Writer’s Day Job: Is Teaching a Good Job for Writers?


Working with my WIP's first draft, summer 2012. c. Elissa Field

Working with my WIP’s first draft, summer 2012. c. Elissa Field

One of the most popular posts on my site is Writer’s Day Jobs: Balancing the Time-Money-Credit Trifecta — which weighs the challenges writers face in balancing time to write against the need to keep a roof over their head.

Aspiring writers might work on a novel at night after a day in an office job, but published authors might also be fighting for time to work on a new book while attending to promotional tours.  “Day job” is not a pejorative: whether that job is trying cases as an attorney or working in a book store or waiting tables or working as a surgeon, we simply use the nickname “day job” for how writers pay the bills.

In my earlier post, I mentioned that, over the last 20 years, I’ve balanced a daily writing practice while working a range of jobs. I worked full time as a writer, as a freelancer and an in-house writer. I worked an 8-5 desk job as a paralegal, office manager and as an assistant to a judge. I’ve taken time off to write, and I’ve worked piecemeal to buy flexibility. Most recently, for the last 5 years I’ve been a teacher.

I promised to share reviews of which day jobs allowed the greatest success — financially, for writing, for the job and for overall career success. Today’s post is the first as I review what has been an amazing job: teaching.

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Day Job Review No. 1: Is Teaching a Good Job for Writers?

In Writer’s Day Jobs: Balancing the Time-Money-Credit Trifecta, I set out the belief that a good day job for writers needs to offer a balance of 3 things:

  • time to write: hours, brain cells and creative energy available for writing
  • money: to keep the worries of life at bay
  • street credit: any form of credibility the job lends to your life as a writer, whether through credentials, experience, knowledge, etc.

Time to WriteRevision checklist-

In my first job teaching, I only taught afternoon writing classes. Each day, I’d wake early, drive my sons to school, and then write for 2-3 hours in that quiet time alone. Around noon, I’d dress and head off to teach, run an after school workshop, and be home with the boys by 4 or 5. Sweet gig. Not only did I have structured time to write, but the orderly schedule of getting ready for afternoon classes actually helped keep my writing hours more focused than in years when I was working as a full-time writer. I have other writing friends who have had a similarly light teaching schedule as an adjunct professor or teaching specialty classes, like English to adults or SAT courses.

As a full-time teacher the past 2 years, I struggle more to find writing time, although, strictly speaking, my work hours are still shorter than an office job. Even with after-school responsibilities, most teachers leave work by 5, and most teaching jobs are limited to during the standard working week.

More noteworthy are those long holidays and summers off. How do I have time for this post? Nine days off for spring break. Nearly 3 weeks off at Christmas-New Years. Long weekends, Thanksgiving, Easter… and then there’s the 2-3 summer months off.  This is a great benefit to writing parents, as it offers writing hours as well as flexibility for time with your family. Equally, this is time for attending workshops, conferences, research or travel, without having to take time off from work.

Whoa, not so fast. The downside is that teaching is not limited to your assigned classroom hours. When I taught 10 hours as a part-time writing teacher, I often spent an additional 10-30 hours/week in planning and grading.  (Really 30? Essays and papers take, on average, 20-30 minutes to review and give feedback on; multiply that by the number of students. It’s daunting.)  While I had those mornings to write as a part-time teacher, I rarely work on novel-length fiction during the school year now that I am full time.  Most nights, my “free” time goes to grading, planning, writing teaching materials or corresponding with parents. Or sleeping. I really love the creative vibe of teaching, but it does demand full attention.

There are exceptions.  If I were to teach this same grade and subjects again, the planning spent this year might free up time next year. Some subjects take less planning or have faster grading.  And some writers rally easily to go back to their own writing. In fact, depending on what you are working on, it is possible that your work teaching may feed your creative energy for writing (see more on this under Street Cred).

I find time for short work: I’m experienced at disciplining myself to write, so manage time for nonfiction, blogs, teaching materials and short, draft-form pieces of fiction (say, a single novel scene or a short story).  What I don’t count on is being able to claim extended and mentally consistent time for working on novel revisions during the teaching season.

That doesn’t mean teaching does not allow time to write. In fact, lots of teachers do write and publish, myself included. I’ve written most of my current WIP, kept 2 blogs, and written and published short stories while teaching, not to mention all I’ve written for the job itself.

The key is to be disciplined about setting aside time to write. Especially important is to be ruthless about using those extended holidays to write, revise and submit. Participating in a writing group may help keep you motivated to claim that time, when it feels tempting to work on other things.

Money

While other day jobs may demand less attention or time, full time teaching jobs can make up for this in the relief of a continuous income. When I was a freelance writer, I loved the flexibility of being able to write full time, but the need to constantly market or look for the next project was often a distraction from making the most of time for fiction (or for my family). Knowing you have a consistent income for the coming year removes a major distraction, which lends creative freedom.

