Professional Learning Teacher as Writer Teacher Inquiry

I Teach, (I Feel), I Write: Professional Writing with Emotion


If feeling emotion is part of working in schools, how does emotion fit into writing about that work? Over the past five years as the National Writing Project (NWP) Professional Writing Retreats have grown, this question also has grown in my mind.

As a retreat facilitator, I’ve worked with more than two hundred educators from all parts of the country and from all levels of instruction, prekindergarten to university. Their common goal is to turn school-based experience into a piece of “professional” writing. In retreat parlance, professional means “having to do with the teaching profession.”

Their words reach the public in a wide range of forms, from an article in the school newsletter to a curriculum document, a book chapter, or an article for an educational journal. The retreats have been particularly successfully in developing material for the NWP publications The Voice and The Quarterly.

Initially I thought I understood the needs of fledgling professional writers. I expected, for instance, to provide help with narrowing topics, finding an organizing principle, and including lots of real-world examples. As the retreats unfolded, all of these areas came up, but so did something unforeseen—a force I couldn’t name but whose negative effects were manifest. I saw fluent writers mysteriously unable to produce any text; writers sailing along then suddenly wanting to abandon their work; talented, experienced writers stubbornly claiming they had nothing to say.

Over time this force began to reveal itself: a paralysis produced when assumptions about what it meant to do “professional writing” led writers to suppress or eliminate the strong emotional content of the educational story they were trying to tell.

Retreat writers, including myself, tried to recognize and overcome the writer’s block caused by the incompatibility between the emotional load of their subject matter and the perceived demands of professional writing. Here are examples of three typical kinds of struggles that resulted.

Struggle 1: I’m Mad as Hell, and I’m Not Gonna Take It Anymore

Peter Shaheen, a Michigan high school teacher and member of the Oakland Writing Project (Michigan), started sending me email in April 2001, three months before the start of our retreat. Peter had been embroiled for over a year in a controversy over Advanced Placement (AP) English in his district, and he was angry. His goal for the retreat was to write an effective, reasoned argument laying out his position, but his strong feelings kept getting in the way.

Peter says his problem began

when our state began to report on quality schools by determining which curriculums offered the most AP classes and how many students from those schools took AP tests. I was a member of an innovative interdisciplinary program and a debate coach, and the AP failed to meet any of the challenges students were finding in those two programs. However, overnight the AP currency became overvalued because of marketing schemes developed to capture a bigger piece of the testing pie…I heard an AP representative announce bold plans to grow the corporation and to become a force for reform.

The politically expedient course for districts like mine was to jump on the bandwagon and promote the AP experience as part of the quality education offered in our district. As a result, my anger came from a frontal assault on my concept of myself as a teacher. Suddenly my own efforts to act as a reformer were co-opted by the status quo, and I was made to feel as if I were an outsider. My core belief that I am in the business of teaching speakers, readers, writers, and thinkers was challenged by the formula of AP that views excellence as a commodity that can be measured in a single testing experience.

The retreat facilitators gave Peter some practical advice. We advised him, as we’ve advised many others, that if you are in the grip of a powerful emotion, don’t stop writing but write through the emotion until you achieve some perspective. Don’t try to deny the emotion or suppress it—that won’t work. If you go too far, calling colleagues names or throwing around accusations, you can always edit later or ask your writing group to help you find the balance of emotion and reason. But if you try to deny the emotion, it will creep in everywhere, coloring the whole piece, or, more likely, you will be blocked and feel unable to write about the subject at all, at the same time you feel a compelling need to write—a sure recipe for big time frustration and unhappiness.

Some writers find this technique counterintuitive. When they feel they’re venting in print, their internal censor steps in, telling them to control themselves. But writing through the emotion works, and there’s a reason why. As expository writing develops, it transforms from what rhetoricians call “writer-based prose,” which serves the writer’s needs, to “reader-based prose,” which takes into account the needs of the audience. Composition researcher Linda Flower, who coined these terms, describes the transition this way:

Good writers know how to transform writer-based prose (which works well for them) into reader-based prose (which works for their readers as well). Writing is inevitably a somewhat egocentric enterprise. We naturally tend to talk to ourselves when composing. As a result, we often need self-conscious strategies for trying to talk to our reader (1993, 224).

