Ed settings and/or whose classroom persona and pedagogical values are (therefore) inherently anti-authoritarian. Full disclosure: it took me a while to come to terms with this aspect of the job, but I’ve found it’s not impossible to be both an advocate for students and an authority figure in their lives. In fact, the best secondary teachers are able to do both. That’s the job, really.

Social and Emotional Learning (SEL). Being a teenager is socially and emotionally challenging. That’s always been true, but for a variety of reasons, it seems to be even truer today. Secondary schools are increasingly acknowledging their students’ social and emotional struggles as more than just “teenagers being teenagers,” and many of them are implementing programs to help students develop so-called “soft skills” (empathy, resilience, communication skills, etc) along with some healthy coping strategies for dealing with the various forms and sources of stress they encounter.

This means that, just as a secondary school teacher doesn’t have the option of ignoring or avoiding parent interaction altogether, she doesn’t have the option of neglecting her students’ SEL experience. What’s more, there usually isn’t much of a buffer between the teacher and her students’ SEL challenges. I think that’s especially true in an intensive environment like the school where I teach—and that goes double (triple?) for teachers in a specialty writing program because, as any writing teacher anywhere knows, students often feel more comfortable addressing their emotional and social lives in writing.

Suffice it to say: all of this presents yet another set difficult balances to strike in a litany of them.

Publish or Perish? I’m far removed from this aspect of the “Literary Industrial Complex.” I have never had to publish my work to keep my job. That’s allowed me to work at my own pace, write what I want to write, and publish it when/where/if I want to publish it.

Students in our program, however, feel a lot of pressure to enter and win contests and to get their work published, especially in their junior and senior years. Increasingly, they’re submitting their work to literary magazines and presses that publish writers of any age—not just venues for high school writers. And they’re having success—not just one-offs, but chapbooks, Pushcart nominations, etc.

I think that pressure to publish and/or receive other outside validation is sourced in several places:

  • They’re seeking to differentiate themselves within our community—within the writing program and also within the school at large, which is full of very ambitious, very talented, very accomplished young people in our various specialty programs. That impulse is understandable, but it seems somewhat less than redemptive to me, and I am therefore ambivalent about its effect on our program and on our students’ individual creative identities.
  • They’re seeking to differentiate themselves in the college admissions rat race—again: totally understandable, especially in light of recent events. Also less than redemptive—perhaps (also) especially in light of recent events.
  • The culture at large reinforces prodigies and precocious achievement. The sports and entertainment industries have long led the way in this regard, but now they’re definitely not alone. Case in point, the winner of AWP’s 2017 Donald Hall Prize for Poetry was 18-year-old Brynne Rebele-Henry—who had already published a full-length poetry collection from a reputable independent press and who now (of course) has acquired a well-known literary agent.
  • Programs like the one I teach in professionalize writing for students. If our program sounds like a Bugsy Malone version of an MFA program, that’s because it is. For all the implied shade I’m throwing at the “Literary Industrial Complex,” I’m part of a program that propagates it at the level of the secondary school. Again: less than redemptive, as well as another source of ambivalence for me.

I can (and do) rationalize it. There’s what I call the “Miyagi Effect,” for instance. In The Karate Kid, as Danny paints the fence and waxes cars, Mr. Miyagi shows him how he’s learning the essential movements that he will later use to become a karate master. Likewise, students in our school learn a range of skills that are easily applied to other pursuits and other areas of their lives. There’s also some considerable value in learning, early on, whether you’re in the writing (or dancing or acting or painting…) game for the long haul. If you’re not, there’s still time to change course. And many of our notable graduates have done just that—Suzanne Collins was a Theatre Arts student at our school, not a writer. Laverne Cox started out in the Creative Writing program then transferred to Dance. There are dozens of other similar examples with graduates who aren’t famous but who are very successful in their work and in their lives.

That said, this sort of immersive “professionalization” is definitely not without drawbacks, and while we take pains to help our students sustain the same level of joy they have for writing and reading when they start our program, our success rate in that pursuit is not always 100%. That, too, is something it has in common with most graduate creative writing programs.

So. If you’re going to teach in a program like ours, I would say it requires the ability to suspend one’s disbelief at times.

Advice for Job Seekers

So, then: is teaching writing in a school like mine a good gig?

You bet. But it’s not for everybody.

Whether or not you suspect it might be for you, here’s my advice:

Consider taking the marshmallow right in front of you. You might have heard of the Stanford Marshmallow Experiment, especially vis-à-vis the concept of “Grit.” Long story short, some psychology researchers at Stanford (and, later, at other places) did a study where they offered a bunch of little kids a marshmallow they were free to eat right then and there…or, if they could wait fifteen minutes, they’d get two marshmallows. Then the researchers tracked these kids longitudinally and came to the conclusion that the kids who could delay gratification were more likely to be “successful” adults. But then there’s this: last year, researchers at NYU and UC Irvine published the findings of a similar, larger study that found, after adjusting for socioeconomic factors, that the correlation between delayed gratification and future success isn’t very strong. What’s way stronger is the likelihood that kids from wealthier families are more able to wait for the second marshmallow. And, of course, kids from wealthier families may well be more likely to be “successful” in life—not because they’re grittier but because they have the built-in advantages of experiencing consistent, unassailable abundance as a birthright.

