What I Love About Teaching

I was interviewed by Jenn Louden for her Teach Now program about my teaching philosophy. In preparing for that interview, I sat down and made a list of all the things I’ve learned about teaching; step-by-step, what I do to create an inspirational learning environment for my students. This is what I do and why I do it:

  • Teach in groups. Although I do work with writers individually, my strong preference is to teach in a group environment—whether it be a weekly class, a weekend workshop, or a weeklong retreat. The synergy and power of a circle of writers creates a potent atmosphere for fostering growth in self-expression, self-knowledge and craft. Although many of my students initially consider writing a private activity, they are deeply moved and inspired by listening to their classmates’ stories. When someone in a writing circle is gifted at dialogue—able to evoke a vivid setting—or a memorable character—or is particularly brave about putting herself on the page—the other students learn by osmosis and example. Another tangible benefit of a writing group is that everyone is guaranteed to write. When people sit in a circle with other writers and the teacher gives them a writing prompt, they are going to write—something they can never be sure of at home with a million compelling distractions.
  • Create a safe, confidential environment. The most critical thing I do as a teacher is create an environment where each writer feels safe to explore his or her own voice, to take risks, and to explore sensitive or vulnerable material without fear of judgment, censure or unwanted advice. I do this in several specific ways: by giving extremely clear guidelines on precisely what I mean by confidentiality—and enforcing it, by protecting the creative process and raw first drafts from premature feedback, and by creating a community where we are all aware of the sacred covenant we undertake when we listen to another person’s story and witness their growth—both as writers and as human beings.
  • Create a community. I consider myself far more than a writing teacher; I am a community builder. People form lifelong friendships in my writing circles, and I encourage them to do so. I host public readings for my students twice a year so that former and current students (as well as friends and family members) can celebrate words and gather together. I host special events, and in my classes, there is always a break for food and conversation. Not all students come seeking new friends and colleagues, but for those that do, I continually create new ways for them to bond as a supportive, creative community.
  • Hold the line between writing and therapy.  Writing is often therapeutic. In writing groups, old memories and traumas are worked through, feelings are expressed, insights emerge, and life shifts occur, all in the context of the writing that happens in the group. While honoring the power of the written word and the deep, creative work my students do, I always make sure that our focus stays firmly fixed on the work itself, not on processing each other’s lives.
  • Share yourself, but never become a group member. At times, and for specific effect, I share my own writing and stories from my own life. I want my students to feel I am accessible and to see me as a full human being, but I never lean on the group for my own support or needs. My role is different, and I make sure and keep it that way.
  • Be patient. People open up at different rates. Sometimes a student walks into class ripe and ready, and from the first day, they’re fully engaged and don’t hold back. Other times, it’s not until someone has spent a year or even two in a weekly class before they actually start approaching the material they really came to write about.
  • Help students anticipate virulent attacks of the critic. Every writer, and every creative person, must learn to work effectively with their inner critic. In their very first class, I tell my students that there will be times that they are filled with self-doubt, compare themselves to the other writers and find themselves lacking, doubt that they are “real writers” or hate their work. Just knowing that these attacks of “monkey mind” are normal diffuses some of the critic’s power.
  • Remember, it’s about them. Early in my teaching career, I was far too focused on myself—what I was going to teach, if I was doing a good job, what my students thought of me. Over the years, I’ve learned that that it’s all about them—communicating with them, listening to them, adjusting my approach to reach them. It’s much more relaxing to teach when I take myself out of the center of the equation. It’s not about my ego; it’s about being of service.
  • Prepare, but hold the reins loosely. When I first began teaching, I’d spend hours preparing complex lesson plans for every class I taught. Now, as a seasoned teacher, I often walk into class not knowing what I’m going to teach. I may arrive with a loose idea, but I’m always ready to throw out my plan in an instant. As a result, I’ve grown much more responsive to the needs of my students—and their mood—on any given day.
  • Convince your students that everyone has a story and a voice. You don’t have to have lived a dramatic or unusual life to have a story worth telling. Everyone has unique life experiences and a unique point of view. Someone can write about being a waitress in Omaha and if she does it well, her words will be compelling. One of the most important thing you can do as a writing teacher is convince your students that their lives and their stories have value.
  • Encourage gradual progress. I ask my students to take one small step outside of their comfort zone—whether it’s sharing a piece with one other student, reading aloud to our whole circle, reading publicly, publishing a blog post, or sending out a book proposal. Help your students take small steps toward their goals, but don’t push them too hard. I’ll never forget the woman who came to her very first class, wrote in great detail about the incest she suffered at the hands of her father, and then read her very graphic story out loud to the whole group, sobbing—and then never came back again. She had overexposed herself and made herself too vulnerable to a group she had not yet bonded with.