Venting anger is a writer-based need; achieving balance, clarity, and moderation are reader-based needs. Writer’s and reader’s needs exist on a continuum, and it can be perfectly natural for an early draft to be quite angry and egoistic, serving the writer’s need to get something off his chest. This does not mean that the article cannot develop into a balanced piece of professional writing.

Peter took our advice. He even welcomed our suggestion that he create a survey to find out if other Michigan teachers felt the way he did. In the process, he wrote his way from anger to objectivity. In fact, he says, “in 2003 when the NWP issued grants to sites to survey their populations concerning attitudes toward the AP, I wrote our state’s initial draft, and most of the final draft is my recollection of how our state responded to those surveys. The first of four drafts was scalding, but after writing hot and then cooling, I submitted a much more balanced final document—some might even say objective.”

Struggle 2: Are You in the Story?

At the professional writing retreats, facilitators also write. Here are two examples—the first from my own experience and a second from the work of Kathleen O’Shaughnessy—of how to put yourself in the story and also keep it professional. Kathleen was a participant in the first professional writing retreat (1999) and became a facilitator of later retreats.

It was July 2000 at Sunrise Springs, our idyllic retreat center just outside Santa Fe, New Mexico. My writing was less than idyllic. I was trying, and failing, to complete an article about writing in urban elementary schools. My dilemma was classic: I knew, or thought I knew, exactly what I was trying to say; I just couldn’t seem to say it. Finally, a colleague with whom I’d shared the draft asked, “Where are you in the piece?” It seemed such an obvious question. I wanted to ignore or challenge it; I wanted to say, “I’m everywhere in the piece; my hands are all over it; I created it.” But experience has taught me it is often better to simply nod and write the question down, trusting that its significance may become apparent later. So that’s what I did.

Later, back in my room, I realized that though I was everywhere in the piece, I was also nowhere. The observations that formed the piece had been collected over several years of consulting with schools. But I had never said this; I had just started with my conclusions.

Suddenly excited about a piece I had been ready to abandon, I sat down and wrote this paragraph:

In this article I’ve tried to create “an imaginary school filled with real issues.” Drawing on published research, interviews, and my own experience, I’ve described a composite urban school—East Elementary—staffed with a principal and teachers who are both individuals and representative of larger realities. I’ll ask you to join me on my initial visits to East, seeing the school through my outsider’s eyes; then to sit in on conversations with school insiders while I think through ways to help East move forward and recommend first steps in the change process.

Once I had placed myself inside the piece, declaring that I was going to combine personal experience and research by creating a composite school, my writing opened up. It became less stiff, more personal, and closer to the lived experience I was trying to communicate. I had not just put myself into the writing but also indicated how I was using my experience in relation to other types of material. I had invited my reader in, and, as I wrote, I was imagining the reader sitting beside me, watching the story unfold. I had redefined the relationship between author, reader, and subject in a way that broke down my writing block. The piece that I had been on the verge of abandoning eventually appeared first in The Quarterly and then as a book chapter.

Kathleen O’Shaughnessy, a co-director of Louisiana’s National Writing Project of Acadiana, is a gifted writer and great storyteller. That’s why I was surprised at our first retreat in 1999 when I noticed her frustration. As it turned out, Kathleen was having trouble completing an article that challenged traditional assumptions about teachers doing workshops. Part of the problem was that, in order to write the piece, she had to make public a lot of highly charged, workshop-related experiences from the previous several years. The article began to move toward completion when Kathleen linked her workshop experiences to the idea of “finding one’s own way” in teaching. Being Kathleen, she did it by telling a disarming tale from her trip to London:

In the taxi from the airport, I’d noticed a lush green park near my hotel, so on my first morning after jet lag I set out for a jog. But the park wasn’t where I had left it. I went a little farther, tried a few different streets, but still no park. Then I realized I’d not only lost the park but my hotel as well….Finally I found a man opening his newsstand. When I asked him, breathlessly, if he might possibly know where my hotel was, he looked perplexed and pointed over my shoulder….There, almost directly across the street from where we stood, was my hotel.

