Blood, Sweat, and Tears: Lessons from the Teaching Internship

by

by Michael J. Soloway, M.A., M.F.A.

Teacher in Storage

Teaching is in my blood.

Michael Soloway and daughter

Michael Soloway and daughter

Both my mother and grandmother were schoolteachers. “Nana” taught grade school for decades as well as English to “night school” students. And although my mother could have chosen a life in the arts as a dancer, actress, or singer—after all, she went to Emerson College with Henry Winkler, aka “The Fonz”—instead, she decided to study speech therapy, and spent nearly thirty years helping kids conquer their lisps and Lambda Ls. I know Mom’s devotion to her profession, and the hundreds of students who took “speech” increased their self-esteem and restored their inspiration to dream. That’s what a calling can do—change your direction, change your life. Hopefully, it can change another person’s life in the process. Like the blood doing laps in all of us, these simple actions often go unnoticed. As students, we simply called it “getting an education,” but today, as burgeoning educators, or those who aspire to be, you know it is much more tangible than that.

I remember teachers—the exceptional, adequate, and unsatisfactory—those inspired by their chosen professions and those worn out by it. Those clichéd figures who encouraged me and promised that I could “do anything I set my mind to,” as well as that second grade teacher who had a habit of closing those old-fashioned window panes that reminded me of air vents, just so she could belittle and shout at us without the principal hearing our cries or her awful knack for extracting them. Today, with a two-year-old daughter who will start school in a few years, this reminds me of the movie Monsters, Inc. This teacher, who was eventually removed from the classroom, was known as the screamer as well as the scream extractor all molded into one. But I knew, even at seven, this behavior was the exception, not the rule.

Until high school, I could name all of my teachers—from Mathews to Hilliard to Osta to Freeman to Cantwell to Spruell to Preston. These were my emulations, and sometimes my detesters. But no matter their motivation or teaching style, they all served to cast my future. After all, school was as much one of my talents as it was an escape. I could memorize and, although I was often labeled the “class clown,” teachers attracted me to the profession with their smiles, textbooks, and nurturing ways. Even when my self-control was nothing near “controlled,” and a beloved teacher had me write sentences one hundred times in the hall, I found pleasure in the repetition: “I will not stand at my desk while the teacher is talking. I will not stand at my desk while the teacher is talking. I will not stand….” Punishment backfired. I was hooked on school and the portraits teachers made of themselves without their knowledge, or even mine.

In June, during my final residency at Wilkes, I was faced with a decision. Not life threatening, but potentially life-altering. All creative writing students at Wilkes, when they move on from the M.A. and choose to pursue the M.F.A., will complete an internship in either teaching or publishing. Many of you will have an idea of what direction suits your personal or professional goals, or even personalities. Perhaps you’re already teaching where you live—a local high school, community workshop, university, or community college—and want to gain real-world experience in something new. Or maybe you’ve always wanted to teach, to share knowledge, and feel now is the time to figure out if a classroom’s four walls ultimately feel claustrophobic or freeing to you. Or, like me, you could be confused, even though you’ve known exactly what is coming, what is required, and still have no idea what direction to take. You could find yourself drawn to both, paralyzed, torn between your love of books and your passion for sharing that love with others.

I admit publishing was an attractive and exciting draw. I love the industry, and in its own way, much like teaching, is also one of the noblest of pursuits. Publishing satisfies more of the senses—the tangibility of touch, whether it be a hardback book or the selection of the paper inside, to the visual cues of the cover or printing font chosen, to the echo of a narrator’s voice of a book on tape, to the smell of all that cotton and ink and pulp. Except for the distinct odor of dry erase markers, teaching is much more intangible—filled more with moments of enlightenment and discovery, which draw out strong emotions but lacks the clear saleable product that is born from publishing a book made for a shelf. But teaching was in my blood, right? Without the silent running of Type O negative blood making its “Michael Orbit” from my heart to head to toe, there would be no other senses to rely on. If it all just stopped, then so would I. Still, I wavered between my need to satisfy all of my five senses, and the urge to sustain my own survival.

