Writing Lessons Learned From Teaching

I used to be an English teacher. In my head sometimes I still am. In the past I have had to be rugby-tackled to stop me from correcting restaurants’ menu boards.

I also avoid fairgrounds and garages as they tend to bring out my red pen stabby side. I have become more relaxed about this (ish).Once an English teacher, always an… annoying pedant.

Contrary to my friends’ beliefs, I tend not to judge their messages and texts. I like them and don’t want a war over grammar.I have learned to do this because otherwise no one will ever communicate with me.

On the flip side, there are people poised for me to slip up. They stage carnivals every time I commit a typo crime. I’d give them the teacher death stare if they were physically present, instead I send them a metaphorical ‘F**k you’. We all have an off day for goodness’ sake.

Upon reflection, I may have learned far more from my pupils than they did from me. Those little buggers, and my teaching experiences, produced some flipping gems…

Never give up

Teaching old lady I have taught 11-18 year-olds of varying abilities. I have marvelled at the gifted kids who have challenged themselves beyond anything I provided. The lower ability pupils taught me a great deal about perseverance too.

Take the case of Rob, a teenager with ADHD. He could barely muster a sentence but he was a genius with cars. We both learned from the off that trying to get Rob to dissect a poem was going to be carnage.

Many new teachers have romantic notions of emulating LouAnne Johnson in Dangerous Minds or John Keating in Dead Poets Society. Then they realise that if they can actually get the kids through the door, they’re winning, let alone have them rapping poetry or standing on desks proclaiming us the awesome captain of the English ship.

Back to Rob… On a less hyperactive day, i.e. he wasn’t dangling a fellow pupil out the window, I sat down with him to discuss a particular poem. Today was a spaced out day, instigated by all the medication in the world, to cull his murderous tendencies. Rob’s space cadet days were hard work.I hated seeing him so vacant. Give me a day when Rob was jabbing the kid in front with his pen; at least he showed signs of life.

On this doped up day, I decided to tap in to his interests. You may deem it dumbing down, Rob and I viewed it as survival. He drew the truck and the car from the poem in incredible detail (remember how we loves motors?). I chanced my arm. I got him to label it with relevant quotes from the poem

Rob’s picture became a GCSE revision study aid for the whole of Year 11. Poetry is highly visual right?

Rob’s confidence grew and he progressed to writing a few lines of commentary. He sat the English exam and got an ‘E’ grade. To you that may not be much.To Rob that was up there with winning the World Cup. Rob had been told for years that he would never be capable of sitting the exam.

On days when my crushing self-doubt kicks in and I tell myself my writing will never amount to much, I am going to remember Rob. The good bits that is, because let’s be honest, that kid was a little sod.

No offence intended towards those with ADHD. My finest friends have it. They would relate…


When things go wrong we can throw our hands up in despair, or modify and move on. I confess that I am often a, ‘That’s it, the world has ended’ kind of woman when I’m hit by a curve ball. I’m working on it, never more so than in the lesson that still causes my bowel region to turn to liquid whenever I think of it.

Picture if you will, my first training post. My foolish mentor had such misplaced confidence in my abilities that she allowed me to teach a lesson after one week.

I was a meticulous planner. I was also a numpty. Note to newbie teachers: there is no place for perfectionism in the classroom. There will always be an unplanned moment to deal with.

Unfortunately I did not know this in the early stages. I stood in front of this class, armed with my carefully timed 45 minute lesson plan. I started. The class were unfortunately (for me) a bunch of bloody boffins. I had not allowed for geniuses. The lesson was hoovered up by knowledge-hungry vampires within ten (count ’em) flaming minutes.

I had 35 minutes to fill with no back up plan. My mind went blank beyond questioning if bringing a change of underwear would have been a wise move. They stared at me, licking their lips, ready to consume the inept trainee whole.

After a desert full of tumbleweeds scaled the classroom floor, my mentor eventually sensed my panic. Thankfully she took over and made it look like we were intentionally team teaching. She modified with style. That day I learned how to be flexible and to develop plans starting with other letters in the alphabet than just ‘A’. I also learned that sometimes I am wrong, but don’t tell the husband.

Learn the art of the blag

73ab1af6b59a2daf98ea9b3e8027c19dMany a time have I heard excuses for not handing in work. Some have been run of the mill and others so inventive I nearly gave the kid a merit sticker for ingenuity, rather than a detention. Blagging kids have also taught me that if you tell a lie, you better be able to maintain it.

