Time for Poetry: Love the Work


The real writer is one
who really writes. Talent

is an invention like phlogiston
after the fact of fire.
Work is its own cure. You have to
like it better than being loved.

Marge Piercy, “For the Young Who Want To”

I’ve decided to have my students write a poetry essay this year, and so I have given them a long list of poems from which to choose. As I was reading through their choices, I noticed that several of them chose the poem “For the Young Who Want To” by Marge Piercy.

I’m not sure why I’ve never examined this poem before.  

I’ve long believed that talent is a myth. I believe this perhaps because I am a writing teacher, and I have seen tremendous growth in writing as students work hard and as they mature.  

That talent is a myth is difficult to convey to students, though. Just today I was reading some of my students’ reflections on their writing, and I kept coming across things like “I just suck at writing.” or “I wish I knew why I’m so bad at writing.”

They still seem to believe there is some innate quality that makes you a good or not-so-good writer.

There isn’t.

There is only the hard and often lonely work of sitting down every day and doing the writing.

It’s not fun. And it can make you crazy.

I recently wrote about the struggle of the midcareer teacher, which is to say that I wrote about my own struggle.

I have been teaching for more than a decade now, and I still wonder when I’ll be the kind of teacher I want to be.  There are days when I lean my elbows on my desk, put my head in my hands, and say, as my students do about writing, “I wish I knew why I was such a bad teacher today.”

I am tempted by recognition. By appreciation. Sometimes by money.  And, if I’m being honest, by jobs that just aren’t so dang hard.

But I return always to this: I love this work.

Teaching, like writing, is often not fun. And it can make you crazy.  There are all those papers to grade. All those lessons to plan. All those books to read and reread. All that outside material to read to make sure that you understand those books you just read.  There are all those emails to send, phone calls to make, reports to prepare, meetings to attend, professional development to undertake. There are all those times when you say the wrong thing or overlook something crucial.

The awesome classroom experience, the ah-ha moment, the moment where teaching just feels like soaring, comes only after the experience.

And the work.

There are lots of days when I’m not really sure if anyone cared that I was at school. There are days when I’m not sure I got through. There are days when I’m sure that I didn’t.  

There are days when I feel passed over or unappreciated. There are days when I dream of doing other things.

But in the end, I love teaching.

Because I love the work.

I don’t know if I’ll ever love grading papers, but I do love reading my students’ writing. I love reading novels and poems and plays. I love the brain-bending work of literary analysis. I love working out the kinks in new lessons. I love receiving book suggestions from other teachers and friends. I love listening to teenagers in heated discussions about 18th century poetry. I love talking about the value and nature of art with my colleagues.  I love having conversations with kids who are on the cusp of their future and freaking out about it.  

I can’t make my life decisions based on other peoples’ approval.  I can’t become a good teacher by trying to be recognized.  I can’t even become a better teacher by beating myself up when I fail.

I can only become a good teacher by actually doing the work.

The real teacher is one who really teaches. Love the work.

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