Thursday, July 28, 2011

The Difference Between and Writer and a Teacher

When I woke up this morning and viewed my news feed I was elated to see that Lesley University is again ranked as the #6 Low-Residency MFA program in the country. Boom.

What makes it so special? Well, among the current MFA students, alumni, and prospective applicants, the majority listed the program's flexibility and support system as their top reasons; second to these aspects was the interdisciplinary requirement of the program, i.e. being able to write in a different genre than your focus, bridging off and taking a class at any college you want in any subject that may intrigue you, beginning a lit. journal, etc. (I did magazine writing, a blog, curriculum development, etc.)

After scanning the reviews of the higher ranked MFA programs and reading some of the scathing (and even scandalous [read: professors trying to seduce students at the residencies]) reviews of the other MFA programs, I again find myself proud and to be a current student and soon-to-be alumnus of Lesley's MFA program. The faculty who have mentored me might have published a book every other year and they might not be at the top of the who's who list of poets and writers, but they're great teachers, and that's what so many of these programs lack.

Which brings me to the point for this post. How important is it for a great poet or writer to be a great teacher? (Or vice versa for that matter) Some raters said that they would rather learn through gleaning wisdom, mimicking, and enduring the sometimes aggressive nature of workshopping from the brilliant minds of writers who are constantly publishing. Others, like myself, found more value (figuratively and literally), pertinence and meaningful learning from good teachers, as opposed to great writers.

Those who can't, teach. Remember that? I sure do.

It was one of my greatest fears when I became a teacher. It had been my dream from an early age to be a writer, but I realized early on that that road was a lonely, poor one. I still wanted to be immersed in literature, but I didn't want to waste and pine for something greater, whether it be money, happiness or self-worth (though I don't think I could quite rationalize it in those terms at that age...)

Then I had a talk with a great teacher my freshmen year of high school. He suggested I think more seriously about becoming an English teacher. "Why not?" I remember him saying. "It's rewarding in so many ways, and you never have to give up writing in your free time."

Those words resounded like rain on a tin roof when I was looking into MFA programs. My inner monologue echoed with doubts and that annoying "you can't be both!" Would I still be an effective teacher if I was so focused on writing? Would I be a great writer if I was so focused on teaching? Then, at the end of one of my first days teaching, I found myself at a crossroads. Do I take "The Road Less Traveled" I remember thinking, and then snickering.

Then it struck me. Like understanding in a car crash.

It was a metaphor forged by my sub-conscience; the analogy that threaded uncertainty into twine then rope strong enough to support my doubts. Frost's "The Road Not Taken" is usually taught in high school as a decision and individualistic poem--do you want to be the one who takes the path everyone else does, or will you set off on your own? Will you be the one to make a difference, change a life, etc.? It was always one of my favorite poems, until I really looked at it in college.

Wait, he isn't saying that the path has made all the difference because he's done great things...he's actually saying he wishes he had gone the other way. See that one word there, that "Sigh," that's the ticket! He's actually talking about regret; he's suggested that we all take chances, but realize that after taking those chances we can sometimes be regretful.

Why are so many kids misinterpreting it? Simple. They have teachers who aren't writers themselves. Not every teacher can extrapolate the nuance of a poem the way a writer who has studied those poems can. I know more about poetry from writing and studying it outside of high school and college than I learned from within the classroom (save certain classes).

What kids need is a teacher who understands writing, who can speak more in depth and passionately about a poem than what's written in the teacher's guide. They need someone who's taken the risks of a writer and has succeeded and faltered.

There is no single path that we must take. There is only the path we take. Will I sigh one day? Doubtful. There's so much value and gratification in teaching that isn't recognized until one is actually in the classroom.

(Getting metaphorical now...) As a teacher, one can never look back and "sigh." One can only hope to improve the path for others; to leave behind tools to clear the jungle.

To my students: you will find yourself in that jungle one day--mountains, rocks, trees, and small paths. The way is tangled and uncertain. I will bring a machete.

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