Why teacher can't write

Fill a room with adults and ask them how many read or write poetry. My guess is that on a good day about half would raise their hands (most likely out of an affectation or because they flat-out misheard the question). The other half, the ones who didn’t raise their hands, would be English teachers.

I know teachers are busy in ways that other professionals and trades people are not. If you care about teaching, and most teachers do, the first thing you think about when you wake up is teaching for the coming day. Simply put, we are too busy to do anything else but teach. Yet, there’s something bogus about teaching language or literature 20 periods a week and never connecting with your subject matter out of the classroom.

There are, of course, reasons for this. If we teach ESL, we force the language down to its simplest building blocks. When we do this, however, density of thought is also stripped away, and we encourage students not to think but to do. And after years of teaching this transactional English inside the classroom, we become what we teach outside of the classroom.

As a result when teachers do write they consciously marshal facts and data to argue an issue. There is a foe or object in front of them they want to destroy or move to their side. There may be some craft in these efforts, but rarely is there any art or ambiguity. The writing is transactional and purposeful, but it is little more than moving pieces around on a game board. No shred of the writer and his cast of mind can be found. The best measure of this (often) claptrap prose is how odd we find poetry and poets. Poets either produce dreck or live on the edge of some deviancy. Teachers are more likely to experiment with body piercing than to experiment with poetry.

Teachers learn early on to be circumspect in their everyday lives. Politicians, police, truck divers and housewives can do or say things outside of the classroom that would get us fired if we did the same and it got back to the administration or a parent. And as it is usually a coworker that passes this information on under the pretext of protecting the school, we become timid in the classroom, too. We are trained to avoid risk. Trust no one is our mantra. Over time we no longer even trust ourselves, and without confidence in ourselves, we have nothing to say as writers. The curriculum we teach runs on tracks year to year, and we lose all zest for our subject matter. If someone asks what subject we teach, we say, “Children, I teach children.”

Since Sputnik, the urgency for scientific methodology has squeezed out the abstract and installed the concrete. We believe that selecting multiple choice correct answers among distractors that are only a whisker away in meaning is evidence of intelligence. We teach the myopic and eschew the universal.

Art on the other hand searches for the universal in a grain of sand. It is the dark matter that holds education from flying apart, but because it is not a group-paced activity it has no place in the curriculum. A writer once said, “the essence of all art is the frame,” and our educational system has lost its frame.

I know that teachers can write. Why they don’t is more an indictment of the educational system than professional ineptitude.

Years ago, I taught the argumentative essay to freshman college students. This was a pass/fail course which required writing a five-paragraph essay at the end of the course within an hour-and-a-half time frame. I decided to try and take the test myself, something I doubt few other teachers ever did. Of course I was using a computer, and there really wasn’t any pressure on me. When I looked up, I was fifteen minutes past the finish time. I wrote a great essay, but I would have failed the subject I was teaching.


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