In teaching, ultimately, I felt as though I was able to choose both. Having recently accepted the managing editor position of Split Lip online literary magazine, I could have taken the easier path to my M.F.A. But, after switching tracts twice (sorry, Bonnie), I finally settled on the teaching internship. Like hanging in deep freeze in a blood bank, inside what reminded me of a CapriSun juice pouch, I felt I was a teacher in storage, who had finally been called into duty to help sustain a life—this was the greatest way for me to be of use. Now, all I needed was a class of students, a curriculum, and a classroom.

‘The Narrative Arcs’ Set Sail

I’d like to say the idea came to me in a dream, but I seldom remember them. In the end, I chose a topic that I thought would interest most writers, a topic that leant itself to all styles, genres, and formats, and one that I needed a bit of help with myself—examining the narrative arc in fiction and nonfiction. Per former students’ suggestions, I established a Group on Meetup.com, paid the Organizer fee, and waited. Here is how the description of my class read:

Calling all writers! Ever wonder how to build an effective arc? (Not Noah’s) Come learn narrative arc building with me as we discuss beginning, middle and end, as well as Nigel Watts’ 8-point story arc: Stasis, Trigger, The Quest, Surprise, Critical choice, Climax, Reversal, and Resolution. We’ll start with the six-word story, which has become a popular genre. We’ll spend a lot of time covering that discipline before moving on. Narrative Magazine has tons of examples and offers a weekly prize for the best. Hemingway has perhaps the most well-known six-word story: “For Sale: Baby shoes. Never worn.” Then we’ll tackle flash fiction, or iStory (150 words), and the short short story (500 words or less). Finally, we’ll move on to the short story/essay (1,500-3,000 words), and discuss the possibility of stories that would lend themselves to a longer story arc. Fiction and nonfiction will be covered. It would be interesting to me to see how to develop the same story in each format. Reading aloud in class will definitely be emphasized. I find reading my work out loud is so telling. It’s a perfect editing exercise, in and of itself. We’ll meet in the evening once a week this fall at one of the local venues TBD. Hope to see you there! By the way, I have my MA in Creative Writing from Wilkes University, have been published in nine literary journals, have a new play being produced in Pittsburgh this month, and am managing editor of Split Lip literary magazine. Blah, blah, blah. Just come write with us!

And they did. Nervous, anxious, eager, eleven people initially signed up for my writing workshop via Meetup.com. Eleven more than I thought ever would. I had given the Group a name, “The Narrative Arcs,” and made puns about Noah, boats, and surviving the literary floods that can sink a project. I wanted to think of myself as a teacher, but also as a brand. (I thought about ‘Narrative Arc’ T-Shirts, but decided against it.) The curriculum was set. The readings were germinating. The structure was taking shape. And nerves were forming. I was prepared for ten weeks of literary bliss.

And they did. Nervous, anxious, eager, eleven people initially signed up for my writing workshop via Meetup.com. Eleven more than I thought ever would. I had given the Group a name, “The Narrative Arcs,” and made puns about Noah, boats, and surviving the literary floods that can sink a project. I wanted to think of myself as a teacher, but also as a brand. (I thought about ‘Narrative Arc’ T-Shirts, but decided against it.) The curriculum was set. The readings were germinating. The structure was taking shape. And nerves were forming. I was prepared for ten weeks of literary bliss.

Drip Dry

I waited for the sweat to come.

And it would. No amount of role-playing can prepare you for reality. We’d meet in the back room of a local coffee shop, used on weekends as a daycare and for boys and girl’s Sunday school class. Tiny tables. Tiny chairs. Crayons in the cabinet. Toys set aside between French doors and an exterior brick wall. For a moment, I hoped adults were showing up. I wasn’t prepared to teach First Graders.

The first night I arrived more than an hour early. There were chairs to set up, tables to move, and notes to go over in my head. Introductions. The syllabus. Markers to unwrap. A writing prompt to gather. I finished thirty minutes prior to class—enough time to dab my damp forehead, take my arms out of my suit coat for a few minutes, grab a sugar cookie the size of a tire, along with a large bottle of water.

