| Don’t Write Alone
Writing Life After I Left Teaching, the Best Writing Lesson Came from My Students
As part of our Education Week series, Purnima Mani reflects on her career as a teacher—and which lessons stayed with her when she quit to write full-time.
It’s 9:49 a.m. on a Friday in December and I’m at my kitchen table, glaring at the cursor on a blank Google doc. The deadline of my latest assignment is looming. But like so many of the students I’ve taught over the years, I’m paralyzed, unable to get a single word on the page. In my head, I start composing an apology email to my editor, inspired by some of the more creative excuses I’ve received from adolescents. “Sorry I don’t have a first draft for you to look at today. I thought I had a great essay idea, but turns out, jkjk. An extension could help, but might also make no difference. I still think you’re cool.”
The space where I typically write bears little likeness to a middle school English classroom. The scent of dry-erase markers is noticeably absent, and I doubt there’s gum beneath these chairs. However, as the day inches toward lunchtime, I feel exactly like a moody thirteen-year-old. I’ve tried all the usual strategies to propel myself toward productivity. Moving chunks of my outline around repeatedly? Done. Pondering a walk but scrounging for snacks instead? Obviously. Clicking “Buy” on a curl-conditioning cream that will make my hair look nothing like the model from the Instagram ad? Ugh, file that last one under evasive maneuvers.
My own authoritative teaching voice, circa early 2019, floats back to me from somewhere in the ether. “If you’re having trouble starting an essay, just get some words down—any words at all; it doesn’t matter if they’re terrible. You can go back and fix the bad parts later.” It’s discomfiting how hollow this advice sounds. At what point does something terrible magically morph into something good? If the first parts are bad parts, why would anyone want to keep going? Turns out, all the talk about “shitty first drafts” felt more relevant when I wasn’t the one doing the shitty drafting.
Scouring my old work files, I find an analytical-essay grading rubric I used for eighth graders. Apparently, on weekly essay assignments, Ms. Mani awarded up to twenty points for accomplishing the following: “an inviting introduction (clear topic, original ideas), enriching evidence and analysis (with appropriate citation), and insightful conclusions.” I snort out loud. When was the last time I produced an essay in under ten days? The urge to find every student I ever taught, look earnestly into their eyes, and apologize is a powerful one.
I spent fifteen years in upper elementary and middle school classrooms, and for most of that time, I taught everything that falls under the indistinct umbrella of “English” classes: reading and listening comprehension, spelling, grammar, composition, analysis of plot/character/literary devices, sentence structure, public speaking . . . the list goes on. I can honestly say I tried my best to meet the goals we set for students. But it’s been two years since I turned in my last set of school-building keys. When reflecting on my time as an educator, it’s hard not to feel serious bouts of guilt and even imposter syndrome. Where would my own work fall on the grading curve of Common Core essay guidelines? Was it disingenuous to expect my students to implement strategies that now don’t work for me?
I got my first teaching job because I took a walk with my grandmother. This may sound ridiculous, but it’s the best way I know to explain my headlong fall into a career I never intended.
I moved from India to the United States right out of college, nursing vague fantasies about becoming a professional writer but with no idea how to begin navigating this dream. One of the few constants I looked forward to were Wednesdays and Fridays with my grandmother, Meenakshi mommamma. We’d make lunch together; then, once the plates were stacked in the dishwasher, we’d lace up our shoes and head out to roam the streets of Sunnyvale. We were walking past a school one afternoon when she announced, in her matter-of-fact way, “You’d make an excellent teacher, you know. Go find out how.”
The joint naivete and hubris of this scenario still stuns me whenever I think about it. But the fact remains that we strolled into a random school office that bright blue day (mommamma in a silk-cotton-blend sari, me in baggy cutoff culottes) to ask, “Can anyone tell me what one does to become a teacher around here?”
Teaching, for me, was all-consuming.
Shockingly, I wasn’t laughed out of the building. It turned out my degree in English qualified me to teach at most private schools in California. Administrators interviewed me with increasing levels of seriousness, and none of them could spot any red flags that would prevent my being unleashed on unsuspecting children. Still, standing at the door of a fifth-grade classroom six months later, greeting my first group of students as leaves curled on the trees outside, I couldn’t quite wrap my head around how I’d gotten there.
The next decade passed in a blur of elementary lesson plans. Teaching, for me, was all-consuming. Any lingering thoughts of pursuing writing scattered like so many dandelion seeds, until I landed in a middle school English classroom. It was an unexpected homecoming. I’d long held my eighth-grade English teacher responsible for igniting my deep love of the language. Plus , I told myself, you’re not doing any writing of your own right now, but helping others do it could be the perfect plan B.
