(This is a two part blog on the life in education as a writer. First, the good news.)
There are many jobs that open up with an MFA degree—everything from nonprofits to public sector to the publishing industry are hungry for confident and experienced writers—but one of the implied career trajectories is education. Although my experience as a former middle and high school teacher and my current experience as a GTA may seem too-far removed to be analogous to higher education, my conversations with faculty have revealed that the two are relatively comparable. Hopefully, this two part post will give you a more solid idea of what to expect as an educator. With the next blog post, I will discuss the cons, but for now, I want to explain why writers are often attracted to this profession.
1. Regular breaks allow opportunities to write and to participate within the writing community.
In the first education class that I took, the professor opened the semester with this joke: “There are three reasons to be a teacher: June, July, and August.” There is obviously a hint of truth in that. In practice, many professors and teachers opt to make some extra cash by teaching intersession courses or summer school, but even then, education offers an inordinate amount of downtime compared to other jobs. Not only do all levels of education provide summer breaks, but there are regular breaks for federal holidays, including lengthy breaks for Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter. Living in Maryland, I got to relive the childhood drama of snow-days and two-hour delays. In higher education, the job offers an even more flexible schedule through online courses and irregular work hours, making it easier for writers to develop a routine. If there is a two hour break between classes on Tuesdays and Thursdays, that time could become dedicated writing time. Beyond the work schedule, many schools and universities not only allow but encourage instructors to attend conferences, even ones like AWP, for professional development. Obviously, it is rare to find a stable job that offers that amount of time off, which can afford a lot of opportunities to write and stay involved in the literary community.
2. Every day is different.
While teaching allows writers to develop a working routine, the act of teaching itself is never the same. Although this was not something that drew me to education, I found that one of my favorite aspects of the job was the variance day to day in content, approach, and pedagogy was mentally stimulating. Even if your teaching style relies on classroom routines—for example always beginning class with a writing prompt—the fact that the material is new each day prevents the work from becoming rote and repetitious. I found that I naturally changed and adapted lessons based on what worked and what didn’t. Thus even when I taught two or three sections of the same class in a day, it was never a mindless activity that made each day indistinguishable from the next. In a sense, most educators are constantly searching for the perfect lesson plan as if it were El Dorado, constantly updating lessons with new texts, adding new activities, dropping activities, moving lessons in the syllabus, adapting to the ability level of the students, and on and on. Due to this, it is impossible for a veteran educator to have their year set in stone, even if just due to unexpected cancellations that result in either blending two lesson plans together or dropping a class outright. Although some may consider this to be a downside to never settle into a true routine of easy work, I found the variance to be a blessing as it naturally prevents job fatigue.
3. Working in the educational field allows you to be surrounded by writing.
One of the more obvious reasons that education appeals to writers is that it allows you to be surrounded by stories, plays, poetry, writing, and grammar on a daily basis. Although there are many professional writing jobs available and opportunities to make a living through the publishing industry, education is one of the only places where you could get paid to discuss literary craft and theory. Even at the secondary education level, there are opportunities to teach high-caliber literature. The high school textbooks I used had everything from Shakespeare to Tim O’Brien, and the middle school textbooks contained Neil Gaiman, Ray Bradbury, and Maya Angelou. Even though it was rare to get 100% of students on board for a piece of literature, I loved having the opportunity to watch students grapple with The Great Gatsby for the first time, especially when a student that claims to be a “non-reader” is forced to finally admit that he or she enjoyed it. I even found teaching grammar to be extremely beneficial in my own writing as it forced me to understand the rules in order to teach them. Prior to teaching, most of my grammar knowledge was intuition, but through teaching I write with more confidence. And regardless of what material you end up teaching, even on a day where you are forced to teach a work you always found dull, even when you read a student essay riddled with errors, the fact that you are getting paid to be surrounded by literature, grammar, and words makes it difficult to be cynical.
4. The sense of autonomy.
Although this may vary based upon your administrator’s managing style, on a day to day basis there is a good deal of autonomy within the classroom. While there are certain expectations on reaching certain benchmarks and outcomes, by and large your classroom will be your own. For example, while teaching in the public school, most of the texts were pre-selected. However, I was able to set my own pace, decide upon my own activities, and chose what to focus on. In teaching To Kill a Mockingbird I chose to teach it from a standpoint examining the parallels with the civil rights movement, having the students do research essays; meanwhile the teacher across the hall taught it from a more legal standpoint and staged a mock trial. So long as the students came away with a basic sense of the plot, major themes, and met broad state standards, we were both free to teach according to our own preference.
5. The incomparable feeling of making a difference.
Perhaps the least quantifiably rewarding aspect of education is self-fulfillment. In a sense, education is equal parts profession and calling. And like any sort of calling, there is an indescribable joy in knowing that you made a positive difference in a student’s life. You’ll feel it when a student tells you that you’re his or her favorite teacher. You’ll feel it when a student asks for you to recommend a book to read over break and feel it again when they track you down to tell you how much they loved it. You’ll feel it when you finally reach that student that never seemed to “get it.” You’ll feel it when a student succeeds outside your class, even in something like sports or ballet that you don’t particularly care for. You’ll feel it on graduation day, convinced that these students are destined for great things and in some small way, even if they don’t realize it, you played a small part in their story. You’ll feel it a hundred different ways. Education can sometimes feel like social work and volunteering, which carries with it all of the emotional highs and lows of such work.
Teaching and writing can be a natural fit for writers. But before you rush off to earn that teaching certification, stay tuned for the next blog post which will tell you all of the things I wish I knew before pursuing a life in education.
Brendan Stephens is a second year MFA Candidate. Prior to moving to Florida, he received his Master’s in the Arts of Teaching from Frostburg State University and subsequently went on to teach at middle and high school. As a GTA he looks forward to teaching Creative Writing to undergrads at UCF. He is currently struggling to maintain a healthy balance between working on his syllabus and working on his thesis.