By Sarah Peterson
Throughout school, I only considered myself someone who wrote when necessary. Someone who wrote when papers were assigned and wrote about what the paper asked, nothing more. I was lost when my instructor asked me to write beyond academic purposes. Who was I to tell people anything? What did I have to share?
Now, as I prepare to teach English, I have another question: What is the purpose of English teachers writing other than being expected to be models for our students? These questions, by themselves, are a reason to write. As much as writing is used to tell, it has helped me learn more about how to share my authority (Whitney et al., 2013). This is my process of learning: to define what authority is to me, as well as how it affects me.
What to Write Before You Know How
In my English Education class in the Fall of 2020, we were placed into writing groups consisting of peers, some of whom we had never met. I had no idea what they wanted to read or how they wrote, so I wrote for an audience with whom I was familiar—myself. Writing down my thoughts, I treated the writing group as a living journal. At the end of each meeting, I received feedback on my writing style, never ideas. They could not tell me how to change my ideas because I was writing about personal experiences. No one else would know my feelings if I had not shared them, and they couldn’t say those feelings and reactions were wrong. I had nothing to be but valid in myself. This was the first time I experienced authority in my writing.
Authority for me was acknowledging that I have worth in what I am saying and that I deserve to be heard. From my writing group experience, I was able to provide myself with room to write how I wanted without the fear of being wrong. The thought that I was writing but no one was listening was still there, but it did not matter. I wrote because I found value in it, not because someone told me to.
Before this experience, I had convinced myself that no one cared about what I had to say or that I did not have enough to share and the consequence was me not writing for my own benefit. I enjoy writing now. The process of creating stories and sharing experiences with my peers was enough to convert me. At one point, after the loss of a loved one, writing with my group was the only way for me to process and heal, a tool I did not have before.
Writing taught me that I was an expert in my own life. No one shared my exact perspective or stories. I began, as Anne and Badiali (2010) say, “simply telling the truth” (p.3). That said, it took some time to realize my truth was worth sharing.
Who Am I?
Before I could write from a position of authority with my group, I needed to figure out what I wanted to say. People contain multitudes of identities (Whitney et al., 2013)., some that most people never see. Writing groups are beneficial in the way that they allow you to experiment with your own identity and share them with peers who share their identity. We came into the group with our defined identities (daughters, siblings, friends, etc. ), explored how our experiences in those identities affected our values, and then defined our identities as writers and educators together. We talked about why we wrote and what we wanted to write, as well as how writing was important for us in our classrooms.
In my writing group, I was one of three people who shared a collection of identities and the perspectives that come with them. Through my writing group, I was able to look inwardly and discover more about myself as a person, and a writer. These reflections also shaped my teacher identity. I will be an introspective teacher because, through my writing, I have examined how my experiences in my other identities shape the teacher I want to become. After developing a friendship with my group members and getting to know each other as people first, the space to write and share came easily. In this space, my peers’ questions and suggestions provided me room to think and reflect in a way that I had not done previously. I realized for the first time that I am the only one stopping me from writing.
In terms of the self-investigation of my identities, I navigated the journey through these tools:
- Journaling: For me, writing is helpful for “meaning-making” (Premont, 2018). Journaling allows me to think about myself and permanently collect my thoughts while seeing my identities together on a page.
- Reflections: Focusing on classes, I write what is being discussed in the lesson and how it alters or shapes my personal views on teaching and writing.
- Sharing: When I share writing with peers, I am given a new perspective and provided with “social support” (Dawson, 2017, p. 9). This gives me momentum to continue writing, even when I feel I cannot.
Through these steps, I grew more passionate and solidified in who I want to be as a teacher and realized how my identities overlap: I am a student who is about to become a teacher and a teacher who must also be a writer. The most important lesson in my writer identity was the one that was half taught, and half found. I must do what I ask my students to do and be willing to improve for them. Through reflecting upon my beliefs and the past experiences that shaped them, I can find better ways to model myself as a writer for my students. In this way, writing has allowed me to authorize myself as a future English teacher.
It may seem unnecessary to talk about identity when discussing authority, but through my work on my teacher identity, such as evaluating what values I had as a teacher, I was able to find what I want to share in my writing with my students. I want to share my personal stories and the lessons I have learned. Even if I do not feel cemented in my identity as a writer, I know that as I continue to write and share my authority, I will only improve.
Authority Came Naturally, When Given the Chance
Writing has become a “catalyst” that I use to explore who I am as a student, a future teacher, and most importantly, as a person. I have written to the point that I know at this moment who I am and who I want to be. With the support I had from my writing group, I pushed myself to write both personal and professional writings that were out of my comfort zone. Learning and writing in genres I was unfamiliar with also helped. This has given me the confidence that I had been lacking in my authority and self.
Before, I would have tried to remove myself from the text and write what I thought others would want to hear. Now, I make an extra effort to insert myself into the text. I no longer shy away from including my humor, thoughts, or perspectives in my writing, nor should I. My authority comes from my belief that what I have to say and how I say it is important to add to the conversation.
As of right now, I am using this authority to write about who I am as a person and who I want to be as a teacher. Eventually, I can use this authority as an advocate for myself, my students, and other educators. I can write about each component of my identity with a sense of knowledge, understanding, and empathy for those in similar positions.
Why it Matters
It is easy for me to stand here and say that I trust my word as an author and believe I have something to share. It is much harder for me, and more truthful, to say that I am learning to give myself the authority to put words on paper and believe I have a story there.
With this thought in mind, I continue to share my truths. Whether it pertains to my role as a teacher or my role as a writer, they are not separate from each other, and I cannot be one without the other. I will one day teach writing, but right now I am writing to learn to teach. Through my writing, I have learned what I want to incorporate into my future classroom. I want writing to be a tool for development, not a task for a grade. For me, this means:
- Writing groups to collaborate and share lived experiences
- Journaling to explore personal identities and how those identities fit into the world
- Showing my students that I am a writer by writing alongside them
Yes, I do this for my future students, but I mostly do this for myself. I have grown so much through the reflective nature of writing. I learned to share my writing with others and to be self-assured that it was worth sharing. I benefit my students by practicing my voice. I cannot tell them to speak up for themselves or value their ideas if I do not do it myself, nor can I pretend to know what they are experiencing if I do not experience it first. Largely, writing with my voice allows me to develop empathy for students’ developing voices. Maybe one day I will even pull this blog post up and share my process of finding my voice and prove to them that everyone struggles to claim their own authority in writing.
Dawson, C. M. (2017, April 30). The teacher-writer: Creating writing groups for personal and professional growth. Teachers College Press. https://writerswhocare.wordpress.com/2018/04/30/embracing-the-identity-of-teacher-writer/#inline-ad-0__complain-btn:~:text=Later%20that%20evening%2C%20writing%20was%20a,as%20I%20teach%20writing%20by%20writing.
Premont, D. (2018). Embracing the identity of Teacher-Writer. Writers Who Care.
Whitney, A. E., Zuidema, L. A., & Fredricksen, J. (2014). Understanding teachers’ writing: Authority in talk and texts. Teachers and Teaching, 20(1), 59-73.
Whiteny, A. E. & Bediali, B. (2010). Writing as teacher leadership. English Leadership Quarterly. 33(2), 2–3.
Sarah Peterson is a junior at Purdue University in the undergraduate English Education program.