Experienced teachers seeking to develop their careers often follow established pathways. Some become examiners, others inspectors, and many more seek promotion to middle management and beyond. Each of these, in their own way, are hugely rewarding, and can certainly strengthen you as a classroom practitioner. I have gained a great deal from pursuing each one, but one route which is not always seen as an obvious means of developing you as a subject specialist is writing, and I would recommend it, whether you are, like me, an English teacher, or a scientist, mathematician, historian or technology teacher, secondary or primary. Because, without doubt, writing has not only been one of the most rewarding aspects of my career, but it has also deepened my knowledge of my subject and, perhaps surprisingly, it has been good for my wellbeing.
I have edited school editions of Shakespeare’s plays, authored textbooks for students of GCSE, A level and IB, and written books on global trends in education, as well as writing a number of articles on education for trade and national press. Each has forced me to think hard about what I wanted to say to a diverse readership. Furthermore, each idea, or task, I wrote for students is pulled apart by editors, sub-editors, proofers, reviewers and, of course, readers. This process in itself can be sobering. Some of my students tend to think that they can write an essay in one go; so it can be a shock (but a constructive one) for them to see that even someone who has been writing for longer than they have been alive can still have whole sentences crossed out, phrases questioned, ideas binned, and re-drafts demanded.
I show them some of the edits sent back to me by editors, and I explain that in order for anything to be good enough to be bought by the public, and for schools to spend their funds on, it has to reach a certain standard. And that usually means that it involves a whole team of people to get it to a level that a publishing house is happy with. An author’s ego, whether it is about a polished expression, or an innovative idea, has to be relegated below whether it works, and how effective it is in moving the students’ understanding to the next level.
In that sense it adds perspective to one’s ability, and sometimes forces you to re-evaluate each word, each sentence, and each paragraph. You become more resilient, and more creative. Thinking hard about each word choice is something I tell my students they must do, and I very often model that in front of them in class, illustrating my thoughts by showing how, sometimes, you have to rewrite a sentence six or seven times before getting it right. Writing clearly to convey meaning is not easy, and takes time and patience. Living that process, and understanding the frustrations the students themselves feel, very often with every written assignment, can also add to how much you empathise with those at the outset of academic careers. Furthermore, if you have to spend over a year writing about a course specification, or a particular author, you will know much more about how to teach both, which should help you when you’re in the classroom.
Of course, writing whilst being a teacher, has its own challenges, and finding the time to do it is perhaps the biggest one of all. You have to plan your commitments, which includes your holiday time, and you have to decide whether the sacrifices you will make in your personal life are, on balance, worth the professional gains. But that professional pride you get when something of yours is published never dims, and nor does the sense of achievement you feel from knowing that the work you have put in has, in some way, helped students and teachers you have never met. Teachers are so used to encouraging others, and praising their students, that they sometimes forget how valuable it is for them to hear such sentiments about their own achievements. Writing brings its own rewards, both material and intangible, and each, in their own way, provides much needed balance, both personal and professional, in a job that often makes excessive demands. Focusing on a word, or an image, can bring focus, and a time to think for oneself, and then for others.
About the Author
David James is a Deputy Head of a leading independent school in the south of England.
He tweets at: @drdavidajames