Tom Rademacher, author of It Won’t Be Easy: An Exceedingly Honest (and slightly unprofessional) Book About Teaching, shares why teachers should tell their story. (And how they can do it without losing their job.)
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Below is an enhanced transcript, modified for your reading pleasure. For guests and hyperlinks to resources, scroll down.
179 Why Teachers Should Talk About Teaching
Tom Rademacher @MrTomRad
Vicki: So I’m here at the National State Teachers of the Year conference (NNSTOY). Do check out their website.
I’m with one of our teachers, Tom Rademacher, from Minnesota. He is the author of It Won't Be Easy.
Why teachers need to talk about what they do teaching
Now, Tom, you kind of think that a lot of us teachers should start telling our story. Why?
Tom: I don’t think there’s enough people doing it. I think, ultimately, just as busy as I am as writer, and how many people are asking me, and I’m not that interesting. (laughs)
The stories that happen in individual classrooms start to feel normal and everyday. But really every classroom is full of really amazing and really ridiculous things that happen.
To tell those stories, I think that those are the things that are missing from the national conversations about education. What does an actual classroom look like during the day?
Teachers have this tremendous power to share those stories, and I don’t think that we’re a profession that likes to talk about itself that much. I think it’s a really important and powerful thing that we can do, to have more of use writing about what we see everyday.
What do you say to teachers who say “I’m not that special”
Vicki: I totally agree with you, but I will say that it’s intimidating.
You feel like, “Well, I’m just a teacher,” of “I’m not that special,” or “I don’t want to draw attention to myself.”
What do you say to that?
Tom: I get that. I think the best teachers are humble, and they teach with humility. And so, as a profession it’s hard for us to reach out of our classrooms and feel like we’re not somehow betraying that quality.
But I think in a lot of ways, it serves us as professionals. I think it serves us as teachers to do that in some way — to enter the broader conversation.
When I started writing about teaching, it was really for me. It was a really powerful thing for my own practice — just to get things out, to reflect on them, to write about some of the harder things that happened. By writing them out, it kind of put order to them in my head.
You know, we don’t PAUSE when we’re teaching. Ever. We don’t have 5 minutes to think and sit and reflect on something, unless we make ourselves take it.
And so it made me hit PAUSE on big events that happened in my classroom, and really reflect on them.
So there’s a service to doing it, to writing beyond, you know, getting attention, or whatever for yourself.
Tom: So, yeah, I understand how people don’t really want to reach out all the way. But it’s a really valuable thing.
Vicki: So, I totally agree with you that educators who care… share. That’s just what we do.
But you know there’s a lot of concern. Some administrators don’t want their teachers writing about their classrooms. Some teachers are afraid. “Well, if I write, I’m going to lose my job.”
Now you and I are both living proof that you can write and keep your job.
But what do you say to those who have that concern?
Tom: I think it’s a really legit concern.
I think, really, unfortunately, you run into egos when you are in school systems.
There are plenty of people in building and district offices or departments of ed — who aren’t interested in a teacher “stepping outside of their lane,”
I guess is how they would look at it, right?
So when you start to be a teacher that gets more attention than your principal, maybe, or has people asking for your input, and not your superintendent, there are people that definitely push back on that.
I think that’s where we want to go as teachers.
I think that “lane” we’re put in — that school is something that happens to us, rather than something that we help design and run — we want to change that.
I think that a way to do that is to elevate as many teacher voices as we can.
And — if you’re smart about, right? I mean, hopefully, you don’t believe bad things about kids. Because if you do, then you shouldn’t be teaching.
Tom: But we all get frustrated, right? We have a frustrating day, and maybe we’re just — honestly, sick of the class we have or sick of whatever. That’s probably not the time to go writing…
Vicki: (laughs and agrees)
Tom: Think about what you’re writing and putting on the internet, knowing that parents might see it. Your bosses might see it. So you want it to reflect your honest experience, but you also want it to… This is not a place to attack kids.
Vicki: Yeah. Well, Abraham Lincoln, when he died, they went in, and they found a whole lot of scathing letters that he never mailed. So I call it, “Lincolning my letters.”