Then, to my surprise (yes, still) the people whose pictures I’d seen on Meetup.com began staggering in and introducing themselves—one, two, three, then five, seven, ten, etc. I wondered: like wild animals, were they more scared of me than I was of them?

I suppose teaching is a bit like having a child—you can practice, and read all the books, and listen to advice by “experts,” and be completely prepared, but until you haven’t slept for sixteen straight months or watched Toy Story three months in a row or tried to lure your two-year-old to sit on the potty using mini marshmallows meant for hot chocolate, then you truly don’t know what it’s like to command a classroom, and the pressure it takes to always have something interesting, exciting, fresh, or inspirational to say.

But teaching was in my blood.

I knew this that first night, and never doubted it, even until the last.  

From Buoy to Boat: Tips to Avoid Capsizing

  • Get a room: Book your space early! And check it out in person. Like a photograph (or book cover), looks can be deceiving. Don’t rely on a Web site thumbnail or someone else’s description. Visit the location and ask yourself: is the space truly big enough? Like a parent pressing on a child’s toe inside a new shoe, is there room to grow? Are there power outlets? What is the temperature of the room? Are there sufficient technological plug-ins, if projection or computer presentations are part of your plans? Does the venue offer food, or in the least, allow it to be brought in? If you’re planning an evening workshop, attendees will undoubtedly want a snack, water, or a cup of coffee, or perhaps all three. Because of this, coffee houses are logical places to start your search. If you end up in a local library, business conference room, or someplace like an Elks Lodge, make sure you find out if there’s a cleanup fee. At thirty dollars a night, abandoned coffee cups will cost you a fortune. And, most importantly, ask if the room is free of charge? Meaning, never pay for a space.
  • Start with a stretch: It’s unexpected, feels great, and relieves tension built up from the day. Remember, writing is an escape for people. Begin their “vacation” on a positive note. The ‘Narrative Arcs’ routine included arms, hands, wrists, neck, and back.
  • Be early: Personally, I often had to clean and set up the room every Tuesday night. Chairs had to be wheeled in from the back. Tables had to be moved. Posters of past lessons had to be put up. Handouts had to be organized. And a summary of the evening’s activities had to be written out. But before any of that, street parking had to be found. And depending on where you live, traffic might have to be overcome.
  • Prepare, prepare, prepare—then have a backup plan: Don’t cram the night before. This isn’t a multiple choice undergraduate algebra class test. This is quite possibly your new career. You’re a professional. Whether you’re getting paid or not, treat assignments and lessons, and students, with the respect they deserve. That means, if your workshop is on a Tuesday evening, don’t wait until Monday night to formulate your lesson or print the necessary handouts or start your PowerPoint or Prezi. Aside from the actual class at 6 p.m., Tuesday was always my “off day” in fact. And always print out more handouts than you actually need for each class. Even if a class member doesn’t show up as planned, they’re going to ask for a copy of last week’s handouts, so you might as well have extras ready.
  • Fall into a routine: I bought poster-sized Post-It Notes and was able to reattach the sheets to the walls for each class. This not only reinforced the syllabus, but helped me, as an instructor, when I needed to return to a point I made the previous week, or even three weeks prior. It also served as a timeline and reminder of how far we had come together.
  • Have water nearby: Enough said.
  • Be funny, when appropriate: No one expects a standup routine (or wants one) but everyone loves to laugh. Find ways to interject yourself into your lessons. I often told stories about my two-year-old daughter. If people can relate to you, oftentimes they’re more apt to respect and listen to you as well.
  • Take a break: Even adults have short attention spans. Depending on the length of your class, take one or two short breaks to use the restroom, refresh drinks, or simply allow open conversation for everyone to bond.
  • Read aloud: Don’t simply “workshop” new pieces. Have your students read their work aloud in class. In fact, at times I had students read their own work, then allowed another student to read the same piece aloud for its author. This gives the student several perspectives on what’s working, or where the prose, or dialogue, might be getting stuck.
  • Trust your instincts: Go with your gut. Whatever you want to call it. You’ll be able to “feel” if an exercise or lecture is headed in the wrong direction. Just be prepared to shift gears and be flexible, if that happens. Have alternate writing prompts students can complete or be willing to go “off-script.” Just because my course was designed to cover and examine the 8-point narrative arc, I often talked about other relevant topics, including dialogue, imagery, and voice. I also related each lesson back to the publishing industry, making sure every piece my students wrote in class could be submitted for publication.
  • Leave time: Obviously students will have questions throughout the night, but also plan to give them more than a minute or two to ask questions at the end. Most people, with limited time left in class, are ready to go home or know instinctively that their classmates are ready to go. Most will hold their question, fearing they’ll be a “bother.” Don’t force your students to have to choose. Give them time. Three minutes could mean the difference between helping a student succeed or having them never return to class again.
  • Say “Thank You”: Always thank your students for being there. Always. Unless you are teaching a required class in a university or college setting, remember, your students could be anyplace else but with you at that very moment. They’ve chosen you and your class. Most people are away from their families at night or need to wake up early for work the next day. Some of my students even drove in from neighboring towns and cities. Make them feel welcome and always appreciated. Not only did I thank students in person, but I made sure that I thanked each and every participant on Meetup.com within twenty-four hours of each class. Remember, in a workshop setting, you’re also marketing yourself, your personality, and your expertise. Answer each email and respond to every student. Always.

