Teaching High School: It’s Like Author Bootcamp

Your fingers slip off the handle as you try to open the door. Like the rest of you, they’re covered in cold sweat. You stand outside the room, taking one last opportunity to second guess everything from your hair to your clothes. What will they think of you? Will they laugh at your jokes? Will they think your dress looks beautiful or stupid? What will they say about you behind your back, or–even worse–to your face?

There’s only one way to find out.

You take a deep breath, reach for the handle, and pull. This time, your fingers don’t slip. You’re in the room, and they see you. They’re watching. And there’s no turning back now. 

You focus on walking. That’s it. That’s all you can think about. Just walk to the front of the room like you know what you’re doing. Don’t make eye contact. They can sense fear, and if you come off as anything less than 100% confident, they’ll pounce.

What is she wearing?” you hear someone whisper.

“Mrs. Riley, your hair looks good,” someone else says out loud.

You send a smile in the general direction of the compliment, but what about the person you heard whispering? How many others think your outfit is ridiculous?

Someone comes in late, and the second you see their expression, you know this won’t be good.

“Come on in,” you say, lacking the mental fortitude to ask for a late slip. “Have a seat.”

They pass you with a scowl and slam their books on top of a desk. “I don’t want to be here,” they say. “I hate this class.”

Your stomach plummets.

“What are you talking about?” someone else pipes up. “This class is awesome! Mrs. Riley rocks!”

Your heart lifts a little. At least one person appreciates you.

“Okay,” you say, trying to steer the conversation in a different direction. “Since we have a test tomorrow, we’d better–”

“A what?” shouts half the class.

You stare at them, baffled. “A test. Remember? I told you about this already. Twice.”

For the next thirty seconds they whine about how you’re always surprising them with tests and how they had NO IDEA this was happening. Then the dirty looks start, and you can hear the muttered questions.

“Why can’t she be more organized?”

“We always have tests! It’s not fair!”

“Does she even know how to be a teacher?”

The walls start to close in and you have to get out. You stammer something about how you’ll be right back and step into the hallway, where you press your back to the wall and slide to the floor.

Why did you ever think you could do this?

*

So, what do you think? Could you handle it?

Before we go any further, I should tell you that I have never EVER had a day like what I described above. 99% of the teenagers I teach are lovely, kind, smart people who would rather die than act like the kids in this scene.

But there is that 1% of kids who don’t like the class, don’t want to be there, and like to make sure I know how they feel. Here are some things that students have actually said to me:

“Mrs. Riley, is there something I can use to learn Spanish that actually works? Like Rosetta Stone or something?”

“What is the point of doing this? I’m never going to use this again.”

“This class is such a waste of time!”

And so on and so forth, for the last seven years of my life. As you might expect, there are times when I’m less than motivated to continue doing my job. But they pay me, and I enjoy most of the kids, so I go.

Now, let’s switch gears to writing.

You spend hundreds of hours developing characters, pacing the plot, tying up loose ends. You tweak and polish and buff the manuscript until you think it’s perfect. Then you send it off to your beta readers.

And cue the sweaty palms.

What will they think? Will they hate it? Maybe. Will they think you’re an idiot? Feels very possible. In fact, you’re pretty sure you ARE an idiot. You should never have let anybody read it. EVER.

You make it past the beta round and start to query. It’s not right for Agent A. Agent B didn’t connect with the voice. Agent C asked for a partial, then rejected you. Agents D and E never even bothered to reply to your query. Agents F, G, and H asked for the full, but you’re positive they’re going to pass. Sure, YOU love the story, but what if they don’t?

You can’t breathe.

A miracle happens and you sign with an agent. He sends your book out to editors. Editor A didn’t connect with your characters enough. Editor B thought your plot was too slow. Editor C said it’s too much like this other book they just bought. Editors D and E simply didn’t think it would sell. It wasn’t good enough.

You hate yourself.

But then Editor F buys the book! You are ecstatic! Everything you hoped for is happening! You are on top of the world!

Until the reviews start to come in.

