Tuesday, 15 January 2013

Up Yours, George Bernard Shaw! Teaching - A Grounding for Writers

I wrote this article for Idiom, the magazine of the Victorian Association for the Teaching of English. It appeared in Volume 47, #3, 2011.

To begin, let me make one thing clear: I never wanted to be a teacher.  Not at all.  What persuaded me to give it a go was the television adaptation of R.F.Delderfield’s To serve Them All My Days, with its wonderfully idealistic view of changing education from within.  Up until that point, it had never been a career option – my dislike of practically everything associated with school was profound – and to anyone who suggested it, I’d say: ‘Teaching is the last thing I’ll do.’  These days, after chalking up almost thirty years in English, Welsh, South Australian and Victorian classrooms, I hope it isn’t.  I hope there’s life after teaching... and am beginning to suspect there is.

What I always wanted to do was write.  It was that simple.  Novels, short stories, plays, poetry, screenplays – I wasn’t fussy as long as I was writing.  However, at 24, and with enough rejection slips from publishers to paper a small wall, the pragmatic me accepted I had to earn a living, while the idealistic me decided this would have to involve something socially worthwhile (not a matter of generating vast profits for banks and multinationals, nor creating landfill).  Not only that, but whatever I was engaged in from 9-5 (ha!) shouldn’t stifle my need to write, but should positively feed it instead.  From there, it wasn’t such a massive leap to apply for a Post-Grad Certificate in Education, especially with R.F.Delderfield’s romantic view of teaching being screened weekly.  To hell with George Bernard Shaw and his ‘He who can, does.  He who cannot, teaches.’

It’s a decision I’ve regretted at times.  Especially when interminable meetings and endless piles of correction compress one evening after another into only a few minutes of freedom, and when the announcement of yet another ‘Department initiative’ doesn’t so much excite me as remind me to ‘do oxymorons’ with my next class.  However, there’s also been many occasions when I’ve recognised what a smart move it was.

On the whole, teaching has been a worthwhile career and, even though I don’t feel I’ve radically changed institutionalised education from within – more’s the pity – I still feel that I’ve been meaningfully employed in pursuit of something I can believe in, and that, for a few moments of their lives, I may have had a positive influence on one or two students.  While this may seem like a stark reduction, these are elements that have remained important to me nonetheless.  That being said, if I skim too quickly over the joys and frustrations of teaching, it’s because I really want to reflect on whether it was a smart move to enter the teaching profession from an aspiring writer’s point of view... or whether it would have made more sense to work in a bookshop, or as a journalist, or as a bank teller, or manufacturing landfill.

As far as writing is concerned, I didn’t experience any tangible success for many years.  It’s only since 2007 that I’ve been fortunate enough to have two novels published, along with a short story in a paperback anthology, which in turn generated an opportunity to write regularly for a literary magazine.  Without this success, I might argue that teaching got utterly and completely in the way of writing, but four years can make a lot of difference to a person’s outlook, and I’m now in a position where I can recognise what a sound grounding in writing my day job has provided.

Both professions require a degree of stoicism.  Writing novels is fun and relatively easy, but getting them published can be hard and dispiriting.  Publishing houses, as businesses, are conservative and jittery.  For every doorstop-sized manuscript I’ve sent for consideration (and there’s been a few), and for each batch of two-line rejection slips I’ve received in return, I can’t think of a time when at least one of those brief slips hasn’t excused the failure to offer me a three-book contract and a six-figure advance on the grounds that the industry was in a state of collapse.  It seems this is the way publishing always has been and always will be, and maybe – just maybe – working for various resource-starved schools has helped harden me to this and develop a greater sense of resilience than might otherwise have been the case.  Besides, rejection comes in a variety of shapes, and anyone who’s got the patience to work with angry and hyper-critical thirteen-year-olds on a daily basis has to be both resilient and optimistic... or totally insane.  But this is the least of it. 

