I am a Teacher and Writer
I am a teacher and writer. Or, I am a writer and teacher. Last June when campus was quiet after final exams, I sat in my classroom at a long wooden table, my palms flat on its veneer. I’d just finished my eleventh school year and was returning in August. I thought, I am a teacher. An admission, acceptance.
A day before winter break senior year of college, I went to my fiction workshop professor to collect my portfolio. He sat with the pages in his hands and asked if I was going to teach. He said he’d write a letter to an MFA program, that I was a good writer. He looked up at me. I remember the feeling in my stomach then, and through the end of student teaching, when the answer to what I was going to do with an English major only made sense on paper.
From the start of my teaching career I wasn’t sure I wanted to be a teacher because I wanted more to be a writer. I started teaching supposing I’d quit after two or three years and go to grad school but two or three years into teaching, I wasn’t camped out at the kitchen table counting syllables or playing with dialogue on a long run. I missed writing.
And I resented teaching for exacting a high toll on my creativity. I thought about quitting to become a barista or postal worker. I played an accelerated fantasy that started with my closed mouth smile on a book jacket and ended with the toss-up prizes of a Pulitzer or an Oprah endorsement. I imagined writing something to turn us upside down. I looked in the mirror and pretended I was a relevant element of our culture. Yes, I know how grandiose this sounds. Wishing for a writing life on a neglected notebook. I had to start again. I joined my students for ten minutes of writing practice at the start of each forty-five minute class. On weekends I drove to a Starbucks off the interstate and made deals with myself. One hour. Five pages. Two poems. I became my own slow MFA program.
Moving abroad to teach was my commitment to the profession. My commitment to writing was a stack of empty notebooks in one corner of the suitcase. I wrote my way through Colombia. I had a daughter and left the classroom and found writing while parenting is as much a balance as writing while teaching.
A year after my son was born, I returned to teaching part-time, in Kuwait. Teaching creative writing increased my respect for craft. More, teaching creative writing increased my respect for the job. Now I was thinking about teaching in a new way because I wanted to figure out how to distil the wide field of writing into a semester that would inspire students to write for joy in my class and continue writing after. I dug into my own practice and took a couple of online workshops, gleaning craft and teaching ideas from my professors. Part-time is great for writers.
While I was full with two kids, work and a slack effort at meal planning, I had space to write, often stopping at a café on the way home from school to draft for an hour or so. Now I’m fulltime and waver if that was a good decision for my art. For my life – shared with a husband and kids – going fulltime makes sense. On paper. Which is why I write about this tricky balance now.
There are two things that keep me writing while teaching. One, I love to write. This is a gift I can’t waste. Two, my professional ambition is my classroom. I don’t want to be a curriculum director or counsellor or principal. I occasionally fret my resume is thin because I forgo school leadership, committees and activities to retain time and creative energy for writing. This might be a terrific mistake. At the end, my collection of narrative and poetry could have a readership of tens. Because I’ve spent more time practicing craft than sharing my work, I’m behind on publishing and don’t know which house might champion a mid-to-late thirties unknown. But teaching is a rich life too. Another gift I can’t waste.
In June when I held the thought I am a teacher in my head, it tasted a little of failure. Am I teacher more than writer? I sat still for a while. I got quiet. I played out the previous decade in the classroom. I am fortunate to teach the craft I love. I am fortunate to share in the start of many writing lives. There’s the marvel I first naively thought of this career, that I get paid to read and write all day. But I also choose art.
I want to be a great writer. For too long, I thought I could be great at one thing or the other. Pick writing or teaching. That or hinged two different lives. For years, I wanted writing more. Teaching was a weight on my ambition. I couldn’t see how I might become a great writer while teaching. But that’s what is happening now. I make art one tiny piece at a time. I am a teacher and writer. A writer and teacher. This is the tension I keep.
Sarah K. Marslander
American School of Kuwait