A lot is made of teachers being underpaid, but a full time teacher generally makes a healthy middle income.  Depending on your state, subject area and certification, starting teachers earn roughly $25k/year at the low end, $35-40k/year in mid-range, and up to $65k/year in the highest paying states (there are only a few of these). Full time teachers also earn benefits including health insurance, sick days or personal leave, and retirement contributions or a pension.

If you loved the idea of that part-time teaching schedule I had, expect much less financial reward. My first year teaching part-time, I made $19k by also subbing and then filling a second part-time role for the last months of the year (so I actually was full time the last few months). The next two years, for the same part-time job and same hours, they changed my contract so I made only $7k one year and $11k the next. All of those roles were hourly, no benefits, and there were several staff meetings and trainings I had to attend, unpaid.

On the other hand, you may find ways to create additional income.

  • See Street Cred, below: teaching credentials and experience may open doors for you to get paid writing assignments or speaking engagements.
  • Current internet opportunities allow unprecedented ways to monetize your expertise. For example, teachers can become vendors to sell their best lesson plans on sites like Teachers Pay Teachers or by self-publishing.
  • More traditionally, outside tutoring pays $25-100/hour.

Teachers also benefit from a slew of random financial perks, including participation in credit unions or preferred financing. A surprising number of retail stores offer teachers 10-20% discounts, including clothing stores (J.Crew, Ann Taylor and Limited Express),  craft stores (Michaels), book stores (Barnes & Noble) and some restaurants.

Street Cred

There are lots of jobs that give you time off to write or a solid income, but lend no street cred. Credibility is something every writer will measure differently. Some want a title in the writing profession to feel they can claim legitimacy. For others, it could be experience in the field they are writing about. I count street cred as anything a writer takes to be legitimizing or helps them on the path to publication.

CastilloSanMarcosTeaching has cred, for nearly all teachers and writers. As a writer, the amount of street cred that transfers may have to do with the subject or grade level you teach. The connection between my teaching and writing was obvious when I was strictly a writing teacher, or even as a history or English teacher. As a writer of adult fiction, the connection is less obvious now that I’m teaching 5th grade, and might be less so if I were a lower elementary teacher or math teacher.  If I continue with strictly adult fiction, the connection between my writing and teaching might be stronger if I were a high school or college English or writing teacher.

On the other hand, what if you are writing for children, middle grades or young adults? Teaching gives you a huge advantage in this, as I can’t tell you how much more clearly one understands tween and teen concerns and interests when watching them all day long.

Plus, you understand the priorities of teachers who recommend and assign reading — for example, you understand that books are more likely to be purchased in classroom sets if they connect to the historical periods being taught, or character education or cultural diversity being addressed. Story elements that enable your book to not just reach kids, but make it onto summer reading or awards lists, ahem, significantly increases your ability to sell books.

As a profession, teaching credentials and experience also give you the credibility to write or speak as an expert in the field. Teachers have transitioned classroom experiences into books and paid speaking about teaching (may require advanced degrees or research). Other teachers write essays or how to books about specific skills (such as Kate Messner’s Real Revision). Beyond strict classroom teaching, educators may be able to transition to hosting workshops, camps or other educational programs. Similarly, many teachers become entrepreneurs creating businesses independent of the school environment.

One last point about street cred: teaching is by no means just a day job. You will care about teaching as deeply as you do about writing, so will care whether your writing gives “cred” to your teaching just as much as the other way around. Compared to many other day jobs, teachers are very careful about their professional and public presence outside the classroom, which may feel like a creative limitation to some writers.

Making it Work: Manage Your Time & Be Ready to Write

So, is this a good day job for a writer? Not if it leaves you too creatively drained to write.  I’m sure I’m not alone in saying I know countless teachers who always dreamed of writing but never attempt it until they’ve retired, simply because their creative energy went into teaching until then.

But there are also lots of very successful writers who got their first works written while teaching. Rick Riordan, Rick Wormeli, Kate Messner and more.  Yes, you can write while teaching.

Writing on vacation - while in the treetops with my boys.

Writing on vacation – while in the treetops with my boys.

But you have to do it — you have to have material ready to run with when the summer months hit (example of this: Novel Revision: Work is Messy, Book May Bite), and you have to have short tasks to accomplish at other times.

Not only does it take discipline to actually write, but you have to be ready to overcome surprise hurdles. Last summer, as I got underway revising the first draft of this WIP, my laptop crashed. Knowing summer was my only time to tackle that revision, I had to be disciplined to shift to handwritten revision on a printed draft and adapt to working on a different computer. Similarly, since I need to make use of our holidays off, I’ve had to adapt strategies to write on the run in order to not miss out on time off with my kids.

