This post was written by NCTE member Anthony Lince.
I struggle to write. I tirelessly tinker with my drafts until, finally, they resemble something I find worthy of publishing. For me, this is how it’s always been and how it’ll always be. I’m not the only one who wrestles with a piece of writing, though. Even well-known writers—from Anne Lamott to Stephen King—have famously wrote how they, too, struggle with writing.
All this to say: strenuous effort is a natural part of the writing process. This is pretty well known.
Sadly, though, the people that need to know this maxim the most—our students—often don’t ever realize writing is difficult for everyone. They think it’s only demanding for them. And as a result, when students do encounter any sort of complications with their writing, they end up feeling endlessly discouraged. I know my students—from the first semester of my teaching credential program placement—didn’t understand that sweat and tears often go hand in hand with writing.
The primary person to blame? Me. When it came to my writing, I never revealed to my students that I exerted lots of effort, that I had doubts, and that, at times, I felt defeated. No, what I presented, instead, was a teacher who was a “perfect writer.” My students only got to see my polished drafts (after many bouts of revision, of course). If you asked them about my writing process, they might say something like this: “Mr. Lince is a natural writer; I don’t think he ever has issues with writing!”
In all honesty, I liked that they had that impression of me. I was the sage on the stage, after all. I was The Teacher. Looking back, though, I realize that this was a major disservice to my students, as they ended up leaving my class feeling frustrated by the challenges of writing, not understanding that writing is challenging for everybody
I needed to do better. A lot better. So in the spring of 2020 (my last semester of student teaching), I decided to model my struggle with writing to my students. It was nerve-wrecking, it was painful, and it was difficult to do. But it was a powerful teaching experience—one that was completely worth it.
“Today, before you start on your drafts, I’m going to model my writing process for you,” I told my students. “The reason I’m doing this is so that you can see how an experienced writer composes. Sometimes—actually, most of the time—writers struggle to make solid first drafts. The writing has to be reworked and reworked for it to sound good, for it to be just right. I want to show you a little bit of that.”
“You’re going to show us how you make mistakes?” one student asked.
“That’s exactly it,” I replied. “Okay, so let’s begin!” I might’ve sounded confident saying those words, but I certainly didn’t feel like they had much weight to them.
I wasn’t sure how my students would react to seeing their teacher stumble and fall in front of them. Really, I was worried that I would lose some of their confidence in me as an effective educator, as an effective writing teacher. Nevertheless, I had to follow through. There was no turning back now. I was going to show my students how most writers struggle with composing, and more importantly, how that struggle was perfectly okay.
I walked over to my laptop—my screen was mirrored to the overhead projector—and I rested my fingers on the keyboard. I took a deep breath, looked up at my students, then back to my laptop. I started writing. One sentence was on the screen. But it didn’t sound right, so I deleted it. Then, a few more sentences were put up on the screen. However, they didn’t sound quite right, either, so I reworked them. All the while, I’m talking out loud, naming what I’m doing and giving my students a sense of my writing process.
After what felt like an hour of torture, though it was really only about five minutes, I finished my modeling session. I looked up at my students, and I saw their confused expressions. I don’t think they were used to seeing their teachers make mistakes. Oh no, I thought—what had I done? They were now going to see their English teacher as an imposter, as someone who wasn’t able to teach. Moving forward, my teaching would be met with strong doubts. My student’s faith in me—faith that I had worked so hard to gain—was destroyed.
But, in fact, the opposite ended up happening. And I realized the benefits of my teaching move a few days later when I sat down to conference with my students on their writing.
“Hey, Mr. Lince, I saw that you struggled with your introduction the other day. I always have issues with that, too. Do you have some tips on how I can get better at them?” a student asked me. I then proceeded to offer him some of the steps I take to make my introductions better, and he listened with an attentiveness that I hadn’t seen before. He trusted me more, not less, to give him advice because I showed him that I wasn’t perfect. My advice held lots of credibility, as I knew the struggles that he went through.
The rest of my conferences with my other students gave me similar revelations to my example above. Those conferences were great because I was able to draw on my writing experiences in a genuine way, no longer as a person who seemed to never make mistakes.
This was a true “Aha!” moment for me.
My students still saw me as a competent educator. But even better than that, they now saw me as a learner who persisted even when things got tough. And if I was willing to push through the pains of making a piece of writing good, they would too.
What my students gained from my modeling session is that mistakes are a normal part of the writing process, a normal part of learning. Modeling our struggles, as educators, can, indeed, be a powerful teaching move, one that we should all consider. Students will see us as life-long learners; students will see us as human; and students will heed our advice more readily. As I embark on my teaching career, I know that I’ll be modeling my struggles with writing for all my students.
Anthony Lince is a recent graduate from San Diego State University’s teaching credential program. He is now pursuing a master’s degree in English, with an emphasis in rhetoric. His research focuses on equitable assessment practices. His professional goal is to teach in both high school and college. Twitter: @LinceAnthony
It is the policy of NCTE in all publications, including the Literacy & NCTE blog, to provide a forum for the open discussion of ideas concerning the content and the teaching of English and the language arts. Publicity accorded to any particular point of view does not imply endorsement by the Executive Committee, the Board of Directors, the staff, or the membership at large, except in announcements of policy, where such endorsement is clearly specified.