In his highly instructional and engaging book Everything I Know About Writing, John Marsden’s dedication page reads:
In my primary, secondary and tertiary schooling I had some terrible teachers, a lot of mediocre ones, and a few who were wonderful. Among this last group were: Mrs Marjorie Scott, Mr Tom Baddiley, Mr Robert Parker and Mr Nigel Krauth. This book is dedicated to them, with thanks for their encouragement, support and inspiration.John Marsden
I would hazard a guess that most of us had a similar experience. I can remember the names of all my terrible teachers and how they made me feel, and I look back fondly on those very few teachers who treated me like a person, and saw something in me beyond a loud, but terrified teenager. All the mediocre teachers have seeped from my memory leaving barely an imprint.
As I wrote in the ‘About Me’ section of this blog – I remember two of my high school English teachers as being in the ‘wonderful’ group; Mrs Panayotis and Mrs Nikolades. I often think about what it was that elevated them into a truly special group of educators who helped me become me. I believe it was because they took the time to see beyond the facade that I, and no doubt countless other teenagers present at high school. They actually read my writing and saw some positives in it, even if there was technically more to work on than celebrate. Oh how I wish more teachers did this.
Now, as a teacher in the classroom, I realise how challenging it is to juggle the needs of 28 students and give them each enough of my time to make a difference.
Writing conferences are not a new idea but I know there are plenty of schools out there who haven’t yet adopted this critical practice. To create the time and space for a one on one discussion with a student about their writing and about them as writers, is just about the richest data you can obtain.
By creating a routine, where teacher and student can work together, with the aim of improving the writer, rather than a particular piece, everyone benefits. Teachers learn more about the writing habits of their students, their passions and challenges, and students have a golden opportunity to talk about themselves, without having to cut through the noise of 27 other kids. Together they can establish goals for the student to think about and work on, and at their next conference, reflect on how they’ve progressed.
Without writing conferences, I wouldn’t have begun to understand the needs of each individual student across the years. I may’ve missed the incredible poetry of A, because she was terrified of making spelling mistakes. I may’ve been blind to the dedicated revisions made by M, who was able to write coherent parallel storylines in year 4, or I may never have told L how her experimenting with structure lifted her piece from good to incredible. I was able to do these things though, and share in the triumphs of these young writers, because I made time.
I was fortunate enough to work in a school who valued the opportunity to conference. I can see how difficult it would be to implement in a school that did not. It does take time and organisation, but it is without question the richest source of information you can gather on your writers.
In another post I’ll examine the importance of being a teacher-writer in order to better help your students. I think it stands to reason though, that it would be challenging to have a meaningful conference about the effort and struggles of a student writer, if the teacher is unfamiliar with those struggles themselves.
Quite often teachers question whether or not they are, in fact, having a positive impact on their students, or if they might instead be one of those mediocre teachers John Marsden refers to. (The fact that you’re bothering to read a blog about writing automatically elevates you from the ‘terrible’ category 🙂
A few days ago I received a message from a parent that made me teary.
H loves writing, she loves it even more than reading now…She has you to thank for this, H was never a writer until she met you.Parent
I’m nothing out of the ordinary as a teacher. I’m no John Keating from Dead Poets Society. But I do try to remember how those two great teachers made me feel about writing, and offer the same courtesy to my students. By conferencing with them regularly, listening to them, and reading their work, I am making time for them.
I hope you all have a few teachers that bring back fond memories for you? Why not write about them and what made them so special? Or the reverse and write about how those evil, swamp-dwelling teachers made your life a misery. Either way, write something, drink some tea, and enjoy. xx