How Teaching Improved My Writing

I took my seat at the table where the administrators waited for me. They looked somber and I knew what they were going to say. After some small talk, the Director got straight to the point:

“Mr. Matteri, we appreciate all of your contributions to the school, but we have decided not to renew your contract.”

Two years into my teaching career and I was out of a job. Again. This time, though, I felt actual pain in my chest as if my heart was ripped out. I tried to stay cool and professional, but the tears were building up and I asked to speak with my union rep in private. They agreed. We went to an adjacent room and closed the door.

I lost control and started to cry. My union rep reached for a box of tissues and gave it to me. We then sat and talked about my options. Although he was just as upset as me, there wasn’t anything either of us could do. He assured me that I was a good teacher and that I would recover. I nodded and asked for some time to be alone.

It was the last period of the day and my prep, so there were no classes to teach. Before I was called to the office, I had wanted to plan lessons for the creative writing class I was preparing to teach next year. It seemed pointless now. When my union rep returned to check on me, I asked if the admin would allow me to leave early. He left and came back a moment later, telling me I had their permission. I thanked him, returned to my classroom to collect my things, and then drove back to my one-bedroom apartment to update my résumé.

I still had a job to do, though. School was still in session for another few months. I returned the next day and told my students that I wouldn’t be returning after the summer. They were upset, but not surprised. It was a charter school where classes were taught inside drafty trailers with rotting, wooden floorboards and where beginning teachers passed like excrement through a goose. My students and I finished the year as best we could. On the last day of school, I signed yearbooks, received some hugs, and said my goodbyes to a great bunch of young people who are now out in the world pursuing their passions.

This happened two years ago, and I am still without a full-time teaching job. English teaching positions in my area are scarce, so I’ve been getting by as a private tutor, freelance editor, and by returning to my original passion: writing. I have been doing what I can to stay afloat and put gas in my car, but also reflecting on my decision to become a teacher. I wanted steady income to support myself and my writing. Teaching turned out to be a lot harder than I had anticipated, but it also brought unexpected joy and meaning to my life. Most importantly of all, teaching young people how to write in clear and cogent prose helped me improve as a writer as well.

Working with teenagers reminded me why I wanted to become a writer. I was an angry teen who had found peace in reading and in writing. I got addicted to inventing my own fantasy worlds to explore and my imaginary friends were more pleasant company than most of the other kids at school. I was fortunate enough to have an excellent creative writing teacher who encouraged me to write and taught me how to write well. I wrote a lot of short stories and won two writing contests, one from my school and another from the local library. I still have all my high school scribblings inside a box in my closet, even though they’ll never see the light of day again (Let Sleeping Corpses Lie!).

As an English teacher, I now have a stronger appreciation for the craft of writing than when I did as a high school and college student. It is a complex process that activates many parts of your brain and can be frustrating even for professionals. Even so, I wanted my students to become better writers and set the bar high. If a student’s paper was filled with too many grammatical, spelling, and mechanical mistakes, then I would give it back and tell them to correct before they earned a grade. Not every student was receptive to my lessons, but there were those who were hungry to learn more and improve. It was pure joy to watch them get excited about their writing and see their work improve as a result. In return, their youthful energy inspired me to continue writing and to never stop learning about the craft.

Teaching can also be humbling, especially for writers. Students have often called me out whenever I made a mistake writing something on the white board. Sure, making mistakes in front of hyper-sensitive teenagers can be embarrassing, but I learned to accept these moments as learning opportunities for myself and for my students. I even turned it into a game where a student could win a Starburst candy if they caught me making a mistake. Young people are the most honest and harshest critics I’ve ever met. I learned to embrace their criticism and, as a result, developed a thicker skin towards criticism of my own writing.

Networking within the teaching profession has also been beneficial. There is a common misconception that those who can’t do teach. Don’t believe it. I have taught at three different schools during my career and met many teachers who were also experts in their chosen fields, including writing. For example, my mentor teacher taught senior English and would make time to write creative nonfiction every day. At my previous school, I became friends with another teacher who writes YA fiction. We met frequently to discuss pop culture and philosophy and eventually started our own writer’s circle. We have been sharing work with each other ever since. His advice and critical feedback have been invaluable to me as I continue to chip away at my own YA novel like an ice sculpture.

I do not regret becoming a teacher, but I am uncertain about my future in this profession. The politics, stress, and anxiety that comes with teaching is frustrating (education in America is a hot mess right now, but that’s a story for another time). Someday I may return to the classroom, but for now I feel the urge to return to my craft. No matter what happens next, I believe my teaching experience has been worthwhile and I am motivated to improve and grow as a writer.

 

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