  • Know your students’ individual goals. Some people come to a writing class or retreat because they want to use writing as a tool for personal growth or healing. Others write because it’s fun—or because they want to record family stories for their children or grandchildren. Some writers have their eye on writing for an audience—whether their goal is a blog, a performance piece, a short story, or a published book. Each writer will have his or her own goals and trajectory. It’s essential for me to know what each writer is wanting—and where they are in their evolution as a writer—so I can help them meet their goals, not mine.
  • Know when to focus on process and when to focus on product. There is a time for encouragement and the awe of watching another human being unfold. Sometimes a writers’ words are best met with a warm, compassionate silence or a simple, “Keep going,” or an encouraging, “Tell me more,” or an understated, “I think you’ve got a lot more to say about that.” Other times, a writer is ready for a manuscript full of specific editorial suggestions. Or they may need lessons in an aspect of craft that they haven’t yet mastered.
  • Only give a little feedback at a time, in small, manageable doses. For a student who is working toward publication and wanting to master the craft of writing, it’s useful to focus on only one facet of their work each time you give feedback, so that they don’t feel overwhelmed. Ultimately, you will probably read numerous drafts of the same piece. The first time, you might make suggestions about voice or point of view. The second time, focus on character development, the third, on improving dialogue. A fourth time, help your student assess whether their story starts and ends in the right place. And so on. Ultimately, as the piece gets more refined, you can move into feedback on things like word usage and finer editing.
  • Encourage your students to rewrite—and not to continually write first drafts of new pieces. New writers often avoid revision and only write new pieces.  They avoid revision because they don’t know how to do it—or because they’re too wedded to every precious word they’ve written. Sometimes they worry that redoing the same story will be boring for them—or for you. But people learn to write through the process of revision. So if you have a student who wants to learn craft, encourage him to bring the same piece back over and over again—until it is complete and polished. There is great satisfaction in actually finishing something—and letting it go—that builds confidence and a strong writers’ spine. Something new is learned at every stage in a piece’s development—and those lessons won’t be learned if a writer never buckles down and finishes a piece.
  • Teach your students that real life doesn’t always make for a good story. When I tell a student, “This story doesn’t work,” the response is frequently, “But that’s the way it happened.” Just because something happened in real life doesn’t make it an effective story, a story that anyone else will want to read. A critical part of effective storytelling is learning what to leave in and what to take out, what to emphasize and what to downplay. This is as true in memoir as it is in fiction. Learning to find the story is something that’s not easily taught, but it’s something every successful writer must learn.
  • Know your strengths and weaknesses as a teacher. Personally, I’m not good at teaching grammar or the basics of English. I’m not a poet, so if someone wants to study poetry, I send her to my colleague, Ellen Bass, a gifted poet and lifelong writing teacher. Same goes for screenplay writers or romance authors. I know what I’m good at—and I focus my energies there, on the students I believe I can genuinely help. I have a niche in which I’m very good—and I make that the base of everything I do.
  • Keep clear boundaries. Know what you are and aren’t willing to do for your students. Say “no” and “yes” regularly. Take care of yourself so you can continue teaching with enthusiasm, creativity and joy.
  • Admit your mistakes. You will make them. You will make errors in judgment. You will have bad days when you don’t teach well, just like everyone else. You may have moments of insensitivity. You will disappoint your students and at times, let them down. Own up to your mistakes and make amends quickly and sincerely. Needing to save face can be your downfall as a teacher.
  • Stay humble. Never forget that it’s an honor and a privilege to play a role in the growth of another human being and in the unfolding of their creative potential.
  • Let your students teach you. They have much to teach you, if only you let them.
  • Commit yourself to your own continuing education. In order to be a compassionate teacher who understands my students, it’s essential that I continue my own education. For me, that means being a writing student with a writing teacher of my own. It also means taking the risk to begin something new that I’m not good at—in my case, that’s meant joining a gospel choir and taking singing lessons—first, because I enjoy it and secondly, because it helps me stay in touch with the fear, trepidation and self-doubt new students feel when they walk into my class for the very first time.

If you’d like to explore your unique voice and experience the transformative power of Laura’s writing workshops, there are still a few spaces left in “The Writer’s Retreat of Your Dreams,” this coming July in Bolinas, California. You can register or learn more at: www.lauradavis.net/retreat or you can call Laura at (831) 464-9517.

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