By David Premont
In my first year of teaching secondary English, a member of the journalism class, wanting to highlight the school’s new teachers, asked if I could respond to a few questions. One question inquired about my identity as a teacher—I responded that in my heart I am a writer. I knew and was comfortable with this particular identity, but I had not yet fully accepted myself as a teacher-writer. As Anne Whitney tells us, being a teacher-writer refers to “a teacher who has incorporated writing not just as an extra activity but as an integral part of teaching.” I wasn’t there yet.
Understanding My Identity as a Teacher-writer
Viewing myself primarily as a writer led me to compose freely outside of the classroom, though that did not necessarily mean I was ready to share my writing with students. One narrative I wrote describing a humorous (but innocuous) dating experience embodied concepts that later became a focal point in my classroom. The ensuing conversation focused on the descriptive writing, intentional use of one sentence paragraphs for emphasis, and development of a light-hearted tone.
I knew this story would serve as a good mentor text, but creating a pseudonym distanced me from the students as their writing instructor and also precluded me from sharing why I felt the desire to write. Though we had a strong conversation about narrative writing, sharing my identity could have enabled students to view me as a writer instead of a teacher who merely assigns writing.
Leveraging my Identity
As my career progressed, I openly shared my writing with students and in the process began to more fully embrace my identity as a teacher-writer. I shared my own responses to assigned prompts, segments of a blog I authored, and even my personal journal in special circumstances. By highlighting (and sharing) my own experiences, I hoped to encourage my students to write more freely and deliberately, and in the process feel the empowerment that comes from rendering their experiences in writing.
As an example, in the fall of 2014, I felt compelled to write following a day in which a student brought a loaded gun inside the school building. After four hours of lockdown and uncertainty, SWAT officers opened our classroom door, searched each student and myself, and escorted my class to the football field where the rest of the student body, faculty, and staff waited.
Later that evening, writing was a cathartic experience that enabled me to make sense of my feelings.These feelings included a strong sense of stewardship for the students’ well-being, even as assuming the role of protector or guardian. I experienced a strong moment of meaning-making as I wrote, describing the new role thrust upon me. I also composed my thoughts and feelings throughout the day. For me, this piece of writing was not defined by the finished product nor how others would perceive it—rather, it was the act of writing that empowered me.
Upon returning to school, I shared what I wrote about the previous day with my students. Even though my writing was neither examined as a mentor text nor an extension of a greater activity, sharing my personal writing with students was powerful. It communicated that writing is not only a tool for the classroom, but that it can be an empowering experience to create meaning in spaces outside of school. This, ultimately, is a message I hope to convey to my students as I teach writing by writing.
Students can Benefit from Teacher-writers
Hearing this and other accounts of writing from their teachers helps students understand that the act of writing can allow them to make meaning of their experiences. This understanding will be of value to students when they take opportunities to write about topics they care deeply about, regardless of whether that writing is scored or judged for academic purposes. Now more than ever, students need powerful voices from teacher-writers.
Being a teacher-writer also benefited my students when I conducted writing conferences. As a teacher-writer, I could draw on my background as a writer to provide each student with unique feedback. These conversations led students to a higher volume of informed revisions and meaning making, often citing their writing conference as a catalyst for change. For instance, one student struggled to drive home the point she hoped to make using the particular support chosen. I explained the importance of selecting the appropriate evidence and we discussed alternative strategies to consider. This feedback was facilitated by personal writing experiences and a rich writer identity.
My identity as a teacher-writer not only informed my classroom instruction, but it further afforded my students unique opportunities to grow. By deliberately, and even vulnerably, sharing my writing, I inevitably taught that I, too, am in this journey with them, illustrating my own desire to grow. The powerful influence of a teacher-writer is predicated on the sharing of their writing. Teacher-writers can expect to have transformative influences on students’ writing that otherwise may not be achievable.
David Premont is a former secondary ELA teacher and is now enrolled in a Ph.D program in English Education at Purdue University. His research examines English preservice teacher education.
Peer reviewed through the Writers Who Care blind peer-review process.