One of my mentor teachers had a line that echoes in my head many years after we lost her: be the thing that you teach. Being the thing you teach is the golden rule of authentic teaching. I am not the best teacher I know, but I am a damn good teacher. I am a much better teacher than when I began and I continually work to be a better teacher. This continued growth is my personal maxim. I am a lifelong learner and I want to show that to my students. But as a writing teacher the most important thing I can show my students is the fact that I continue to practice writing.
I have spent my entire life working to be a better writer and now, only weeks after my 55th birthday with four higher education degrees in English, I am quite certain that my journey will never be complete. I have won writing contests and published novels and chapters in academic books. I have worked as a professional writer in a variety of capacities and mediums. I have been both a professional editor and a writing teacher. All of this can be true and yet my development as a writer is an ongoing journey — and this fact excites me. Due to the aforementioned birthday (and his the previous month) my husband and I have been talking a lot about retirement. While he is counting down the days, when I considered possible retirement dates I almost had a panic attack. I am not ready to give up teaching writers and writing teachers just yet. I think much of that reluctance is the fact that part of my continued growth as a writer depends on my immersion in multiple communities of writers. I suspect this is another aspect of authentic teaching – inviting your students to share the journey with you — not to trudge along behind you but instead to laugh and play with you and sometimes lead the way or break new ground. Every semester, every class, is a new adventure with a new community. I know I am a better writer today because of my constant exposure to a wide range of other writers and the work we do together. I am a writer. I am the thing that I teach.
What is an authentic teacher?
Why is it so necessary to be the thing that you teach? Students are smart and observant. They can spot a phony and once they have then you have lost them. If the teacher does not believe they are a writer then why should students believe they can be writers? That is the guiding principle that the National Writing Project walks and talks, but authentic teaching requires more than simply doing the thing the that you teach. Authentic teaching requires you to be the thing that you teach. How are you a writer? How do you show your students you are a writer (or scientist or mathematician etc.)? I write with my students all the time, but I also show them that I write professionally and personally — and that I am still on the journey to be a better writer. I write with my students, but also share the writing I do outside the classroom. My students know I am a writer just as they know that I take joy in it and sometimes struggle or fail. By being a writer I show my students that a writer’s journey is never over and that is part of being a writer. I prove to my students that it is never about the perfect essay, because it is about the journey. My students know that I delight in the company of other writers on that journey, but that I am going on that journey with or without them — because I am the thing that I teach.
I am a writer and I want my students to be writers too. This requires that I treat them like writers. One of my secret weapons, available to me because I am a writer who continues to work on my craft with a lot of other writers, is the knowledge of things that writers need, want, and hate. I need time and space to write so I give my students time and space to write. I want inspiration and support so I give my students inspiration and support. I hate to be denied choice and agency so I give my students choice and agency. I am the thing that I teach so I am authentic teacher.
As a writer I know the power of writing to help me make sense of myself and the world. As a writer I know the power of writing to help me shape my world. As a teacher of writers I want my students to know this power too and so we only concern ourselves with authentic writing that does at least one of those things. Much of my teaching career has been concerned with the idea of transfer of learning because I know that my job is not to deliver a set of writing rules to my students but instead to deliver a set of writers to the world. Rules are ancient maps warning of monsters and dragons along unexplored regions, but giving writers the agency to develop their own rules is akin to handing them a sextant so they will never be lost at sea even when sailing uncharted waters. I am the thing that I teach so I am an authentic teacher of authentic writing.
Do you think authentic teaching is important? How do you define authentic teaching?