A Good Teacher is Hard to Find


Brevity recently posted about a writing teacher with a problem: one of her memoir students was afraid that if she told her story people would think she was a jerk. This particular student’s story involved higher stakes than most of us will ever face (her remorse over the death of an innocent man), but if you’ve ever tried to write memoir, you know this fear. No matter your circumstances, memoir writing always includes the challenge of putting yourself out there in a story.

What struck me was the homerun advice this teacher gave her student:

The following week, I struggled to find something to tell her. Then I found a quote that for me defined the real purpose of the personal memoir. It was from Margery Williams’ The Velveteen Rabbit:

“What is REAL?” asked the Rabbit one day…. “Does it happen all at once or bit by bit?”

“It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You come. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t often happen to people who break easily, or have sharp edges or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are REAL, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are REAL, you can’t be ugly, except to the people who don’t understand.”

I told my student that she had to be real. If she revealed her true self and experience to the world, then she could only be a jerk to those unwilling to understand.

— Debbie Hagan

Where do you find teachers like this?

I ask this literally. I had excellent teachers when I was an undergraduate, but choosing them was completely dumb luck. I’ve tried taking classes since, and while I haven’t had any terrible teachers, I haven’t been that impressed either.

I have tried different strategies to find a good teacher, all to no avail. One of my recent teachers, who published a wonderful memoir and was teaching at one of this area’s more prestigious (and expensive) schools couldn’t articulate how to use present tense verbs to make temporal transitions. Teaching is a completely different skill set from writing. I have no doubt that this teacher knew how to make these transitions in her own writing, but she couldn’t explain it to save her life.

To be fair, I’m not sure I could clearly explain the mechanics of grammar. And I’m not even sure that’s what I want in a creative writing teacher. I am more interested in reading my work and listening to other’s work. I like the feeling I get collaborating with other writers. So what do I want from a teacher? I want encouragement. Honesty and good judgment. If I am frightened, I want my teacher to struggle the following week to find something to say.

I am not sure it’s possible for someone to teach you to be a financially successful writer, but it shouldn’t be so hard to find a good teacher.

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4 thoughts on “A Good Teacher is Hard to Find

  1. sarah morgan says:

    Nice post, Tim. I read that Brevity post as well. I once asked Barbara Abercrombie (writing teacher at UCLA and web site host of writingtime.com) the same question. She sent me to Mark Doty’s book, Heaven’s Coast, which I just reviewed for Internet Review of Books. He is a master of twining present and past tense in memoir. That was how I came to read the book in the first place, but once there I discovered a fabulous read. I recommend it. Which brings me to the point. I think our teachers are other writers. We have to read with learning the “craft” (forgive me Gary Presley) from other writers. Probably most writers are unaware of the “how” of how they do it. They just do it.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Sounds like you answered your own question . . . which is also something a good teacher leads a student to do.

  3. Tim Elhajj says:

    I agree that good teachers lead students to discovering their own answers. I was trying to get at something like this when I said it’s nigh impossible to teach someone to be a financially successful writer. If students end up with a little more self-confidence, the ability to analyze and enjoy the work they’re able to create, then this is the result of a good teacher, a good classroom experience.

    But I’m not sure how any of this relates to my question about being able to select a good teacher. It seems like it’s all a big crap shoot, with no good way of telling what you’ll be getting when you sign up for a course. My time and cash are so limited these days (I’m sure most of us can relate), I really don’t want to waste time in a class that’s not going to meet my needs. Besides the obvious metrics like class size and schedule, the ability of the teacher is the single most important factor in having a good classroom experience. So how do you find a good one?

  4. Ask around–that’s the only way. And then you’ll still be disappointed sometimes. My best teachers have been the critters in the Internet Writing Workshop. Of course they vary, but some are very good indeed.

    Now, I’m a teacher myself, mostly teaching memoir, with a few students interested in fiction. My students say I’m good on the evaluations I get. I try to be. But I really have no clue about why I’m good, if I really am. Maybe all the rest of the teachers they have had have been terrible. 🙂 The only things I claim to know are grammar and punctuation, but those aren’t what make me good, if I am. I think I know good writing when I see it. I think a teacher should be encouraging, and I am that. Otherwise, I’m just me.


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