For the English Teachers Who Struggle with Writing

My name is Patrick and I’m an English Language Arts teacher that is insecure about his writing.

Am I out here by myself?

I fell in love with writing in the fourth grade. Hyped up from my trip to Blockbuster, gathering all the movies I could hold in my small hands. I knew I was obsessed with horror stories. In fourth grade my teacher allowed us to drift away from the personal narratives and into fiction. This was my chance. I sat at my desk and wrote a complete story in one sitting.

It followed a kid who was left home alone by his parents. Things were all good until he heard a noise coming from the basement. A faint voice to be exact. When Black people get scared, they get still. He stood in place, to listen closely. It was two voices, casually conversing. In the story, he ponders back and forth wondering if he should check it out. He begins by deciding to open the basement door. He takes a deep breath with each step; The light evaporates with each exhale. The crescendo of the spine-chilling voices deepened the thump of his heart. He closed his eyes to protect himself from the unknown. Just when the sound couldn’t get any louder, he opened his eyes…

Someone left the radio playing.

LOL. Okay, listen I know. Cheesy. It was this story that opened my eyes to the possibility of being a writer. I don’t remember the grade I got on it or the feedback. I just remember the feeling. I developed a habit of going down to my basement to turn on my desktop computer to write. At 10, I wrote a musical once titled, The Case of the Missing Reed. When I was 12, I scripted a short film for a BET contest on navigating HIV with young people. A year later, I authored a 30-page thriller about a French-speaking, conniving translator who falls in love with a client only to try to scheme his way into her a business owner’s fortune.

I loved writing because of the way it made me feel. I would even print my stories, hole punch them and combine them in three-ring binders to make them official.

As I got older, I had less time to write without boundaries. I had a job and extracurricular activities and none of them allowed me to write. Plus, in school, the older you get the more caged in your creativity becomes. The more rubrics you must follow. The more red marks you have to decipher. (I’d even add that the more technology that entered the world, the less I could even sit and focus.) When I graduated high school, I did not hate writing. I just… was not eager to sit and write anymore.

I did not hate writing until college. Academic writing was king, and I was nowhere near the court. In 2013, I studied abroad in South Africa at the University of Cape Town. My professor curated a dense book list coupled with powerful first-hand experiences to help us reckon with the past, present, and future effects of Apartheid. While abroad, we were tasked with writing reflection papers. Perfectionism amped up my anxiety. I struggled to string my words together because I was worried about page count or not “sounding smart”. Writing is a feeling.

My anxiety was all my professors could read in my reflection essays. My grades and the track changes did not help. Oh, the horror of track changes. I would re-write the same reflection essays three to four-times to make myself feel better. But I just ended up feeling insulted when my teacher gave me (with the best intentions) “On Writing Well” by William Zinnsser. At this point, I was frozen. I could not write anymore. My confidence was shot. I wrote through my own skepticism but would never feel proud of any reflection I submitted.

Accepting the opportunity to pen my first book, The First Five: A Love Letter to Teachers feels surreal. It is hands down the scariest thing I have ever done. My writing anxiety still hadn’t left me. There were so many times when I would sit down to write a chapter and spend hours staring at a blank page. Just thinking. I thought to myself well, if I don’t know what to write maybe I should just read. I will pick up books from some notable writers and education and nonfiction. Clint Smith, Maya Angelou, Jose Vilson, Lorena German, Monique Morrison, Chezare Warren. The list goes on and on. The inspiration couldn’t spark alight.  Why did I not sound like these incredible writers? Should I even be writing this book?

The funny thing is, I told myself I was a speaker… not a writer. In 2017, I started a podcast with my best friend. Each week we shared stories of our teaching experiences. We received emails and DMs from people who enjoyed the “realness” of our podcast. When folks say realness, what they really mean is accessibility. They also heard confidence on my podcast. My revelation:  My speaking voice is my writing voice. Here’s a secret, I did not feel confident in my book until I started writing using voice-to-text technology. Sometimes, I would get on Instagram live to tell a story and turn on voice-to-text to capture the authenticity of my own storytelling skills.

After spending 30 to 45 minutes speaking into the Word document, I would then go back to the greats. I will read their work and see what writer moves they use. See how they used commas or descriptive language. I would pay close attention to their figurative language techniques. I would dissect their organization and style. And then, I would return to my writing. I’d revise my work to experiment with color. This didn’t lessen the number of track changes from my editor. It didn’t stop every doubt I had in my mind. But I now had faith in myself and my voice. Writing is a feeling.

My own crippling self-confidence as a writer sat parallel to the words that I hear from my students. I teach 6th grade and 7th grade English. Their own negative self-talk sounded too familiar. I can’t write. I can’t figure out what I truly want to say. I hate writing. I’m not good enough. I don’t sound like… And oftentimes they wanted a one size fits all solution. Patrick, how do I start? Is this good enough? How long does it have to be? How many characters should I have? Are you going to do a lesson on (insert skill here)?  

Before I planned any mini-lessons, I wanted students to write. Just write. I did not want students to write like me. I wanted them to find their own writing voices. This caused a lot of frustration amongst those writers who struggled to believe in themselves. Instead of trying to tell my students to be confident in themselves. I actually told them how much confidence I lacked in my own writing. I told them how I had those same thoughts, those same fears, that same anxiety. I wanted them to write, without expectation.

When I teach writing to my students, I encourage them to lean into their own voices. I tell them about the power of speech-to-text technology. I allow them to write without a rubric, without a boundary. But I want them to freely explore, to find their love of it.

Instead of just telling my students I wrote a book, I shared my writing journey, too. I shared the times I had a starring contest with a blank screen. I shared with them my feelings of imposter syndrome. shared with them the track changes I received for my editor. Then, I shared with them the moment I began believing in my own voice. I shared the power of speech-to-text. And then, I shared my finished copy of my book the first five a love letter to teachers with my students.

All teachers should write because we have stories to tell. And all teachers share their writing with their students no matter the discipline, no matter the style. And we should share our writing process with our students, unedited. Despite how hard we try; our students sometimes see us as perfect. And as experts. However, I believe students appreciate and learn best from teachers who struggle and who are most human.

This book is for fourth grade Patrick who knew he was a writer from the day he penned his first story. This book is for my students who are writers. And this book is for the next generation of writers, both teachers and students. The best writers are authentic to their own voice. They are accessible. I’m so glad I found my voice and believed in it.

Order your copy of The First Five: A Love Letter to Teachers.

This blog post is part of the #31DaysIBPOC Blog Series, a month-long movement to feature the voices of indigenous and teachers of color as writers and scholars. Please CLICK HERE to read yesterday’s blog post by Erica Pernell.

Published by plharrised

Patrick Harris (@PresidentPat) is an elementary educator based in Doha, Qatar. He is a graduate of Michigan State University's College of Education and an alum of Klingenstein Summer Institute for early career educators. Patrick is most passionate about amplifying teachers' voices in our current system and using culturally responsive practices to support all students. He is also the recipient of the NCTE Early Career Educator of Color Leadership Award. Connect with Patrick on his Podcast, Common Sense Podcast at www.commonsensepod.com.

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