The Importance of Being a Teacher-Writer

by Stacey Shubitz

Last winter, I enrolled my daughter in aerial arts classes. I checked the instructor’s qualifications because the idea of her hanging upside down from a piece of silk fabric frightened me. The instructor had been performing and teaching aerial arts for a decade. That said, I still observed the instructor carefully during my daughter’s trial class. The instructor demonstrated before the kids to tried anything. I noticed he talked each student through the moves as she spotted them on the silks, repositioning hands, supporting bodies, and using specific praise at the end of each turn on the silk. She knew what to say and how to instruct because she was a practitioner. Just as I expect my daughter to have a proficient aerial artist teaching her, I want all children to learn how to write from teachers who are writing practitioners.
Lucy Calkins (2013, 23) published several bottom line conditions for effective writing instruction:

  • Writing needs to be taught like any other basic skill, with explicit instruction and   ample opportunity for practice.
  • Children deserve to write for real purposes, to write the kinds of texts that they see in the world and to write for an audience of readers.
  • Writers write to put meaning onto the page. Children invest themselves in their writing when they choose topics that are important to them.
  • Children deserve to be explicitly taught how to write.
  • Children deserve the opportunity and instruction to cycle through the writing process.
  • To write well, children need opportunities to read and to hear texts read, and to read as writers.
  • Children need clear goals and frequent feedback.

I love these statements. I believe there is one other essential necessary for children to receive effective writing instruction:

Every student, in every writing classroom, deserves to be taught by a teacher who writes.

When a teacher writes, there are benefits for both the teacher and for the students.
Teachers know first-hand the obstacles their students will face and what to do about it.
Over the years, I’ve learned several key things that have helped me work with children by being a writer myself:

  • I have trouble getting started. Sometimes I struggle to find a topic. Other times I find it hard to focus myself once I’ve selected a topic.
  • I know revision is the most painstaking part of writing since I have to be merciless and “kill my darlings.”
  • I know what to do when I’m stuck or if something isn’t working. I have writer-friends I reach out to in order to help me figure out my next steps as a writer.
  • I know it’s hard to share a piece of writing with an audience since you never know how your writing will be perceived.

We can’t just talk the talk, we must walk the walk. Vicki Spandel (2005, 42-43) states: “Almost nothing does more to sustain a culture of writing than a teacher who writes with students, thereby underscoring the importance of writing, and also allowing students to see the process – one writer’s version of it – as it unfolds.” When we’re the lead writer in the classroom, we can predict the hard spots where students may struggle when we plan minilessons and respond more thoughtfully in conferences. Sharing our writing and our process with students allows us to be more effective and credible practitioners.

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“Writing is scary and overwhelming for students who have never had a positive writing experience. They view the teacher as judge and jury, and their classmates as competition. An African proverb says, ‘It takes a village to raise a child.’ In this age of assessment, have we forgotten that it also takes a community to develop a writer?” (Meigs-Kahlenberg, 2017) One crucial thing we must remember is that we are the leaders of our classroom writing community.  It doesn’t matter if we teach ten students or thirty-two students: either we are the living, breathing author in the room or we are assigner and grader of the work. It’s our job to model our own writing and to talk about our writing process, successes, and struggles if we want to nurture students and help them become passionate writers.

Teachers can use their writing as mentor texts and share their process.
Dorfman and Cappelli assert, “To treat our students like genuine authors, respect their abilities, and understand their struggles, we need to write so that we can call ourselves ‘author.’ Because we are part of the writing community, our writing efforts should be included in hallway and bulletin board publications and as part of classroom writing anthologies. Our writer’s notebook should always be available to record our thoughts and observations. Writing for our students and for ourselves continually immerses us in the fundamentals of the writing craft and process” (2017, 13-14). In order to look genuine, we have to write a lot. We have to write snippets of our daily lives – things that happen to us, things we wonder about, things we are perplexed by — in a writer’s notebook. Also, we write in service of the units of study we are teaching so we can share teacher-written mentor texts with students. I realize this is a tall order for teachers, especially elementary school teachers, who are often not departmentalized and are therefore teaching multiple subjects daily.