I’ve only ever taken the marshmallow right in front of me, professionally speaking. I suspect that’s put me on the periphery of the “Literary Industrial Complex.” But I’ve also enjoyed my job(s)—and I’ve also been lucky to enjoy the stability and sustainability they have offered.

I think the NYU/UC Irvine study speaks to this. The job market in Higher Ed has long been an environment of scarcity, so those of us who are products of it are well within our rights to grab what we can when it comes. And yet I think it’s all too easy to get the message that we need to wait for that second marshmallow. In the meantime, take the adjunct job(s)… or the VAP job… get the Ph.D. or a second MFA… propose the panel, write the review, build the CV. That didn’t seem fair (or very practical) to me twenty years ago, and it really doesn’t seem fair or practical now.

If you’re in a position to wait for the second marshmallow, wallow in your abundance and hold out as long as you can. If you’re not in that position, you don’t have to wait. Take what’s available to you and make it work. And don’t feel bad about it. You might find, as I did, that one marshmallow is more than enough.

Some quick(er) hits for anyone who thinks they might be cut out to teach writing in a secondary school:

  • Get some meaningful experience working with secondary students. Doesn’t have to be classroom teaching, either. Coaching, youth groups, tutoring, camp counseling…whatever. (Teach for America or other service-oriented programs might be worth looking into as well.) Even better if you can have a parent or supervisor write a glowing letter of recommendation for you.   
  • You don’t have to get certified; it may or may not help your candidacy. Independent schools, in particular, might prefer a Higher Ed teaching profile. And they also tend to place a very high value on advanced degrees in your subject area (as opposed, in some cases, to advanced degrees in Education). On the other hand, if a school requires certification, there are alternate paths to certification that will allow you to work full-time as a teacher while you’re pursuing certification.
  • Teach (and write, and read, and love…) multiple genres. At my school, I don’t have the luxury of specializing in one or even two genres. I teach fiction, poetry, nonfiction, hybrid forms, screenwriting. A side benefit: that’s led me to read and write in all those forms as well, which has been a great boon to my own writing life.
  • Be interesting. Your personhood matters—and the more multifaceted you are, the more likely you are to be an interesting candidate for teaching in a secondary school, not least because it positions you to fill roles sponsoring extracurricular clubs and organizations.  
  • Be kind and conscientious. Most secondary schools want teachers who can contribute to a stable, nurturing environment—in the classroom and in the staff room. The capacity to be nice, work hard, etc., goes a long way. At most secondary schools, those “soft skills” will outweigh any brilliance you might bring to the table as a writer or scholar.

Resources for Further Exploration

The Arts Schools Network. The premier (only?) professional organization of arts schools. If nothing else, the member list will give you a good idea of where to start a Google search.

Such a search will probably be unavoidable because, to my knowledge, there really isn’t a one-stop-shop (like the AWP Jobs List) to find all the job openings at these schools. These jobs may or may not be listed with AWP or on the NAIS jobs list (see below); my guess is they probably won’t use teacher placement services (also see below), but they might, especially for jobs in the English department. The best best—though it’s time consuming—will be to visit the web sites of the school(s) you’re interested in, where they’ll surely post any openings on their Employment page.

Keep in mind, too, that the cycle is different than the tenure-track jobs cycle. These opening will probably be listed later—mid-to-late Spring semester, perhaps even early summer. The trick is to keep checking and to have your materials ready—(1) a CV, (2) a cover letter you can quickly tailor to a given school, (3) a statement of purpose and/or teaching philosophy (tailored, to some extent, to secondary teaching), and maybe even (4) a writing sample, preferably one that would be deemed “appropriate” in subject matter by a mixed bag of school stakeholders who might be on the search committee. It’s hard to gauge what “appropriate” means–it’s different for different schools. One way to get a sense of what a given school community accepts as “appropriate” subject matter would be to seek out the writing of its current writing faculty.

The National Association of Independent Schools. The premier professional organization of independent (i.e., “private”) schools: day schools, boarding schools, etc.

Contests and Awards Programs. Here’s potential “hack” for finding interesting schools where you might like to teach: scan the winners of national contests and awards programs to see where they went to school. Pay particular attention to schools with multiple winners. Many of the winners of such accolades hail from traditional schools, but a lot come from arts schools and other independent/charter style schools. The two biggest national awards programs are the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards and the National YoungArts Foundation’s YoungArts Awards/YoungArts Week.

Summer Workshops for Young Writers. They’re everywhere, particularly at colleges/unis. Find a few in your neck of the woods (or elsewhere) and see if they’re looking for teachers. If you’re currently affiliated with a college/uni and it doesn’t have a program like this, maybe you could propose one. They tend to be good recruiting tools for prospective students, and they can generate some revenue for you and your department. They’re also a good option for a lot of young writers who don’t want (or who don’t have access to) a specialty school like the one where I teach.

Adroit Journal Mentorship Program. A very cool correspondence program that pairs published writers with high school writers. The program does take applications for mentors as well as mentees.