On my phone, there’s a screencap from an old Innovative Educator post that begins “The unspoken truth about teaching writing in school is that few people doing so are writers themselves.”*
I bring this up because has stuck with me in the eight years since this post was published. The reason I went into teaching was because I love writing and literature and felt a sense of mission to help foster better understanding and skills. Of course, that is probably a nice way of saying that I never made it as a writer and “Those who can’t …”
But through much of the first two thirds my career, I was determined to disprove that particular saying, which is why I started a teaching blog in 2006 called Stop Trying to Inspire Me. I wrote it as a rebuke to all of the toxic positivity I was seeing from terrible professional development speakers I was forced to endure at in-services or that would be held up by administrators who thought we didn’t know how to do our jobs. The blog’s tag line was “Just shut up and let me teach” and my tone was snarky and irreverent. Around 2011, I decided that I’d rather do something above board and created Red Lines and Highlights, which focused on teaching English, and I kept writing until 2015. Both of those blogs were deleted years ago, although there are remnants of them on the Wayback Machine.
I hadn’t thought about either of these for a while, and then the other day I was cleaning and came upon two notebooks–an abandoned journal of the 2011-2012 school year and another marked “Fabricated Memories You Can Cherish For a Lifetime/Notes on writing about teaching.” The “Fabricated …” title was an idea for a book about being a yearbook adviser (taken from a phrase I’d coined in high school), and it was going to be a combination of a memoir and manual. The notebook contains a lot of scribbling and unformed ideas that I simply wanted to get out of my head. These notes are way past their expiration date, and are largely an exercise of egotism, especially the yearbook stuff, as I somehow thought my opinion was worth sharing or that people were actually going to want my advice.
Many of the other notes, though, show that I was really struggling for a number of years, both professionally and personally. For most of the time I was scribbling in these notebooks, I was trapped in a low-paying rural school division that was very conservative in its politics. The administration was largely incompetent, and some of the students were often outwardly hostile, so much so that I developed a huge chip on my shoulder and spent the better part of my time there trying to get out. I eventually did, but while I was there, I had the pleasure of fleeing a room and nearly bursting into tears in the faculty restroom, getting reprimanded for my display of attitude toward a PD hack, having a student say on Twitter that I “looked like a pedophile” and “someone should run a background check”, and having a student throw a rock through my living room window. I also had many moments I am not proud of, most of which involved yelling and the slamming of classroom doors, and I’m sure that a number of my former students would say that I was complete asshole.
I sometimes let that frustration out on Twitter or in my blog, but I often dumped it into these notebooks as if they were going to be the foundation of the book that was going to prove The Innovative Educator wrong. Unfortunately, what’s there is a mess because I was a mess. I wanted so badly to be more than just a teacher that students forgot, and was constantly frustrated by their lack of wonderment of what I thought were really cool lessons and books. And as I watched or other “educators” on Twitter and in the blogosphere graduate to influencers and thought leaders, that chip on my shoulder grew, even though all they did was chase trends, took up the latest cause célèbre so they could get blog hits (like the viral video of some kid yelling at a teacher that they acted like was the first shot in a system-wide rebellion), and traded in platitudes rather than conversations. In fact, they seemed pretty content to put “just teachers” like me in my place.
And yet, I kept feeling like I had to measure up to them. Call it residue from a lifetime of being a competitive smart/gifted kid, but I spent a lot of time and energy trying to be more than a spectator there and certainly more than “just a teacher.” It was a professional version of the way I used to suck up “friends” who only kept me around to make fun of me; when I deleted my blog, I don’t think The Innovative Educator or any of the other education thought leaders on Twitter or in the blogosphere even noticed or cared. And even then, I spent two years tweeting while surreptitiously writing notes for an article I wanted to write about the way teachers’ mental health is often ignored or dismissed, especially by those thought leaders. In fact, I was scribbling notes all the way up until July 2020 and intended to write the essay or article, but the 2020-2021 school year got in the way.
Coming back to those notebooks now**, I am grateful that I sought therapy and medication for my anxiety. I am also grateful that I found my passion in writing and podcasting about topics separate from pedagogy–nostalgia, pop culture, and literature. I still put pressure on myself and I still struggle to keep my bad self-esteem and my anxiety at bay, but I also feel more comfortable in my own skin and the classroom.
And based on the number of thank-yous I get from students after I have helped them with their essays and papers, I can confidently say that The Innovative Educator is wrong.
* I screencapped it because back in the days when I actually followed the blog, its author had a tendency to edit/rewrite parts of posts that commenters pointed out were insensitive or inaccurate. Yes, that’s an ethical practice, but there was never any notation that the post was edited, so there was never continuity between the comments and the post.
** Ultimately, I tore out all the blank paper to put in my classroom and then recycled the notebooks.