Teachers devote time to becoming writers.
This year, I’m fortunate to be working in two school districts that have prioritized daily writing instruction. They are investing professional development time for their teachers to hone their own skills as writers. In one district, I’ve worked with teachers on writing in service of the units of study they’re teaching so teachers have time to create teacher-written mentor texts. In the other district, I’m leading teacher-as- writer sessions across the school year, in addition to supporting teachers with minilessons, conferring, and small group instruction. I’ve led some open-ended sessions, inspired by the work of Shawna Coppola (2017, 96-97), where I’ve read a text that provokes a feeling, thought, or memory and have encouraged teachers to write in whatever genre they’d like. I’m also using quick write prompts from Donald H. Graves and Penny Kittle’s My Quick Writes for Inside Writing (2007) so teachers have some more structured experiences.  In both districts, teachers are engaging in process and content shares. In addition, we take time to reflect on their experience as writers so they can increase their effectiveness in the classroom.

You can become a teacher-writer even if you work in a district that doesn’t invest
time in developing teachers-as- writers.

I realize many districts are unwilling to spend PD time and dollars on developing their teachers as writers. Therefore, there are a few steps any teacher can take to cultivate a writing life:

Step 1: Make time to write every day, even if it’s just for ten minutes. Several
years ago I compiled a list of ten tips to creating a consistent and meaningful
writing life. This list can help you get started so that writing every day becomes a habit just like flossing your teeth.
Step 2: Buy a notebook or create a blog. It doesn’t matter if you write in longhand
or electronically. What matters is that you write daily.
Step 3: Share your writing with your students.

I realize I’m over-simplifying the process. Some people might write in service of their
minilessons while others might aspire to get published. Your end goal doesn’t matter.
What matters is that you’re writing every day so you can sit beside your students and talk to them, writer-to- writer, sharing your expertise.

As the lead writer in our writing classrooms, we owe it to our students to position ourselves as fellow writers. Doing so boosts our credibility, as well as our ability to provide high-quality writing instruction.

Committing yourself to being a teacher-writer can feel scary. Therefore, it helps to have a
tribe when you’re getting started and to keep you going. You can look for your tribe within or outside the walls of your school.

  • Look for one or more like-minded colleagues and form a writing group that meets at least once a week. Develop ground rules and expectations for your group soeveryone’s needs are met and your time together is well-spent. (To help you get started, check out Seven Habits of an Effective Critique Group).
  • Check out the weekly or month-long Slice of Life Story Challenge  my colleagues and I host on Two Writing Teachers. Every Tuesday year-round and every day during the month of March, teacher-writers from six continents gather to share stories from our lives with each other. It’s a nurturing community of teachers who have committed themselves to the belief that they can be better teachers of writing by writing regularly.

My daughter has begun to use the trapeze, in addition to the fabric silks, in her aerial arts class. As a parent, I’m still concerned about safety, but I know she’s being shown what to do and is being supported on the trapeze by a competent and experienced practitioner.  Expertise is paramount, regardless of the discipline, when you’re teaching children.

Bio: Stacey Shubitz is an independent literacy consultant, an adjunct professor, and a former elementary school teacher. She’s the author Craft Moves: Lesson Sets for Teaching Writing with Mentor Texts and the co-author of Day by Day: Refining Writing Workshop Through 180 Days of Reflective Practice. She is presently working on a book with Lynne Dorfman, which has the working title of WELCOME TO WRITING WORKSHOP (anticipated publication date: Winter 2018/19). She blogs at Two Writing Teachers and can be found on Twitter @sshubitz.

Stacey will be presenting twice at CCIRA. She will lead a Teacher As Writer Session on
Wednesday evening, February 7th and will present about mentor texts on Thursday morning, February 8th, 2018.

Calkins, Lucy. 2013. A Guide to the Common Core Writing Workshop, Intermediate Grades. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Coppola, Shawna. 2017. Renew: Become a Better – and More Authentic – Writing Teacher. Portland, ME: Stenhouse.

Dorfman, Lynne R. and Rose Cappelli. 2012. Mentor Texts: Teaching Writing Through
Children’s Literature, K-6, 2 nd Edition. Portland, ME: Stenhouse.

Meigs-Kahlenberg, Vicki. 2017. “Why I Write with My Students.” October 17. write-with- my-students/.

Shubitz, Stacey. 2012. “Creating a Consistent & Meaningful Writing Life.” September 15.

Spandel, Vicki. 2005. The 9 Rights of Every Writer. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Author: CCIRAblog

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5 thoughts on “The Importance of Being a Teacher-Writer”

  1. Definitely. We keep telling our students the importance of reading and writing habits. The best way to show them is to be a teacher-writer yourself.


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