Kathleen’s metaphor strikes me as apt for describing many people’s first venture into professional writing. They go round and round, searching harder and harder, only to find the solution very close to home. They are, to use Kathleen’s words, “disconcerted by unfamiliar territory, afraid of making a wrong turn, embarrassed to ask for help but desperately grateful when it’s offered, and unaware of the feeling of power and freedom that comes with finding one’s own way.” When help comes, and they finally figure out how to put themselves back into their writing, they gain the feeling of control that comes only to those who have found their way in the written world they have created. Kathleen’s piece became a Quarterly article called “Do Workshops Work?” (The Quarterly of the National Writing Project, Vol. 22, No. 1) that is now used by many sites in their invitational summer institutes.

Struggle 3: My Story’s So Important I Want to Tell Everybody (But That Doesn’t Help Me Focus My Audience)

Sometimes even the best advice doesn’t help. The written product may represent an emotional battle that’s still raging in the writer’s head. If that battle is not resolved, the writing cannot be successfully concluded because the writer can’t let it go.

Rochelle Ramay, a high school English teacher from Northern California, produced a terrific article for her teacher research group at the Northern California Writing Project. Her research dealt with her efforts to show that good teaching and good schools develop from the bottom up—from the professional growth and commitment of individual faculty members—rather than from the top down. She sent her article to Research in the Teaching of English, a journal of the National Council of Teachers of English. The journal’s editors liked the piece but questioned its form. Rochelle was invited to revise and resubmit, to make her paper less teacherly and more researchlike.

She arrived at our 2001 retreat conflicted but determined to revise. She was not sure that her writing should be made less teacherly and more researchlike; after all, advocacy for teachers was largely the point of what she was doing.

Rochelle worked diligently, almost frantically, throughout the retreat, seeking advice from nearly everyone and rewriting far into the night. Pushed to define exactly who she was writing for, she said she kept hearing voices: the voice of her uncle Richard, who often questioned the worth of teachers; the voice of a high-profile speaker brought in by the district; and the voice of a county superintendent, pushing for higher test scores. Rochelle was angry, advocacy-driven, and promoting an unpopular position—that teachers should be in charge of their own professional growth. This stance, and her multiple audiences, made it hard for her to decide on a final form for the paper. She didn’t want to give up anything because the paper represented an argument that was still raging, unresolved, in her mind. In early 2004, Rochelle was still battling, and sent me this:

Dear Joe,

I just reread my piece about the ways schools define success for themselves. I read several versions of it, and I find that I continually fall back on one of the earlier drafts of it—I think that’s because it is so personal. You mentioned in your email about looking at the “emotional load” of writing about teaching, and I think one of the reasons the paper has been so hard to finish or even put into a form is because the motivation for the study is like a dark space in my psyche where I desperately attempt to explain what it means to be a teacher. And even as I write the word teacher, I don’t think that’s what I mean. I don’t know what a teacher is or does; I just know what I do and hope that’s what people who are teachers do.

The paper sounds confessional…I find myself overexplaining my point. I want [readers] to hear and see…how what is said about learning/students/us/me isn’t what they think or is only part of what is so. And what seems most apparent is I don’t know who I want to hear all of this—my uncle Richard, the big outsider motivational speaker, the county superintendent, my colleagues.

I want my colleagues honored and held in high esteem. I want them to hear themselves and the ways their experiences and knowledge about children and learning are part of the ongoing concerns about the goings-on at school—and the ways I’ve learned about myself through them. Many of the people I work with are disheartened by the political climate, and I have this sort of humane-society notion that I can help save them from those feelings because I know they know things about teaching and school and kids that other people don’t or can’t know.

