Since I’ve taken ten school bookings in the last week – some for this term, some for next and one for World Book Day 2019 – it seems a good time to reflect on what I love about being an author in school.
The students. I won’t call them children because although more than half my bookings are primary, I also run workshops for teenagers. I love it when they’re excited before I even speak and I hear my name in stage whispers around the corridors as they arrive. I love it even more when they become enthused in my sessions, especially when I can see it before they verbalise it. There’s nothing more heartening than that awareness of a high voltage, big-smiled, lit-up face, and if there are more than a few of those in a room, it’s bliss. There’s no age limit on that kind of illumination but each face counts double over twelve!
I love some of the answers they give, and their insights into my books. I remember an assembly when a five-year-old asked, “How do you get the stories so shiny?” and a Y8 boy who told me in a letter, “You made me a better person.” That sums up the sheer range and variety of my school visits. I go to tiny village schools and big urban primaries, poky private schools and others that are gracious mansions in pristine, landscaped acres, inner city comprehensives and girls’ grammar schools in country towns. Although I’m always focusing on character and language, I plan afresh each time and try to find new angles and examples.
The freedom. I taught for nineteen years and to begin with, teachers were trusted to plan and implement their own curriculum just as they, as trained professionals, saw fit. It was exhilaratingly creative and rather personal, in that we played to our strengths and that meant sharing our own individual passions. But ingrained knowledge of educational theory, and an understanding of what children need, reined in excess and ensured breadth. I didn’t try to teach poetry all morning five days a week. Not every week anyway! But when I taught what I knew and loved best, as I chose, I was my best teaching self. And now, as a visiting author, that’s all I do and all I am.
No pressure. That’s not exactly true because I aim to inspire and I’m determined to be value for money. I’m troubled if I feel on reflection that by my seventh session of the day I was firing on one fewer cylinders. But teachers now work under pressure of an extreme kind, with relentless assessment and record keeping and the expectation of measurably higher standards year on year. Their hours are doubtless in excess of the eighty hours I used to put in each week. I used to love teaching so much that that I thought I should be paying for having so much fun, but as the stress and workload are ramped up and up, the job must feel harder to love. So as an outsider walking in and walking out, I’m lucky. And I have great admiration for the dedicated teachers I meet – the ones who care more about the human beings in their care than the data and objectives, and try to make learning fun in spite of everything.
The outcomes. Feedback from staff and students often tells me I made a difference. I’m not talking about evidence as in data, but attitude. If I hear that non-readers want to read, non-writers are writing at home, the library has never been busier and the school is still buzzing days later, I’m happy. If a student emails to tell me that my words about difference have helped her to feel stronger or more at peace with herself, I’m elated.
Sales. There could be 130 or 3 but they all count. My stories are in a sense my world; I live in them. I care about my characters more than is probably reasonable, and long for people to connect with them. I believe stories make us bigger people with deeper understanding of ourselves and each other. So of course I want to share mine. It’s not about the money. If it was, I would have given up long ago. It’s about communication, connection, empathy. And a sale to someone who says, “I’ve read one/two/three of your books in the school library and loved it/them, so I can’t wait to read this one,” is a heady delight to be stored away for discouraging times. My writing life has not been in vain.
That’s a lot to love, but let’s keep it real. Not the exhaustion that leaves me unable to speak on the way home. Not the rare occasions when the school hasn’t told the children or parents I’m coming. Not the time when I was given 200 teenagers in a hall all Friday afternoon, while the staff around the edge focused exclusively on their laptops. Not the assembly where only one staff member stayed to listen. Not the staff rooms where I’m invisible at lunchtime. Not the bookings that were quite obviously made just to tick a box, without interest, commitment or faith. Or the moments when I realise children have been trained to believe that every sentence must begin with an adverb or two, and that they must preface each noun with three adjectives. But it’s a privilege to walk in and have an opportunity to make an impression; to change the way students think about stories and words, or being human; to share what I love. I’m grateful.