Reviewer A thinks you’re a complete idiot who can’t put a sentence together without butchering it. Reviewer B liked it okay. Reviewer C thought it was pretty awesome. Reviewer D called you names you can’t repeat out loud. Reviewers E, F, and G gave it two stars on Goodreads with no explanation. Publisher’s Weekly called your characters “flat” and your plot twists “comically bad.”

And this is when it hits you: there will never be a time that you won’t be criticized.

Today I realized that this is true of my life, both as a teacher and a writer. Teaching really is one of the most thankless jobs in the world. Mostly, people just complain about having to be in my classroom. Sometimes, parents with powerful corporate jobs talk down to me. At least once a week, I leave work feeling  like a failure.

But it’s worth it. I keep going back for the kids that do care, the ones who appreciate the education they’re getting. I go back because, in the end, I believe in what I’m doing.

What about writing?

It can be thankless. You can go through all that work and have someone rip it–and you–to shreds in a matter of seconds. And here’s what you need to know:

Being ripped to shreds will happen. It will happen. And I’m not just talking about your book–they’ll rip YOU to shreds. Yes, you, as a person. You will get torn apart eventually.

It’ll be a reviewer, a blogger, a beta reader, a magazine, a website, maybe even a friend. It’s the seedy underbelly of writing, one you’ll encounter sooner or later, if you haven’t already. And you’ve got to figure out how you’ll handle it. Will you freak out? Say something out of anger and make yourself look like an overly defensive jerk? Or will you react gracefully?

The only way I overcome cutting remarks from students is to seek out a positive interaction, whether it’s with a student or another teacher. I don’t respond to the student who cut me down. In that situation, no response is the best response. I think I’ll use this same tactic if/when I am published, when the nasty reviews start to pop up. No response at all.

How do you deal with negativity at your job? Do you feel it’s preparing you to have your work criticized? And how do you think authors should respond to criticism?

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12 thoughts on “Teaching High School: It’s Like Author Bootcamp

  1. Robin O'Bryant says:

    The Rachel Hawkins says, “Don’t engage the crazy.” And I agree. Even though being torn down as an author, writer, person, straight sucks. Never let ’em see you sweat.

  2. Mary says:

    This. Is. SO. True! I teach 8th graders and it’s pretty much the same thing. They hate you because you tell them to tuck their shirts in. They love you because you let them listen to music in class. They hate you because they have to bring their books daily or wear their ID’s or turn in homework or–God forbid–DO homework and a thousand other things. But I guess I never really thought about it in how it’s prepared me for a writing career (which I don’t have yet but am working on!). Lots of rejection. Lots of snide comments. Love. Hate. Everything in between.

    Great post. 🙂 And, just think, tomorrow’s FRIDAY!

  3. Sigh says:

    You don’t have an actual education degree, do you? I don’t think you know what you’re talking about.

  4. Harley says:

    In response to the Sigh comment above, I don’t see why you have to leave a negative and condescending comment. If there’s something you’d really like to say to a person, to educate them, you should do it kindly and in private. Putting it here, on a blog (especially in the manner you did) is nothing but embarassing and makes you look like a mean person. You might not be. You probably just had a bad day and something struck you wrong.

    Please don’t bring others down. I’m Anne’s friend and have been for over a decade. She’s an amazing person. Please re-think the way you speak to people you don’t know anything about. Hope you have a great day.

    feel free to email me at harleymaywrites (at) gmail (dot) com

    • Anne Riley says:

      Haha thanks Harley, it might’ve been a kid joking about something we were talking about in class the other day, but then again it might not be!

  5. Jessica Love says:

    Ha! I’m laughing at Sigh up there because I recognized every single one of those comments from my own classroom. I’ve never had them all on the exact same day, thank goodness, but I get them all the time from at least one kid. It really is thankless, and everything you wrote here rings so true for me.

    I’m in the middle of a low point in my world right now, so this was just the sort of reminder I needed. Thank you.

    And I think Sigh just wanted to prove your “you’ll always be criticized” theory by being a jackass in your comments. Bah.

  6. Ansley says:

    Dear Sigh,

    …I’m curious…what is your degree in and what is incorrect about Anne’s observations about teaching?

    Regards,
    Ansley

    P.S. I’m working on my second MA in education/teaching, just in case you were wondering.

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