I never set out to teach or coach writing.
Truth is, it’s a miracle that I even became a writer. In middle school, test scores showed that I struggled with reading comprehension. A teacher-parent huddle sent me to work with a tutor.
At 13, with bad teeth and stringy hair, there was already plenty for me to be embarrassed about, but I was mortified because I wanted to think of myself as a smart girl. And smart girls didn’t need to be tutored.
But she turned out to be an amiable woman who taught me to identify the unique way I absorbed information and how to organize it into words. She guided me in honoring my individual learning process, gently but firmly. Persistently, but patiently.
I was never a stellar student in high school but by the time I got to college and could take subjects that interested me – mostly literature, sociology and philosophy – I fared much better. I had found my thing and that thing was reading and writing, the very things I struggled with as a middle-schooler.
Years into a journalism and publishing career, a director of religious education whom I greatly respected asked me to teach. I remember saying no the first time she asked. Teach? Me? The B student who needed tutoring? You’ve got to be kidding. A year later, she asked again. She was serious and I was moved by her faith in me, so I gave it a go. And I liked it. The students and I were both learning. A lot.
Not long after that, one of my former journalism professors asked me to coach a few students. A year later, I was hired to teach my first university course.
In my twenty years as a writing instructor, I’ve become aware that my teaching approach is borne out of those one-to-one sessions with that tutor. We process information differently. Some of us like to hear ourselves speak in the circle. Some of us would rather listen. Some of us read it and get it right there on the spot. Some of us need to read it over many times, away from the classroom, on our own.
Though I still love to teach groups – the energy in a circle of people is electric and empowering – working with people individually speaks to my heart. It can be as simple as an amiable woman gently pulling and tugging at you while simultaneously holding a mirror so you can see what’s inside.
Which, I now recognize, is what I strive for when I work with people one to one.
I already knew that Ellen was an excellent editor from working with her on pieces I’d submitted to her outstanding journal, Thread, but after an extended face-to-zoom meeting with her today, I have an even greater appreciation for her coaching expertise. She provides an insightful overview of your work, as well as specific suggestions about how to improve it. All presented in a most encouraging manner. As a retired writing instructor, I know how easy it is to tear a piece apart; it takes much more work to offer constructive criticism that inspires you to get back to work as soon as possible. Most importantly, Ellen focuses with working on your intentions of a piece, while also suggesting possible openings for a different approach you might not have considered. And if one of your goals is publishing, she offers suggestions of where you might submit your work. Today we discussed a piece I hadn’t looked at for three years, and had all but abandoned. By the end of our session, I was totally jacked to get back to working on it.