I teach writing to reluctant writers.
The students I teach in the continuing education program at the university are working on certificates in human resource management, project management, or public relations. Few of them have ever dreamed of being writers. Only a handful of them have ever considered the power of the written word.
Most of them just want to be handed the formula for “how to write an effective email” so that they can pass the course with flying colours and move on to what they’re really interested in.
“There are no formulas,” I tell them again and again, when they come to me holding their graded papers hoping to be told exactly how they can ensure an A+ for the next paper. “I can’t tell that the answer to A+B=C, because in writing, it doesn’t work that way. The only way to get better is by practicing, not by trying to find an illusive formula.” And sometimes, when they’re especially resistant (and sometimes argumentative), I add, “I’m not here to ensure that you get an A+, I’m here to teach you to be a better writer.”
Instead of giving them a formula, I push them in ways they don’t expect to be pushed. “Stretching Exercises”, I call them, and then give them creative writing assignments that have nothing to do with the course material. “If you don’t stretch yourself creatively, you’ll never be an effective communicator. No matter what your line of business is, effective communication is one of your most critical tools.”
“Writing is a transformational tool,” I continue. “If you don’t understand its power, you will misuse it.” And then I give them their final assignment – find a piece of writing that impacted your life and tell the whole class about how it changed you.
They look at me with an air of disbelief, and some of them sit with their arms crossed and pens sitting idly by while the rest of the class stretches their writing muscles.
They don’t want messy creativity or untrustworthy transformation. They want rules.
At the end of the day, I debrief with myself as I ride the bus home. “Am I teaching this the right way?” my inner doubter says, after a few too many blank stares. “Maybe I should be a little more formulaic – give them what they’re asking for. Stick with the textbook and skip the creative stuff.” And yet every time I sway in that direction, I get that icky feeling that tells me I’m not serving them well if all I do is try to invent a formula when there is none.
Each week I show up and push them all over again. And each week I get the same resistance. Sometimes the resistance grows as we get closer to the final assignment.
But then something else slowly begins to happen. A spark starts to appear in a few of the students’ eyes. They remember what it felt like to first discover the power of the written word back in grade 1 or 2. They dig into their memory vaults and remember the things they’ve read in the past that have changed their lives. They start sharing the stories they’ve written, surprised their creativity has shown up on the page. The spark grows and soon they’re telling me that they’ve dug up old journals and are writing in them again.
And then the last class comes, and I hear the most beautiful stories of people who have been transformed by novels, signs on cafeteria walls, eulogies, newspaper articles, websites, and blog posts.
That is why I teach – the re-awakening, the a-ha moments when they realize the role that good writing has played in their lives. Even if it’s just a handful of students whose spark is re-ignited, I want to be there to see it happen.
And that is why I knew it was time to stretch myself, step away from a textbook, and start offering my own classes that have nothing to do with effective business communication.
I want to see more sparks.
This week is the first class of Creative Writing for Self-Discovery, a course that has already attracted a fascinating and diverse circle of people. I could hardly be more excited. This is what I was born to teach, and these are the people who long to learn it. This is one of the things I’ve been called to gift to the world, and these people are willing recipients instead of reluctant learners.
And you know what? I wouldn’t be in this place, trusting myself to create a course that is fully in line with my own gifts (writing, teaching, facilitating personal growth, hosting a circle), if I hadn’t signed up for Teach Now last year just when I was transitioning from my job as a director in non-profit to teacher and business owner.
Teach Now is starting up again, and I’m excited to say that I am serving as a Teaching Guide for this year’s offering. If you are at all interested in learning more about what it means to be a teacher and/or stretching yourself in the role of teacher you already hold, I would highly encourage you to sign up.
Teach Now is transformational. It’s what helped me to be bold in what I teach and not give in to the demands of my students for something more formulaic. It helped me to be true to what I believed about writing and the results are clear in the students who tell me the class has been transformational. It helped me dream of the courses I want to offer in the future (including more Creative Writing and Leadership offerings).
Note: Full disclosure – As a graduate of Teach Now, I am also an affiliate, which means I’ll make a little money if you sign up through the links in this post.
Another note: Though I’m creating my own courses, I happily continue to teach at the University as well. That handful of awakened sparks in the room makes it worthwhile.