Teachers Talking Writing

Below is a conversational interview between Andrew Barron, publisher at Avenida Books, and Ellie Roscher, editor of Keeping the Faith in Education. They discuss the book project, the state of education and the benefit of teachers choosing to write.


Andrew: I remember when we came up with the idea for our first book in this series, Keeping the Faith in Seminary. We wanted a book that got at faith struggles in a new light. We wanted a book that was both personal and academic, spiritual and intellectual. When we started working on the second book in the series, Keeping the Faith in Education, I knew we had set the bar high. How do you think the essays struck this personal-intellectual balance?

Ellie: It’s exciting to send prompt questions out around the country and really have no idea what essays and stories will come back. I remember feeling like I had an idea of what we would get from seminary students and graduates with our first book. When we were waiting for the submission deadline for Keeping the Faith in Education, however, I had no preconceived ideas about what was coming our way. Our vision was to strike a balance and live in the tension between personal and intellectual. I do think the teacher-writers wrote stunning essays from that middle space within the individual essays. I also think the book as a whole holds this same tension. It– this balance– is one reason I love publishing compilation books. Placing unique voices side by side encourages the conversation to continue to diversify. The market is saturated with how-to books on education, and we wanted to curate a book that presented a new conversation that is smart and intimate. I’m with Parker Palmer. We teach who we are. Telling our stories as teachers can connect us and bring a human element to the national conversation about education.

KTFED-Cover-Image150Andrew: I think faith in education is hard, in part, because we are told by our own Constitution that religion must remain separate from public education. But, teachers don’t check their personal spirituality at the door. So much of what makes a good teacher good is that willingness to reflect on their practice from a deep place of contemplation. I think spirituality is so closely connected to teaching, I have sometimes wondered, is it possible to become a better teacher without becoming a better person? Or, put another way, in order to be a better teacher, I must become a better person. The work is so fast and so personal, could we really make changes to our practice without making changes to our whole selves? I have run this past a few of my colleagues, and it rings true for them. What do you think?

Ellie: I love listening to your questions so much that I don’t want to give an answer. I can speak for myself here. The work is so fast and so personal, yes, that I do think having a core, a quiet, an anchor, a center to act from helped me become a better teacher. For me this quickly becomes a semantics issue. Religion, spirituality, God, faith– these are all such loaded words now, and when put in the context of a classroom people get uncomfortable quickly. So then let’s talk about vulnerability, intimacy, presence and emotion. Teaching is an art, a powerful craft, that involves human messiness and requires absolute commitment to the present moment. The master teachers I have witnessed have found a groove that is fiercely personal. They know intellectually what works and are willing to show up with their entire selves open to new students each year. This requires a vulnerability and emotional stamina that I do believe is hard to maintain without working on the self.

Recently I was a guest teacher in a high school creative writing classroom. I prepared in the morning with the teacher and his student teacher. The teacher is phenomenal. He’s warm with his students while being in charge. He cares deeply for them and holds them to a high standard. And his pedagogy is right on. The student teacher is good, but not great. Yet. I believe he will make changes to his practice that will make him a better teacher. I also have a hunch that in making those practical changes, he himself will be changed. It’d be fun to find him in five years and watch him teach again. He’s clearly committed to his students and his craft, and that commitment requires an openness to change that cannot be quarantined to his head. Teaching grows the whole self.

For me, time of contemplation did make me a better teacher. I’m talking about everything from doing yoga and running to reading up and really engaging at inservices to sleeping long enough to dream on days school was cancelled due to a blizzard. My spirituality is active both in moments of deep, quiet reflection and moments of controlled chaos with students. I do bring my whole self to my teaching. I do believe as I become a better teacher I become a better person. And I love this book for being willing to create space to let teachers weigh in.

Andrew: Many of the essays deal with quitting or not quitting teaching. Lots of people change careers, but teachers seem to do more handwringing. Why is this?

8370220859_460dc6c590_bEllie: I’m not sure, but I’m willing to wander around some ideas. Teaching is the hardest-best job in the world. Facilitating learning is the work of bringing dignity. It’s justice work. So few jobs today are so fulfilling, urgent, important, or mutually transformative. We rarely see results in a tangible way, but when we do it’s pure gold. Seeing one child make a breakthrough is stunning enough to bring us back for another school year. Teaching is heart-breaking. The students we don’t reach haunt us. Student hold a mirror up to us every day and search us for cracks. We have to grow and facilitate growth. We are asked to teach so many kids so much in such a short period of time. To put it simply, other jobs are easier and pay more.

One of the best teachers at our school left for a job that paid more simply because he wanted to provide more financial support to his growing family. He doesn’t like his new job nearly as much. He was forced to choose his own kids over his students. He doesn’t regret his decision, but it doesn’t feel like a win, either. There’s handwringing because there is so much sacrifice on both sides of the decision. Every June, we could just walk away.