The biggest advantage of being an English and Literature teacher, as well as a writer, is that, on the one hand, it’s obliged me to regularly reflect on the processes involved in writing, while, on the other hand, it’s exposed me to a broader range of literary texts – and views about those texts – than I could possibly have been exposed to in any other work environment.  I can’t think of another job that would have kept me attuned to both these areas to quite the same extent.

Left alone, our reading preferences are shaped by a number of factors (the bookshops we visit, the reviews and interviews we happen upon, what our friends and family members are reading, our taste in book covers), but being a teacher is like belonging to a rather strict Book Group: every year, curriculum changes oblige us to read texts we might never have otherwise picked up, and every new class requires exploring these texts in different ways.  I delight in this.  Besides all the other responses these texts elicit, each one – good and bad, enjoyed or disliked – engages me as a writer and makes me reflect on different aspects of crafting stories.  And even though a quirk of one British school’s syllabus, coupled with an enduring appreciation of this particular novella, means that I’ve read and discussed John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men well in excess of twenty times, it continues to influence the way I think about writing.  Similarly, although I enjoyed Carson McCullers’ The Ballad of the Sad CafĂ© when I read it at university many years ago, I’m not convinced that I’d have found my way to The Member of the Wedding in a hurry if it hadn’t been placed on the text list for VCE English this year.  But I’m grateful it was, for here’s another novel which, as I read, re-read and helped shape class discussions about it, the writer-part of my brain found itself scrambling to run another edit of the novel I was working on at the time.  How could I possibly saturate myself in McCullers’ rich, lyrical prose without being affected by it?

Each novel, film, play, anthology of poems or short stories, offers something of itself, whether in the quality of its language, the use of a particular motif, its structure, character development, pace, narrative voice, or the ideas it concerns itself with, and while I might approach each text as a teacher, I inevitably learn a considerable amount as a writer.  Slaughterhouse-5, Triage, Catcher in the Rye, Chinatown, On the Waterfront, Stand By Me, Radiance, Accidental Death of an Anarchist, Macbeth, Jennifer Strauss, John Donne, e.e.cummings, Raymond Carver, Anton Chekhov, Tim Winton... if I listed every single text, poet and author here that I’ve not only got a kick out of teaching, but that’s also had an impact on how I think about writing, then I’d have to steal another page or two.  Sometimes I think we underestimate what we learn from teaching.

Good teaching is rarely a one-way process, and the most successful classes for me are those where I’m not only helping students to develop as independent learners, but where their individual questions, comments and needs challenge me as an independent learner too.  Nowhere have I experienced this reciprocity more keenly than when engaging students in thinking about the way they use language, the conventions associated with different forms of writing, and the ideas they’re trying to convey.  This is particularly true in VCE English and Literature, where so much time can be legitimately spent fermenting and distilling the ideas that grow from texts, as well as looking at the ways in which those texts are shaped, that inevitably one’s own thinking and writing becomes clarified by the process.

And finally, because in every writer is a story-teller, and story-telling is about performance and entertainment as much as anything else, teaching provides a pleasant antidote to the insularity of writing – the loneliness of the long distance writer.  On average, it takes me about three years to write a novel, which is three years without an audience, whereas teaching offers me an opportunity to perform every day, and the opportunity to interact with people who are somewhat different to the characters skulking around in my head.

Kick out the deadly meetings, the endless correction and a few ‘Departmental initiatives’, and I’ll have achieved a fine balance between teaching and writing.  I’ll bite my thumb at George Bernard Shaw, hope my books don’t generate too much landfill, and salute R.F.Delderfield.


Hannah Barker said...

As a student who was never in fact a member of one of your regular classes, Mr Burman, I think I still reserve the right to say that it's not inaccurate that you've influenced more than one or two students in your time. And in the case if all of those many students, I'm sure it's always been for more than a moment at once.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading that. Thanks for the insight.

Paul Burman said...

And you didn't even mention emotional scars! Cheers, Hannah.