As with any job, you also have to prepare for the mental transition from the day-world to that of your writing. When writing for the courts, I had to shift from pragmatic legal writing to fiction; in my current work, it’s from teacher-voice with goofy kids to the journalistic-literary voice of my paramilitary WIP. This is one of the greater challenges, but is true with most day jobs — and many writers find it a relief for the day job to require a different voice as the day work doesn’t deplete the creative reserve needed for writing.

What Else Do You Need to Know?

Teaching is not a “fall back” job. It is often referred to as a “calling.” Teachers love it for the creativity, challenge, and fun working with discovering learners… but it is a demanding job. Some positions may be easy to get, but it can also be very competitive to be hired or to keep a position. I’ve worked desk jobs before where I had my own laptop out and snuck in writing between phone calls; this will not be that job.

Requirements include a college degree plus certification. Elementary Ed majors generally do student teaching as part of their coursework, then take state testing for certification. Have a different degree? States generally have an alternative certification path, requiring certain education courses and then state licensing exams. Courses and exams for my certification cost between $3-6,000 (it was comparable to getting licensed as a real estate agent).

Some states require a masters degree (or you can earn more with a masters). Masters programs I’ve seen range between $9-20k.  I’ve mostly addressed teaching K-12 in this piece, but lots of writers teach at a college level, particularly during or after earning an MFA in writing. To teach other subjects may require a doctorate degree, and tenured college-level positions have been very competitive through the recent economy.

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How About You?

Do you have a success or challenge story to share about writing while teaching? Any recommendations for other readers?

Or, what other professions have you held as a day job while writing?

As always, it’s great to hear readers’ thoughts in the comments.

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Dublin from World Bar. c Elissa Field.

Dublin from World Bar. c Elissa Field.

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11 Comments

Filed under Writer's Day Jobs, Writing Life

11 responses to “Writer’s Day Job: Is Teaching a Good Job for Writers?

  1. I know several teachers, and, unfortunately, they do not have time to write during the school year. There is a constant stream of marking and class prep and extracurriculars that keep them busy long into the evenings and weekends.
    I’m glad you’ve been able to make it work for you.
    Thanks for sharing.

  2. Works for me! My students offer suggestions for names, plots, conflicts. They are thrilled to be my beta readers. I am good at keeping my school work at school (no marking comes home) so my evenings can be dedicated to writing.

    • elissa field

      It’s great to have that feedback, Shawn. There are definitely lots of writers who not only are successful at balancing time to write with teaching, but where both professions benefit from each other. I know my writing students benefit from my experience with writing. It’s great to have your insight. How do you manage to not bring work home — do you teach a subject without a lot of grading, or do you just manage planning time at school efficiently? Thanks for reading and sharing your experience.

  3. Pingback: Tipsday: Writerly Goodness found on the Interwebz Mar 16-22, 2014 | Writerly Goodness

  4. I’m a teacher and I write nearly everyday. I get up at 5AM and write from 5-6 before school. I’m too brain dead in the evenings, plus I’m taking classes for my library media endorsement in the evenings. The biggest thing I had to realize was that I wouldn’t have huge chunks of time, but an hour a day for 365 days really adds up. I’ve finished several books and articles this way. I had to just make it a habit I wanted to establish, like any other. I have to go to bed earlier and watch less TV so I can get up early. I tried to write at night, but with two little kids, it was hard (and I was tired). No one in my family wants to be up at 5. It isn’t easy, but I’ve been really encouraged by the way the little bit of work each day has added up.

    • elissa field

      Marcie, thanks for this feedback. I think it really helps people to know the real world experiences other writers have had. It’s always challenging to balance writing with any job, but it’s helpful to know the kinds of challenges and successes others have found. I agree that night-writing wasn’t great, if I tried to stay up past the boys and then write — but have oddly come to love going to bed early with them and then making use of waking in the middle of the night. Most people hate this, but I make good use of waking 1-3, or being awake a couple hours early. Thanks for reading and thanks for sharing your experience.

  5. A first visit Elissa. Liking these inventive schedule/job thoughts. And also, fun to read my pal Marcie commenting here. I came to this post via Teachers Write.

    Community newsroom staff – reporting & some editing. The amount of energy left over at the end of your day can be like in teaching, especially because you’ve been interviewing & writing all day, often to 6 p.m. And if your beat is education, you attend school board meetings at nite if that’s when they are. During my newswriting days I still wrote a Florida travel guide to back road routes & natural sites, which is now in its 3rd edition, with good reviews.