This leads us to Bess, a fragile flower who always bawled when homework needed to be produced, adding lengthy narratives of how she could not work in her chaotic home environment. She may now be a writer; she has the skills.

I’d just started in my first official teaching post and I wanted to be earth mother. After the Bess experience, I learned to become a hard arsed bitch with occasional soft edges. Blame her. She created a monster.

One day, straight after a lesson, Bess took her eye off the ball. She stood outside my classroom, boasting to her mates that she had been getting away with turning on the tears for weeks. She laughed at what a pushover I was in believing her lies, and that they should give it a go too.

Oh how I enjoyed slowly sticking my head through the door way and telling Bess how delighted I was to hear that her home life had radically altered, and how we must discuss this miracle with her parents. Soon.

Oh how I relished the looks her parents gave her of, ‘You are in serious shit when you get home’ as I regaled them with tales of how Bess was traumatised by their impending divorce (happily married), their three cats that had died in succession (never had a pet), and Bess’s brother who hit her regularly (no siblings). That girl was a blues song waiting to happen.

I’m all for a good blag as long as it’s harmless, consistent and you do it with class. I feel there may be a few cheeky blags to come in my writery future. What I have learned about the art of the blag is, don’t be a Bess, be a Jack. At least he would smile when he told me he hadn’t done his homework because they had run out of toilet roll in his house and his dad mistook Jack’s essay for the Daily Mail. To be fair, both are equally worthy of wiping your backside on.

Have a sense of humour

2A2EC9D600000578-3147816-image-a-18_1435874050128I never would have survived teaching if I hadn’t laughed throughout much of it. Kids provide the best comedy material.

As I begin sharing my work with beta readers I understand that I am going to have to keep working on my sense of humour. I know I haven’t got a thick enough skin yet. I’m learning to laugh at times when it does not go to plan.

I laugh at the the time when my class kept staring under my table, sniggering. I made the mistake of asking a cocky (unfortunate term as you will find out) kid, what the issue was. Never in my whole teaching career did I expect to hear, “There’s a dick underneath you, Miss”.

I was ready to put that kid in detention for the rest of his natural life until I saw that there was a penis at my feet. Turns out that sex education had taken place in my classroom the previous period, and a life-like penis (I am of course guessing here *cough*) had gone astray.

I picked it up, placed it in my drawer, and turned to the board, chewing my fist so as not to betray my hysterics. Remember how I had learned to modify? I thought I’d styled that one out. Turns out I had nothing like the balls (pardon the punning) of the sex ed. teacher who came to retrieve his missing appendage.

Apparently afterwards he’d walked down the corridor, smack bang into the Head, who remarked, “You appear to have a penis sticking out of your top pocket, Mr Smith”. Mr S. looked down and replied with mock horror, “Where did that come from?”, pulled it out (the fake one that is), rubbed the fluff off, and carried on walking. Now that is how humour is done.

Question, but don’t be annoying or weird about it

d98739971b56c977ae8b96084633ceabI know teachers who love a class full of kids dying to answer the question. I found it bloody annoying. In a sea of waving arms, with some kids practically peeing themselves to get noticed, the little sods texting or drifting off could hide. I adopted a ‘no hands up policy’. I was that teacher you hated, who picked kids out to answer.

In terms of asking questions, give me the mute kids every time. I’m all for being clever and getting recognised for it, but gifted and talented kids kind of freaked me out. I have since learned that G&T isn’t an abbreviation, it’s what you need after teaching them.

Those kids question everything. Even the stuff that has nothing to do with the subject. I initially thought it was a sign of an inquiring mind. I soon came to realise that they were wily little blighters who knew that a lesson of answering questions meant no actual teaching.

Give me a bottom set any day. These pupils may not ask or even answer many questions, but when they do you’re guaranteed a laugh. After all, who could resist a ‘Miss, why did Shakespeare not write proper? Was he in bottom set too?’

The lesson learned here is that questions need qualifying as useful or pretentious. As a writer, I have many of them. I occasionally ask them of other writers but I’m aware they have work to be getting on with too. Google and books are beautiful things. Writers also need to not be that ‘goody goody’ either who thinks they know everything. We all have a lot to learn. Ask the questions no one else is asking, be more bottom set.

Go your own way – not everyone else knows better

Funny-ecardsI am astounded by how many of us used to think that everything a teacher says is the absolute truth. I know we didn’t all think like this, I taught reprobates like you, trust me. You are the reason for therapy.

However, a large amount of kids consider their teachers as a beacon of authority and knowledge. This used to equally amuse and scare me. I’d go home, drink beer, get up to shenanigans, and laugh at how I was apparently a ‘role model’.