Vicki: I take it, if I write it. The best stuff you write is in the heat of the moment. It just is!
Tom: Absolutely. Absolutely.
Vicki: So I’ll write it. Then I sit on it for six months. So nobody can tell where it came from.
You know, some of the best stuff I’ve ever written — “What do you do when people hate you?” — is the most popular post I’ve ever written.
And that was a “Lincoln Letter.” I waited six months to air that.
And the other thing is that we need to be part of an Eco-System and not an Ego-System.
When you’re part of an Ego-System, that makes it really, really hard.
So, Tom, what is the difference maker for you? Have you had somebody who’s encouraged your writing in your school or your district that has kind of helped you have this voice?
Tom: I have a teaching team that I’ve worked with for a long time. My book is partially dedicated to them. We call ourselves “The Family,” because we saw each other for many years more often than we saw our actual families.
I write for them in the way that I know that in the conversations we’ve had with each other as teachers, they would call me out anytime I was being too fake, anytime I was trying to be political, anytime I wasn’t being honest with myself about what was working or what wasn’t.
I mean, they were the best kind of coworkers to have. Those ones who knew me, who knew when I wasn’t pushing myself and called me on it.
Those three teachers are really who is in my head when I’m writing about teaching. I know they’re going to read it. I know they’re going to call me out if I’m being anything other than completely honest.
Vicki: I think we’ve hit on something because I asked my curriculum director to read everything I write.
Vicki: And we discussed it.
So, you had accountability.
Tom: Yeah. Absolutely.
Vicki: So maybe, do you think accountability is the difference in the safety, and the being honest, and having longevity?
Tom: For me, honesty is the most important thing in teaching writing. I think when accountability is somewhat else but to yourself, that you are truly being honest about what you believe.
You’re not trying to write a “popular” piece. You’re not trying to write a piece to fulfill a political agenda. You’re not trying to write a piece to make your boss or your union or the policy group you work with be happy.
You’re writing because you’re sharing your authentic truth. I think that’s the most important thing we can do with our writing.
If we don’t keep ourselves true to that path, I think that’s where you start to see writing that is disingenuous.
I don’t think teachers as an audience have time to read something that isn’t honest.
Vicki: (laughs) YEAH!
Tom: They will spot it instantly because we know what the real deal is.
And that’s what we’re looking to read.
Vicki: Give a 30-second pep talk to teachers who are wondering if they might have a story to tell.
1) You all do. I mean, I don’t think there’s a day that goes by in school that something happens that people outside of school wouldn’t believe if you told them. (laughs)
So you have a story to tell. You can tell it, if you are honest with yourself.
2) You don’t need to put everything you’ve ever thought about teaching into one piece.
Vicki: (laughs) Oh, that’s true!
Tom: Right? So tell your story. Make your point and be done.
If you think about the way that you write — or read — online, most people skim.
So don’t worry about it.
It doesn’t need to be a long piece.
In fact, shorter pieces often go really well, and work really well.
3) Don’t burden yourself with what the final product will be, or if it’s long enough, or enough things.
Know that there are so many people out there — hungry for stories from teachers.
Tom: There will be an audience for everyone's stories to be out there. There’s room for everybody’s to be out there, writing and sharing.
Vicki: So, educators… If you care, share.
Please. Share your story.
And would you tweet me @coolcatteacher when you share your stories, so we can share it with the broader audience.
His name is Tom Rademacher. His book is It Won't Be Easy.
Take a look at the Shownotes. We’ll give you lots of links.
Thanks again to NNSTOY for letting us record here at their conference!
Transcribed by Kymberli Mulford: KymberliMulford@gmail.com
Bio as submitted
Tom Rademacher (Mr. Rad to his students) is the Minnesota Teacher of 2014. He writes about teaching. His book, IT WON’T BE EASY: AN EXCEEDINGLY HONEST (AND SLIGHTLY UNPROFESSIONAL) LOVE LETTER TO TEACHING, will be available in April of 2017 from University of Minnesota Press.
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