Teachers and school leaders: Why write?

I challenged myself at the beginning of the year to do less good things in order to do even better things (thank you Dylan Wiliam, for the soundbite inspiration). I work full time as a teacher and senior leader in a school; have a young family, and am myself a human being with relationships, interests, and needs (this last one is something those of us in caring and teaching professions sometimes forget in our commitment to help others).

And I write. On this blog, for academic journals, for education books, for conference presentations. I have also been co-editing a book and a special issue of an academic journal. In order to give back to the machine of academic writing, I also peer review papers for academic journals. All of this is unpaid work and volunteered time, especially as my day job is to serve the students and community of my school. I do have an honorary academic position with a university, but it is just that: honorary. There is no financial reward or professional expectation that I engage in the world of academic publishing.

I’ve been reminded about the writing part of my life this week, as a couple of papers and a chapter have resurfaced from the academic publishing and peer review pipelines through which they have been traveling. Writing for academic journals and books is like that. It comes in peaks and troughs, with pieces disappearing for a time before reappearing to be re-thought, re-written, and re-submitted. There is the original writing of the paper, chapter, or conference abstract—sometimes an immersion or deep dive; sometimes a laborious stop-start process; and sometimes a collaborative dance between authors—followed by the first submission. Then there is the wait for peer reviews, which can take months at a time. By the time the reviewer comments appear, the paper can be looked at with fresh eyes and new energy. Then it’s revise, resubmit, repeat. Once an abstract is accepted it’s time to think about preparing the presentation (ok, maybe not until closer to the conference date); or once a paper is accepted and it goes into production, contracts, queries from copyeditors, and checks from typesetters follow.

So why do I spend time in these writing, co-writing, and revision processes? Why write at all when the job of a teacher or school leader is so busy already?

Here are my three top reasons for engaging in academic writing as a teacher and school leader.

  1. WRITING BEGETS READING

It may seem counter intuitive, but to engage in writing, I need to engage in reading. Each time I write or revise a paper, chapter, or a blog post, I return to research literature in order to check in with the current state of play in education research. So academic writing incites academic reading and engagement with research. It keeps my thinking current and keeps me on top of education debates, knowledge, and research findings.

  1. PEER REVIEW BUILDS MY CAPACITY TO RECEIVE FEEDBACK

The peer review process is usually double blind, which means that the reviewers don’t know who the author is, and the author doesn’t know who the reviewers are. This means that peer review feedback on academic writing is very honest. There is no sugar coating or euphemising of feedback. Reviewers tell you what they think: the good, the bad, and the brutal. They pull no punches.

Receiving peer review feedback has helped me to be a better receiver of feedback in my working life. It means that I have a process for considering critique. In the school environment this might be honest comments submitted to anonymous staff or student surveys, or verbal push back from staff about a change or a professional expectation.

I sit with difficult feedback for a while. I consider it and turn it over, step away from it, and return to it seeking to understand the perspective of the reviewer. I ask myself questions like: What didn’t they understand and why? What could be made clearer or more meaningful? What assumptions might I have made in my writing or decision making that need adjustment in order for the work or intervention to be improved?

Engaging in double blind peer review has meant that I actively seek out critical, candid feedback, and that I can sit with, consider, seek to understand, and then thoughtfully act upon that feedback.

  1. CONTRIBUTING A PRACTISING EDUCATOR VOICE TO EDUCATION NARRATIVES

There is a necessity for, and a credibility that comes from, teachers and school leaders having a voice in education narratives. We are the ones each day in classrooms, with students, communicating with parents, considering the hard and soft data of our practice and making hundreds of decisions per day. Writing about our work, our experiences, our thinking, our expertise, and our wisdom and problems of practice, promotes conversations between educators across contexts and contributes practitioner voices to education narratives, so often dominated by those not actually in the business of teaching.

The upcoming book I’ve co-edited, Flip the System Australia: What Matters in Education, is all about the importance of listening to, and inviting to decision making and policymaking tables, teachers and school leaders. It argues that education systems should not be top-down and driven by political election cycles and vote-grabbing, but by deep engagement with the teaching profession and those who actually work, every day, in schools.

I hope that my writing encourages others working in schools to speak out, and to write about their thinking, experiences, and expertise.

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The oasis of writing

Sometimes we need an immersion in a cooling, calming place of our choosing. That might involve turning off our devices, turning away from social media, turning towards what nourishes us. It might be sitting in silence, or playing music loud. It might be the catharsis of working with our hands, or the release of letting them rest. It might be solitude or connection, work or play, stillness or movement, mindful or mindless.

School is currently out in Western Australia, and while I am working, I have been taking time out across the break to bathe in oases of sorts. I’ve been on a brief holiday with my family, pottered around the house, seen friends and indulged in another haven of mine: academic writing.

Those of you who write for a living or are in the throes of a PhD (Oh, the unicorn-dancing-in-a-champagne-waterfall highs! Oh, the despairing bottom-of-the-dark-pit lows!) might roll your eyes or baulk at writing as an oasis. But after a term of working full-time in an exciting but challenging newly-formed role in a school, selling a house, buying a house, moving house, parenting my two lovely children, and trying to maintain relationships with family and friends, I was ready for a break from the relentlessness. From feeling like the mouse on the wheel, full of urgency and repetitive motion. Not only that, but both social media and real life have had their share of challenges lately. Academic writing has been a welcome and nurturing reprieve; simultaneously mental work and a mental break. Academic writing continues to be like my PhD, which I sometimes managed to think of as a holiday from all-the-other-things, or intellectual me-time, although without the weighty pressure or looming examination. Papers and chapters are more bite-size and more varied, and pleasingly always at different stages; just as one becomes difficult, another is coming together or being accepted.

Of course academic writing is not easy or necessarily enjoyable. With it comes challenge, struggle, sometimes brutal feedback. It helps that the acwri I’m doing at the moment is writing I want to do. I’m engaged, interested, motivated, intrigued. I’m learning, growing, pushing at the boundaries of what I know and can do. Academic writing allows me to extend myself in different ways to my school role.

Some of this writing is solo, but I’m also writing papers and chapters collaboratively, something still pretty new to me. Perhaps the collaboration is the coolest part because working with others takes me out of my usual groove, my usual ways of thinking and writing. It gets me engaging with others’ words and these spur my words on. Our words are like gifts from a science fiction world; they shapeshift and take on different lives as they are passed back and forth between authors.

This kind of writing and collaboration is somewhere for a writer to luxuriate. Nestle in. Be cocooned by the writing while at the same time deliciously confronted by it. I brace for feedback but at the same time allow myself to be vulnerable and to be shaped. To read unfamiliar theory, try alternate approaches, or to tinker with new ways of theorising, researching and writing. To have one or more other writers to generate and energise.

It’s cool. It’s fun. It’s a welcome distraction from the daily rush of work during term time and the barrage of angry educators slinging accusations at one another on Twitter (thank goodness for my arguing on EduTwitter bingo card!). This holiday break I’ve worked on a solo-authored journal paper and a collaborative chapter so far. I’ve got one more collaborative chapter to look at over the next few days. I’m looking forward to it. Like a cup of tea at the end of the day after the kids have gone to bed, for my pracademic self, straddling as I do the worlds of school and academia, academic writing can be a moment of ‘aaaaaahhhh’, of indulgence, of me-time.