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Serving Two Masters: When a Teacher Tries to Become a Writer

I’ve been a teacher for 15 years. It wasn’t my first choice of profession, no, rather, I was somewhat pushed into it by circumstance, that circumstancing being my life in China. In 2003 a foreigner in China had few options. You could study Chinese, you could sing and dance onstage, or you could teach. Since my student days were over and I was not much of a singer, I chose teaching. Initially, like many foreigners, I was an English teacher, although after some years I carved out a niche for myself teaching AP History courses and eventually I transitioned into college application counseling.

Years later, when I returned to the USA, I had acquired my teaching license and set about finding a position teaching in public schools. My reasoning was that my career was built upon education, and people do not just up and switch career paths when they’re nearing 40. Especially not if they are trying to rebuild a life in the home country after nearly two decades abroad.

And so I became a teacher. In China, teaching was not a particularly taxing profession. For one, we were generally limited to 20 or so contact hours per week, with the rest of the time spent planning and grading. For another, teachers were well compensated, and college counselors even moreso. I left China with fifteen years in the educational sector, and that experience had granted me a comfortably lifestyle. I was able to balance teaching with my other hobbies, passions, and pursuits relatively easily. And while I never got serious about writing a novel while I was in China, I dabbled in creative writing all throughout my time there, with shorter pieces and novel fragments. I never felt like teaching impacted my ability to creative, to give my all to my craft.

Teaching in America has been something else entirely. Just at the time I was starting to get serious about finishing my novel and pursuing publication, I started working at a Texas public school district. My workload increased — I was usually teaching, or in contact with students, for at least 35 hours a week. While in China I had mostly worked with elite children who, while they had their issues, came from stable loving upper middle class homes. They were not coming to school hungry, or sore from beatings, nor were they working multiple jobs to provide for younger siblings. I never once, in China, dealt with a teen pregnancy. And while in China, the biggest behavioral issue I dealt with was perhaps an errant cell phone in class, in Texas I dealt with students snorting cocaine of the desks in the library. Teaching in the United States requires an almost unlimited capacity for empathy and creative problem solving, which, unfortunately, precisely what is required of a writer.

Are writing and teaching entirely incompatible? I wouldn’t go that far. I’ve managed to accomplish a lot on my school holidays, and I can be productive on the weekends when I’m not too burned out. Towards the end of a semester, though, writing gets hard. When I’ve already exhausted my emotional capacity during the day, I barely have enough of me left to give my actual children, much less the fictional children that inhabit my pages. Over the recent Thanksgiving holiday, I probably edited over 20,000 words of my first draft, but this work-week, I’ll be lucky if I can edit one fifth of that.

The parts of your brain that come into use when teaching and writing are frankly, too similar. While there are plenty of career teachers who have gone on to become successful writers, I think that most of us, at some point, are faced with a difficult choice: keep teaching, and allow our manuscripts to stagnate, taking years to finish what could be accomplished in months, or give up teaching, give up a lifelong career doing something important and meaningful, a career that is a source of stable income and personal satisfaction, in order to pursue writing more seriously.

Perhaps this is my end of semester burnout speaking, but recently I feel the pull towards my words more strongly than I feel the pull towards the classroom. Children deserve teachers whose heart is always there in that classroom, not teachers who are trying desperately to hold a tiny bit back for themselves, for their own creations. I feel immense guilt at my inability to be the kind of teacher that gives and gives and gives, but the truth is, I’ve given for a long time now. My words, perhaps, can be a gift as well, a different kind of giving.

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