In honor of Teacher’s Appreciation Week, which was May 4-8, here’s a list of qualities some of the best writing teachers share. They may not be the first thoughts that enter your mind when thinking about studying writing, but teachers with the personality traits listed below make excellent writing guides. Don’t settle for anything less. You deserve the best.
1. Student-focused. A great writing teacher is focused on her students and their needs. She puts aside her own issues and concerns to make herself present and fully available to her students. She may share stories from her own life, or even work, on occasion, but if your teacher spends half the time talking about herself or her work, she’s not serving you. It doesn’t matter what she has written, or how famous she may or may not be. The focus should be on you, the student, and your work. Don’t be fooled by a person’s literary track record. Just because a person can write, it doesn’t mean she can teach. Writing is one thing; teaching is another. They require different skills.
2. Generosity of Spirit. A great writing teacher is generous with her time, praise, and experience. She understands that there’s room at the top for everyone, and genuinely wants you to succeed. She creates a safe space in which you are free to express your innermost thoughts. She sees the best in her students, and knows that we all have sparks of genius within. She understands that the right fan can transform those sparks into a creative blaze. A great teacher can be such a fan (double meaning intended). She knows how hard to blow and is also your most enthusiastic champion. She is an expert tender of inner fires—hers as well as yours. She knows we are all vessels, and does everything in her power to help you move out of your own way so that what’s wanting to come through you can. She’s a midwife, standing by to help you birth your writing dreams. She wants the best for you and your writing, and will do everything in her power to support both.
3. Fearlessness. A great writing teacher feels fear, but doesn’t let it stop her from navigating treacherous terrain. She’s in for the long haul. She laces up her boots and guides students willing to climb steep mountains, or dive into deep, murky lakes. She’s an intrepid traveller, willing to traverse hinterlands. She does so by leading with her heart. She inspires in her students a love of adventure, a thirst for truth, and a hunger for knowledge. She understands that fearlessness is not the absence of fear, but moving forward in the face of it. She’s a paradigm-shifter, a frame-changer, a person who understands that fear is the opposite of faith. She believes in you and in your work. She believes in herself, and she believes in life. Not all the time, perhaps, but enough of the time. She’s a grab-life-by-the-balls kind of person, and believes in the power of walking with you to your edge. She has taken her share of leaps.
4. A Fully Loaded Toolbox. A great writing teacher has a toolbox—tricks of the trade—she’s spent decades assembling. These include specific strategies, such as prompts and exercises, she uses in her classes. It also holds the teacher’s knowledge of and sensitivity to strong, creative writing. A great writing teacher is able to make solid suggestions to students for improving their work. Her tools are not one-size-fits-all. She’s adept at customizing them, as needed. She listens closely, can tell where each student is and where they want to go, and knows how to help them get there. She probes the psyche with graceful finesse, and knows what questions to ask, as well as how and when to ask them. She senses when to push her students and when to back off.
5. A Lifelong Student. The best teachers are lifelong students. They never stop studying, learning, and growing. Life is their classroom. They learn from their students, teachers, colleagues, coaches, books, families, and everything else life offers. They walk their talk. They say “yes” to themselves and their own writing dreams, which helps them feel good about themselves, so that they can be good to you!
What qualities do you appreciate in a great writing teacher? Who was your best writing teacher and why? What made that teacher great? If you’re a teacher, what qualities do you hope to share with your students? I’d love to hear your thoughts.