Why Being a Writer Is Essential to Being a Teacher


By Colleen Doogan

I have always loved to write. As a kid I kept journals, chronicling the day-to-day ups and downs. In middle school, I was captured by Sweet Valley High romance novels and wrote my own sequels. In high school, I kept busy by writing sports articles for the school newspaper, and I had a column in our local newspaper called Colleen’s Corner in which I reported on weekly happenings in our area. I wrote 10-page letters to a pen pal in South Dakota and many more to my grandmother while I was away at college.

This love for writing continued well into my adult years―even helping me get together with my now-husband, as we answered getting-to-know-you questions over email for two months prior to meeting in person.

But until the summer of 2001, I thought my writing life was separate from my teaching life.

That summer, I discovered that being a writer was essential to being a teacher of writing. I was attending a week-long writing institute at Teachers College, Columbia University. I had applied because I thought I would learn some new strategies for teaching writing to my first graders. So I settled in among teachers who were in my shoes—exhausted from a busy school year yet eager to learn more about the teaching of writing. But something else happened.

In an afternoon keynote speech, author and teacher of writing Katie Wood Ray spoke about the “smart train,” and how teachers needed to hop on board and never get off, which turned my thinking.

“Sometimes,” she said, “All we have is what we know by heart, what we carry around inside of us, what we’re smart about—what we know and what we understand about what we know. Book lists and craft lessons won’t make you smart—knowing what to do with them will.”

Katie suggested that we wouldn’t hire a piano teacher who didn’t play the piano or a dance teacher who didn’t dance. She wondered why parents and schools accepted writing teachers who didn’t write. She made a lot of sense.

Unbeknownst to me, the summer institute was created to do just that―to help teachers discover their inner writer. I was delighted to find myself with time to write, with a community of writers, with direct instruction and feedback. And what I realized was that this opportunity for writing would inform my classroom practice most of all. Katie told us that being a writer (or a dancer or a pianist) is hard. But being a teacher of those things is doubly hard. You have to do it and then spy on yourself and name your behaviors so that you can help others do it. Wow!

And then I realized some things about my own classroom teaching. I realized I needed to build a community where writers felt safe to take risks. I needed to be a coach, not an editor for my students. I needed to provide strategies, not just prompts to help my students get their words on paper. But most important, I realized I needed to set aside time for ME to write. Because as a teacher of writing, my first responsibility was to learn to do it well myself. If I wanted my students to “live the writerly life,” then I needed to do that as well―even with my busy life and the other demands of teaching. I had to stay on the smart train.

I tell this story because it is what made us put together Project Write Now’s very first “Writing on the River” retreat last April. The day gave teachers some of what they so dearly need and deserve: time to relax, recharge, reflect, and just write. We had a packed house, and the teachers who attended loved it and left feeling inspired. In fact, many emailed us that week about how they shared a lesson they did with us with their own students. One teacher wrote: “Since I started teaching in New Jersey, I have struggled with finding the professional network I craved. You just filled that void. Your ability to create such an authentic writing space is a testament to your magic.”

Now we are offering teachers three days of writing, reflecting, and sharing, again on the river. Our summer retreat will be held at Windansea restaurant in Highlands, N.J., from July 17 – July 19, 8:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. each day. We are beyond excited to spend even more time with more teachers, creating a community where we can embrace and nurture our creative sides and learn together.

Being given time, space, strategies, feedback, and words of encouragement helped me to see that writing is not just a way of talking on paper, but so much more. Writers see the world differently, live their lives differently, read differently, love differently. They need time and community to be nurtured and supported in doing so. And teachers of writing must first be writers.

Colleen Doogan is the education director and a writing instructor at Project Write Now.