I recently came upon my first published education op-ed, “Learning from Parents.” It appeared in the New York Teacher in March 2007 (the spring of my second year of teaching) under the pseudonym “Otter.” The editor had encouraged me to use a pseudonym, not because my piece was in any way incendiary but because this was common practice for the “New Teacher Diaries” section, in which my piece appeared.
I am grateful for that first start. I soon decided, though, that I did not want a pseudonym and did not want to be a teacher diarist. Now and then I do write about something that happened in the classroom or in my teaching life. But I stay away from the teacher diary formulas.
I know of no other profession that expects its members to write public diaries about why they entered the profession, why they left, what makes it so hard, what makes it so wonderful, etc. I think of musicians, writers, actors, dancers, doctors, lawyers, engineers, translators, scholars, rabbis, priests, and others; if they keep diaries, it is by individual choice. Only teachers have a ready forum and a set of prefabricated formulas for tales of classroom life.
Now, some teacher diaries offer insights that no study or report could approximate. They abound with wit and truth. But to have your teacher-diary published, you need only do the following, or something similar:
- Provide a standard title, e.g., “What No One Told Me About Teaching”;
- Make a vague reference to research (e.g., “Research tells us that 50 percent of teachers leave within the first five years”);
- Tell a classroom anecdote that connects to the title (this is the “diary” part);
- Offer a few bulleted takeaways;
- Include the title in the final sentence (e.g., “What no one told me about teaching is that it has to be learned.”)
The same goes for pieces titled “Why I Am Leaving My Teaching Job,” “Why I Am Not Leaving My Teaching Job,” “My Advice to Teacher Newbies,” etc. Why the demand for such pieces? I don’t know the answer but have a few thoughts.
First, there’s a genuine need for insights into the classroom. Although we all supposedly know the classroom (having spent a chunk of our lives in one), we don’t understand what teachers do until (a) we become teachers or (b) we listen to them. This is coveted and helpful information.
Second, education has been subjected to some unhealthy mystification. The “great teacher” and “bad teacher” are continually pitted against each other in pseudo-eschatological combat; it’s refreshing to hear from an actual person now and then.
Third, teachers welcome an outlet for thoughts. The school day has little room for reflection. A teacher diary assignment can offer an opportunity to assemble experiences and ideas.
All that said, I sense something less benign at work here as well. There’s something subtly condescending about the teacher diary format. It suggests (to the teacher and the world), “You, teacher, are best suited to writing from the first person, about your own experiences, because that’s what you know best.” In other words: stay in your little sphere of self; do not dare to speak about a field or idea.
As a result, the teacher diary often wraps itself in the coy gauze of “me and my own.” Many such pieces go “viral” now and then; few have lasting quality. Of all the teacher diaries I have read over the years, maybe five have stayed with me. This has more to do with the mini-genre and its expectations than with the writers.
I would advise any ambivalent teacher-diarist: Do not confine yourself to this format. If it suits you, work with it, but be ready to break away. There is power in speech that finds its own form and in silence that comes from dropping the unneeded.