I know there is a bandwagon that states that education stifles creativity. Yes, in some ways it does; of the teacher and the pupils. But don’t write it off completely. There are teachers who are doing their best to harness imagination and individuality against the tide of tests.

I was never afraid to tell kids that sometimes they were right and I was wrong. Usually when I’d bollocked them for something they hadn’t done. You won’t believe how many villains there are in the classroom who will allow their mate to take the blame.

In writery world I readily accept useful advice and guidance. I take what works for me and I leave the rest behind. This is not because I think I’m an accomplished writer, far from it. It’s just that writing is such a diverse and complex business. There is no one way to do it and do it well.

I choose to do it my way but be open to modification and look to teachers who can guide me. I’m not arrogant, but I am an individual who doesn’t want to fit a mould. I want to be a Jack (yes him again, always flipping him) who brings in Fifty Shades of Grey for reading time and nearly causes the timid teaching assistant to have a nervous breakdown when he reads it aloud to her.

I questioned his choice of reading material. He replied that at least he’d found something he wanted to read. That was difficult to argue against, but I did express my concern that he was breaking his reading cherry on that. But who I am to inflict my reading snobbery upon him? The boy was finally reading. He was doing it his way. Possibly to pick up tips but who am I to judge, he read a book!

So go your own way and get the ear worms Fleetwood Mac style, I can hear you humming…

About Lisa Sell

Lisa Sell is a fiction writer. When she's not wrestling with words she can be found showing the love for chocolate, cheese, coffee, books, the cats, and the husband. Perhaps not in that order.

21 comments on “Writing Lessons Learned From Teaching

  1. Thank you. Absolutely brilliant. You’ve had me in fits of laughter throughout. I love the last meme – particularly apt as my boy exploded yesterday and left me with a lap full of poo.

    1. Glad to be of service! I think you most definitely needed a laugh after ‘crap-gate’! Thanks so much for reading and commenting. The love is always appreciated!

  2. Hilarious as always!!!! I love the proper use of nouns, verbs & maybe a adjective or two! I hate when people butcher it!!!! I want that hoodie in t-shirt form!!!!!! 😂😂😂

      1. Lisa, if I lose them… They were meant to never be found in for first place! 😂😂😂 PLEASE let me know about the t-shirt! I will wear with pride and #LISASELL!😂😂

  3. Funny and entertaining. As (a former) EFL teacher, I can relate to most of your anecdotes. Unfortunately, teaching teens has taken a toll and I’m currently searching for a less nerve-wracking profession. Always loved teaching, though, especially adults.

  4. This had me roaring laughing the whole read – thank you so much for lightening up my Monday!

  5. Excellent post and great lessons! Everybody in the world has something different to offer and you certainly hit a huge cross section of personalities teaching school age kids. Loved the stories.

  6. Pleased you enjoyed it Alex. Like many teachers, I have so many stories, but I saved my readers from the more unsavoury ones! Thanks for reading and commenting. It’s always appreciated.

  7. Fellow ex-English teacher here. I also adopted the ‘no hands up’ policy much to the annoyance of my super-smarty students who loved to show off. Once you know your students you can tailor questions for them and everyone gets to ‘show off’. Loved your comment on perfectionism. I suffered a bit from that at the start too, but I eventually learnt perfectionism leads to a sense of ‘failure’. Thanks for the trip down memory lane, though I’m glad I’m currently out of the classroom. Teaching is stressful!

  8. I’m happy to be out of the teaching game as well! It’s not just a job, it’s a life.

    In regard to hands up, I got so fed up of not just the arm waving like they were at an Adele concert but the squeaks and ‘Me, me, me’ that accompanied it! These are teenagers as well!

    Good to know a fellow survivor of English teaching! Thanks for reading and commenting.

  9. Great post! Had me giggling 🙂

    I can normally turn a blind eye to grammar mistakes but a little something died inside me when a local cafe had a board up advertising ‘coffie’

    1. Oh my gosh… I think my husband would have had to get me out of there. It would have hurt my eyes!
      Glad you enjoyed the post. Always happy to hear it raised a few laughs. 🙂

  10. Great post! I’ve heard plenty of stories of students from my mom (also a teacher, though for math. high school math.) Doubt I’ll ever go into it myself, but I certainly laughed throughout your post! I love that hoodie–I know people who would wear it proudly.

    1. Thanks Heather. Teachers should write books; there are so many stories!

      That hoodie is fab. I need to wear it more often!

      Thanks again for reading and commenting. Always good to hear from you!

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