If teaching elementary school had been akin to sampling an expansive buffet, then middle school was a massive steaming serving of my favorite dish. Suddenly, I was back in eighth grade again, rediscovering why I loved English so much. The opportunity to guide thirteen- and fourteen-year-olds felt like a gift, and I also couldn’t stop inserting myself into their journeys. Each time we embarked on new curriculum units, the writing samples I produced for students to use as models became longer. I’d spend hours working on these exemplars, obsessing over turns of phrase and figurative language choices that mattered to no one but me. When outlining craft fundamentals to the class, I’d mentally brainstorm how I would respond to the assignment. During quiet work periods, I’d pause between individual workshop sessions with students to jot down snippets in my notepad, witty opening sentences to essays I had no time to write. The ideas bouncing around in my head hungered for a landing pad. But in a life focused on coaxing words out of others, there weren’t enough hours left to find my own.
Every teacher develops a reputation. I was an unapologetic hard-ass who got away with it because, blessedly, teenagers also found me amusing. When I sensed a student attempting to phone in an assignment, I refused to let them off the hook. “What are you really trying to say here?” I’d ask. “How can you unearth whatever that real thing is and make it shine, make it yours?” Looking back, I wonder how much of the rigor I demanded in the classroom could be traced to my own desires.
The Common Core writing standards, adopted by almost three-quarters of American schools, grossly devalue creativity. The ability to tell a story is reduced to a forgettable footnote suggesting that students should “ be able to incorporate narrative elements effectively into arguments and informative/explanatory texts.” This prioritization of hard facts over imagination was the edict I was supposed to uphold as an English teacher. But in truth, I fed them a loose hybrid of logical rules (“Vary your verb choices!” “Ensure your research comes from reliable sources!”) and assignments that eschewed even a faint pretense of following those rules (“Today, let’s spend an entire period watching this terrible movie, just so you can write a better version of the allegory they were attempting.”) I couldn’t follow the mandate to the letter, knowing the endless regurgitation of five formulaic paragraphs teaches a middle school graduate nothing about the actual power of words.
But beneath that rationale, I was aware that my actions also hid more complex, less honorable motivations. Each summer, as I prepared for a new school year to begin, I’d imagine myself a student in an entirely different kind of classroom, working toward an MFA. As I photocopied passages for students to annotate, I’d worry about the crucial reading lists I had somehow missed out on in my own education. Between rounds of attacking bulletin boards with a staple gun, I’d wonder what learning opportunities I had denied myself in the name of teaching. Maybe if I worked extra hard to help my students uncover their potential, it would make me feel less guilty about abandoning my own ambitions.
Maybe if I worked extra hard to help my students uncover their potential, it would make me feel less guilty about abandoning my own ambitions.
Over drinks one evening, a brilliant art-teacher friend confided that it had been years since she’d produced a painting. “I’m not even sure I have one in me anymore,” she said. Somehow, her words were what finally roused me to action. I’d dithered long enough. And so, almost seventeen years to the day after that fateful walk with my grandmother, I made the decision to quit teaching. I had no idea if anything would come of this burning desire to write, only that it had intensified over time. The question now was whether the lessons I had built a career on could traverse the bridge from classroom to the real world.
I’m not sure what I expected would happen to my writing once I stopped teaching. Any notions I may have had about the words flowing easily were cured in the first few months. Sure, there were exhilarating moments, when the ideas were plentiful and my fingers flew over the keyboard, but they were fleeting. Between them stretched long periods of stagnation, of blinking cursors on blank Google docs. Whatever supposed expertise I had accumulated was reducible to facile handouts and rubrics, none of which I could call upon for any practical help.
I’d focused on my experience as a teacher to help move me forward as a writer, but maybe I should have looked harder at those doing the learning. After all, students were what had kept me in the classroom so long. My favorite thing about adolescents remains their total openness. They have no problem telling you what’s wrong with your assignment (or your outfit). They’re willing to hear criticism, but they’re even quicker to turn around and ask for help. Give them a task they deem too demanding, and they turn in six sentences instead of sixteen, cross their fingers, and hope for the best. Even when striving for what they imagine is glib sophistication, they come off as raw and unguarded. Exactly the energy, in fact, that I needed to channel when sitting down to write.
I wanted to believe the strategies I gave students in the classroom would make them better writers, and it was easy to feel like a sham when those techniques didn’t serve me in my work. But it wasn’t the lessons that had mattered. It was that students showed up. Despite the grade they may have received the last time. Despite the fact that they were juggling multiple homework and project deadlines. You could argue they had no choice, but no one said they had to like it. Still, they came week after week, took their seats, opened their laptops. Looked up at me expectantly and, one way or another, got to work. As a fledgling freelancer, I couldn’t have asked for a more vital takeaway.
The adage “Those who can, do; those that cannot, teach” always seemed like a personal affront. Since I left the profession, this phrase feels not just insulting but patently untrue. Teaching writing is hard. Straight-up doing the thing is hard too, but a different kind of hard. Both can make you feel like a lab specimen, gutted and butterflied for public view. Both have days (oh, let’s be honest, weeks) when every step is straight uphill. Whether delivering a lesson that falls flat on its face or sending out an ambitious pitch to a publication that may never reply, I remind myself to summon the vulnerability of thirteen-year-olds to the forefront. Showing up is what will keep me afloat.