Guest Post by Alexa Garvoille, Poetry Editor, English Journal
Your Story Matters: A Call to Write, from One Teacher to Another
English Journal Call for Poetry on Teaching
As a poet-teacher, I’m always on the lookout for resource for secondary creative writing teachers, and I’d long wanted to attend the Conference on Poetry and Teaching. Even though we were on Zoom instead of a New Hampshire mountain, this summer I bonded with like-minded teachers from across the country who read and write poetry. This post is a call to these Frost Place friends and teachers everywhere to unleash your poems to the world.
And yes, this confirms your adolescent suspicions: that slightly zany English teacher you had, your favorite one, who you cried to or came out to or talked to about the tender parts of your heart alone in their classroom as you ate overcooked green beans out of a styrofoam lunch tray? Yes, that one. Well, it turns out they have been writing poetry, just as you suspected. (Tag yourself: I’m that teacher, too.)
But with teachers who write poetry there can be a feeling of Oh, I’m just a teacher writing a model for my students. I’m just doing what Penny Kittle wants me to do and Writ[ing] Beside Them. But this is about them, not me. (It always is, isn’t it?) Whatever I write is just an exercise, and at the end of the semester, this notebook will be filed away along with my school pictures and thank you notes. That’s how I felt, at least.
Though I’m now a published poet about to finish an MFA, I didn’t start writing poetry until I started teaching poetry to my high schoolers. My first poems were a sonnet cycle because — guess what? — I had assigned a sonnet cycle to my Honors freshmen. And like any third-year teacher full of boundless energy, I needed to do the assignment before I handed it out. But in my mission to prepare a meaningful experience for my students, I had made one for myself: I soon learned I could go back to my little green notebook and its scanned lines to meditate through words. I could piece together a puzzle of iambs and rhyme to calm me. I’m grateful to my students: they gave me an opportunity to take my own story as seriously as I took theirs. But even when I went to get an MFA, I told people it was so I could “become a better teacher.” Which is true, but what I have to say matters, too. I’m not just completing exercises alongside my students.
As a poetry editor for NCTE’s high school publication English Journal, I read and publish teachers’ poems with my coeditor Peter (my Co-Poe!). Because pieces we write are more than exercises. I’ve read poems about microaggressions from white faculty “welcoming” colleagues of color, stories of teachers visiting students in the hospital, shooter drills, first aid training, more shooter drills, accusations of inappropriate relations with students, and poems that simply attest to the joys of talking about books with young people. These are the stories of our lives. These stories matter.
In poet Mark Nowak’s Worker Writers School, cab drivers, nannies, and other laborers in New York City meet together to write poetry about their experiences; they write in community toward liberation–as we all must do. By writing about our experiences as teachers and sharing this work with others, we can remind ourselves, the onlookers, and the know-it-alls who had teachers so they think they can tell us about our jobs–that our experiences are complex. We have value as people and as thinkers; we are not, in fact, the intellectual equivalent of whatever age we teach. (I’m so sorry to all the seventh-grade teachers who have lived with this accusation your whole career.)
My very first poetry publication was printed in English Journal. “Teacher Appreciation Week,” written about my experience of burnout, helped me articulate for myself the exhaustion of the job and let me take back the narrative.
In the classroom, we so often have to tiptoe around our beliefs and feelings to gain everyone’s trust, to make sure every student knows we’re fighting for them. In some districts we might have freedom of speech protections in the classroom so they can’t fire us for wearing Red for Ed. But we don’t need to hide our voices outside the classroom. And moreover, we need to hear the solace in others’ experiences, teaching-related or not, because teaching is a calling, a spiritual mission, not unlike poetry, and what we do deserves to be the subject of art.
One of my favorite colleagues whom I taught next-door to for years has a notebook — I saw it once — where she writes poetry that “no one will ever see.” I want that and more, for every teacher. I have learned through poetry that my life, like the lives of the teenagers I serve, is worthy of playful and thoughtful reflection. And I’ve learned, too, that others may want to read what I have written.
A poem is gift, and teachers are givers. This is one we can give to others and ourselves.
So teachers, this is a call to you: give yourself the joy of writing if you haven’t yet. Gift yourself with the possibility of sharing your work, whether with a writing group of colleagues from your school, friends from the Frost Place, or the teacher-readers of English Journal. The poet-teachers are out there, everywhere, with notebooks full of beautiful and painful lines hidden away in hanging files or tucked beside the bathtub.
If you’ve got some poems, send them to Peter and me at English Journal, if not to publish, at least to read. And if you’re just looking to write more in a group of supportive teacher-poets, check out my friend Sarah Donovan’s monthly writing challenges, complete with prompts and encouragement. And then come hang out with your fellow zany teacher-poets at the Frost Place some summer in the future.
Let it be about you–especially in this moment when communities and policymakers think teachers are as disposable as sub plans. Take back the narrative. Your story matters.
Alexa Garvoille is a National Board Certified Teacher with ten years of classroom experience. She is currently earning an MFA in Poetry at Virginia Tech and serves on the board of the Creative Writing Studies Organization.