If we walk away, we are probably walking toward a job that will not demand so much of us. It will probably pay us more, and give us more time to chew our lunch and go to the bathroom and sleep. It will also probably never bring us the same amount of joy. We feel like we are giving up on ourselves, our coworkers, our students, and our education system. But being part of a broken system also feels like we are giving up on ourselves. The brokenness is enraging because the kids are suffering and don’t always even see it. But we see it. And we are suffering, too. We want more kids to learn more and be set on fire with curiosity and become more alive. Where can we make the most change? In or out of the classroom? We have to choose, and the answer is never complete. The stakes are high. One lofty hope I have for the book is that it will inspire more people to work in the classroom and inspire more people to work outside of the classroom to lighten the burden for the hand-wringers.

Let me lean on Mark Edmundson here:

“Education is about finding out what form of work for you is close to being play– work you do so easily that it restores you as you….The student who eschews medical school to follow his gift for teaching small children spends his twenties in low-paying but pleasurable and soul-rewarding toil. He’s always behind on his student-loan payments; he still lives in a house with four other guys (not all of whom got proper instructions on how to clean a bathroom). He buys shirts from the Salvation Army, had intermittent Internet, and vacations where he can. But lo– he has the gift of teaching. He writes an essay about how to teach, then a book– which no one buys. But he writes another– in part out of a feeling of injured merit, maybe– and that one they do buy. Money is still a problem, but in a new sense. The world wants him to write more, lecture, travel more, and will pay him for his efforts, and he likes this a good deal. But he also likes staying around and showing up at school and figuring out how to get this or that little runny-nosed specimen to begin learning how to read. These are the kinds of problems that are worth having and if you advance, as Thoreau said, in the general direction of your dreams, you may have them. If you advance in the direction of someone else’s dreams– if you want to live someone else’s life rather than yours– then get a TV for every room, buy yourself a lifetime supply of your favorite quaff, crack up the porn channel, and groove away. But when we expend our energies in rightful ways, Robert Frost observed, we stay whole and vigorous and we don’t weary. “Strong spent,” the poet says, “is synonymous with kept.”

Andrew: One of the essayist in the book shared with me his feeling that writing and teaching were meant to go together. I know when I read a few of the essays I found myself nodding in agreement or even, once, tearing up at a solemn moment of recognition, a moment when I could say, “Me too. Me too.” So much of the reflection teachers do happens between their own ears, what is the advantage of seeing it on the printed page?

Ellie: Teaching can be horribly isolating. I even think some teachers feel abandoned by society, which adds to the isolation. We make countless micro-decisions every day in the classroom and hallway and parking lot that lead to real victories and real disasters with real consequences for us and our students. All of these moments are validated when they are shared. We want witnesses. We want to witness. We want comrades. By reading each others’ stories we can be witness to each other. We can validate each others’ work and feel less alone.

4569110493_14d63c657c_bAndrew: I can’t agree more. We do want witness, solidarity. So much of what we are learning about how great schools run is really about teachers working together, collaborating, bearing witness, and trusting each other.

Why this project and why now?

Ellie: Our children are not doing well. We all know it. It scares us and it hurts. When we are busy and scared, we quickly place blame so we can move on with our day. Teachers get blamed. Things that teachers don’t have any control over get blamed. I can say, then, this project is for the children, the young people, the learners. I think about John Lewis, who got sick of the older Civil Rights workers telling him and the other young activist to be more patient. We can’t embrace patience when it comes to education. But it’s easy to focus on the children and loose sight of the teachers who show up day in and day out and do the work while the macro struggles rage on. This project is for the teachers because they need to know right now that their work is appreciated. They are not alone. They matter.

After trying out the compilation structure in Keeping the Faith in Seminary, and seeing how it gave relief to some while challenging others, I think you and I both knew Keeping the Faith in Education had to be our next priority. We are both teachers and writers who care about creating forums outside the classroom for teachers to speak. I love that Avenida Books publishes practitioners who want to write about work life. It was rewarding to work with teachers individually on this project, helping them clarify their stories as teachers and see them claim their voices in the bigger conversation. They showed great courage and will to carve out time to write amidst the work of teaching. Now comes the moment when they see their essays in conversation with others. They get to share their stories in print with loved ones and strangers. We get to listen as others react and add. We get to watch hope swell.

Andrew: I like what you said about the teachers who “show up day in and day out and do the work while the macro struggles rage on.” I think it is the best representation of what we wanted to capture in this book. We wanted to hear from those teachers doing the daily work, we wanted to piece their stories together in a way that gets at the macro struggle.

We have heard some really positive reviews from people who have read this book, and I venture to guess that it is because there aren’t a lot of book about teaching that are about teachers. So much out there is about the actions rather than the people. They are about how to do the work but don’t ponder very much what the work is really about.

3784857418_2b2e9e46b2_oEllie: Absolutely. And books about the work don’t take into account a very specific context. There is the work of teaching, but the work doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Geographical location matters. The people in that geographical location matters. Instead of talking in generalities about education, asking teachers to bring their personhood and context into an essay brings the specificity needed that becomes universal. That’s why this book works. Teachers will resonate with the stories and bring their own stories to interact. It’s exciting.

Andrew: Thank you.

Ellie: Thank you!