And finally, the study this paper is based on was my own—by myself—and taught me so much about being sensitive to so many other people. …All of us have opinions about education, and I want to be right—only I have this enormous feeling of resignation that no matter what I say or how I say it, this article won’t change much, if anything. By nature I’m an optimist, and this paper, though optimistic, probably doesn’t have much power to affect the direction our professional lives are being dragged.

Thanks for asking.


A typical middle or high school teacher comes in contact with 80 to 150 adolescents per day. An early childhood or elementary teacher guides twenty to thirty young children six hours a day for an entire year. These teachers deal with learning disabilities, adolescent angst, boyfriend/girlfriend problems, and fears about not getting into the right college. They see the pressures of unexpected pregnancy, student homelessness, family green card and visa problems, court appearances, violence in the neighborhood, and the sudden death of a parent. Though “manage daily emotional crises” appears nowhere in the curriculum guide, every good teacher knows that dealing with them is essential to successful instruction.

Such complex human interactions inevitably evoke strong emotions: elation, anger, self-doubt, anxiety, and many others. And yet our first step as professional writers, consciously or unconsciously, is often to “de-emotionalize” our writing, to rule out of bounds the emotional load that is a central reality of our professional lives.

The thinking goes something like this: I’m engaged in something called “professional writing.” That means that I can’t use “I” (because my high school English teacher told me not to in expository writing), that I have to use only data and rational arguments and put in nothing emotional, and that I have to hide this side of my story because maybe it will make me look unprofessional. We fear that acknowledging emotion will open floodgates and we won’t be able to control the torrent (“Excuse me while I rant”). But if emotion is part of the situation about which we’re writing, we can’t tell our story truly without taking it into account.

The range of emotion involved in teaching creates varied demands on professional writing. These demands can constitute a hidden force leading to writer’s block, to fear of approaching certain subjects at all, or to drafts that are bloodless and feel artificial even to their own authors. In response, we need a range of techniques to address the emotional content of teaching in professional discourse. We need to begin developing what Linda Flower calls “self-conscious strategies to talk to our reader” in ways that are both emotionally true and professionally effective.

In this article, I have offered, through example, several such techniques. Peter was angry, but with the aid of multiple drafts and a supportive response group, he was able to write through his anger to a more reader-centered stance. Writing through anger works much better than trying to censor it.

I was afraid to put myself into my own story and got stuck because of it. When I gave myself permission to let “I” in, the story opened up and let the reader in as well. Kathleen also let herself into her own story, in literal and metaphorical ways that exemplified the important concept of teachers finding their own way. “Where am I in this school story?” is a question responders need to help writers ask more than once as drafts develop.

But, as Rochelle’s instance shows, our current array of techniques doesn’t always provide the solution. Rochelle feels a pressure that confronts many teacher-writers. As a teacher-researcher she must frame her extensive insider knowledge for an outsider audience, an emotion-laden task. Rochelle hears voices, the voices of outsiders. Can she write in a way that will make them honor her colleagues and hold them in high esteem?

I believe emotion is a hidden force because it can be invisible to the writer but also because its impact on writing is something we don’t yet fully understand. Retreat facilitators are writing teachers in camouflage. As a writing teacher, I’m happy that I’ve finally identified a force that bedevils so many retreat participants trying to write honestly about schooling and that I have a few effective responses. But a big concern for me now is what more I/we can do.

Once the issue of emotion in professional writing is identified, it nearly always provokes discussion and questions. For example, what is the answer to Rochelle’s audience question? Or how should we answer questions like these, raised by Kathleen: Is the success of the retreat due, in part, to the fact that it becomes easier to emotionalize our professional drafts when we’re face-to-face with colleagues, getting to know and like them at the same time as we are working on our pieces? So instead of writing to a disembodied image of reader/colleague, we’re reminded that we’re writing to people who are more like us than not? Is one of the answers to write with colleagues not just for them?

Now that professional writing retreats are happening regularly in local, state, and network contexts, as well as nationally, I believe it’s time we began an open discussion on such topics. This article, I hope, will spark just that.