    Tutoring – When I became a college tutor for freshman who were struggling with basic skills, I found a world of closet/midnight/weekend writers I didn’t know existed. And now I was one of them. A neat group to hang out with.

    Time management – Years ago a sophisticated & accomplished pal in our town who seemed to get everything done, including parenting plus working full time in a politically charged govt. job, told me her secret: she set her alarm for 4 a.m. & cut out some evening events & teevee (like Marcie, above.) Gradually I came to realize that staying up late wasn’t working for me, as I make mistakes when I try to work on writing at nite. And yeah, I could stay up with the best of my family/crowd til the wee hours. They are Italian & some of them think nothing of dinner at 8 p.m. & being lively at 2 a.m. So I gradually (this is the key) & willingly, shifted my biorhythm. Now I naturally wake up most mornings in what most people think are ridiculously early hours. When I begin writing at 5:30, by 10:30 a.m. I’ve put in a 5-hour day. And it’s not even 11 a.m. yet. To fuel this, I also improved my physicial activities. I drink mate tea (Gyayaki brand) which provides me a cleaner caffeine boost than coffee.

    Sorry for the long post but I found a lot to like in this article. ~ Jan

    Jan Godown Annino/Bookseedstudio

    • elissa field

      Jan, thanks so much for all you shared. No apologies necessary — I think we all appreciate when a post can get a conversation going, since everyone benefits to hear what works well with others. Readers arrive here every day having searched “writer day job” and I think this kind of insight is exactly what they are looking for: to know what has worked well and what hasn’t, for others. So thanks for reading and commenting. It’s good to see you here.

  6. Share

    I used to be a teacher and I cannot imagine trying to write professionally while teaching during the school year. There just isn’t the time, not if you want to keep your job. And since I worked in a state where tenure is no longer given to teachers at all, that means I had to always stay on my toes. I couldn’t take time to write, because I was spending my entire evening making leson plans and grading papers.

    If you think the solution is to just stay with the same grade and the same class/subject from year to year, think again. You don’t get a choice as far as what classes you teach and what grades. Furhurmore, they are constantly changing the curriculum and the textbooks so you have to constantly change your lesson plans.

    I would never recommend teaching to anyone, even non-writers. I have met many teachers from various states and with very few exceptions, most dislike their job or would leave it if they had the skills to do something else. There are exceptions of course, but even they understand that teaching is not the best of career choices out there. Most long timers say that teaching was much better before No Child Left Behind. Burn out is a constant threat, and the micromangaging is bad. So is the behavior of students… often you are teaching “shut up and sit down”, not how to write or how to enjoy reading and learning.

    That being said, kudos to any teacher that can stay in the profession longer than 5 years. (50% of teachers quit before their 5th year). The ones who stick around are often under so much stress that many of them are physically unhealthy, or they become really bitter about it, or they count down the days until they retire, but hey if you can take it, we do need teachers.

    Teaching is, however a meaninful career because you do impact some students. But other than having the summers off, I think it is one of the worst careers to choose for a day job when trying to be a writer (unless you confine your writing to just vacation days and summers). People think that teaching is a piece of cake, but it’s not.

    The fact that 50% of teachers quit before their 5th year should tell you that something is wrong.

    • elissa field

      Share, I think it’s important that you shared this side of the profession. All of us who’ve taught know the joy of those perfect moments when you’ve reached a child or get a particularly meaningful thank you note. There are so many deeply meaningful moments in the profession, and people are drawn to it for the creativity and challenge…. But wow, yes. As Share points out, the demands of the profession these days are continually, continually changing (I had peers laughingly show me the 5 or more “wonderful new curriculum” TE’s they had stacked up, for all the times everything changed), and NCLB has introduced whole demands that (while addressing certain needs) the system has never been able to quite cover — for example, disabled students mainstreamed into classes with the intention of providing paraprofessional teachers’ assistants, except there are not enough people entering that profession, so there’s no such thing.

      I don’t discourage anyone from going into any profession they are passionate about (I have heard nightmare stories about the impossibility of every profession I’ve ever considered, from law to interior design to catering to…), but it’s important, as Share says, for anyone considering the profession to have a full picture. For what it’s worth, when I was going through classes for certification, much of what this poster shares was also told to our classes by professors. My prof said most teachers leave by their 3rd year and it is rarely because of the students or material; the 2 number one reasons reported in her statistic were administration or money.

      It’s certainly a challenging profession. Now, on the other hand, for anyone too scared off by Share’s advice, I’d say: it’s still a profession that I get fired up by and will continue in. I have not yet signed a teaching contract for fall, and may return to freelancing for awhile, but there is a fire I feel about the classroom, and I doubt I’ll stay away for long.

      Thanks so much to all of you who post here to get a conversation going, so others might hear your experience.

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