The Universal Donor

In the end, it doesn’t matter what your blood type is. If teaching is in your blood you’ll know it as soon as you step into the classroom. Although you might not feel it racing through your entire body, you’ll most likely feel it in your heart. That ever-beating heart. And that alone, will make you feel alive, perhaps even for the first time. I’d coached before—high school tennis—but, aside from the occasional forehand or backhand breakthrough, disciplinarian was my true title. I’d never taught in a classroom before, with a syllabus, and curriculum requirements. For me, it was more freeing, more liberating than being outdoors on a tennis court—those four walls offering a level of comfort and not distress.

As I write this, last night was the last night. Our final class. Those who were able to make the date, and had committed to the full 10-week workshop, or “found it” late and dropped in the middle, brought homemade pastries and a card for me. Their generosity and true thanks brought me to tears. But I was the one who owed them the warmest “thank you.” The gifts were unexpected; I can only imagine that my students felt I had added a “sweetness” to their Tuesday nights and wanted to return the favor. So, I say, “thank you,” to Bryan, Carol, Deb, Denise, DeWayne, DiAnn, Gina, Grace, Karen, Larry, Mary, Mollie, Rex, Richard, and Shelley.

Teaching is in my blood for good. Silently, it travels along the same canals that keep me alive. I cannot feel it. I cannot touch it. Yet, I know it’s there, because here I am typing away, living proof that you can still make a difference. It might even be in my daughter’s blood now. Whenever I leave the house alone she says, “Daddy teaches class.” In classical Greek medicine, blood was associated with air, with springtime, and with a merry and sanguine personality. Perhaps teaching is in your blood as well. Just don’t go looking for it. Although all blood is made of the same basic elements, not all blood is alike. It’s inherited. Like eye color, blood type is passed genetically from your parents. My blood type just happens to be O negative—the Universal Donor. If you need blood, I can offer it without medical consequence. In that vein, we are the same. But I can only share so much of it before growing too weak to go on.

So, the rest you’ll have to discover for yourself, and in your own time. My hope is that your own M.F.A. internship fills you with a sense of purpose. Whether you choose Teaching or Publishing, I trust you’ll find a way to build a better boat. It doesn’t have to be an arc. Just don’t expect to do this with a full set of instructions, or without the joy that can so often come from knowing your blood, sweat, and tears were worth spilling for those who choose to listen.

*Special Acknowledgement: Thank you to Dr. Nancy KcKinley. Your endless support and advice throughout the semester was beyond invaluable. You are a treasure who cares professionally, but more importantly, personally about each student, their needs, and futures. Thanks, Nancy, for being such a nurturing soul as we all reenter the “real world” as teachers. I know none of us at Wilkes could call ourselves that without you.

Michael Soloway writes fiction and screenplays, but nowadays focuses on essays, memoir, and playwriting. He has served as managing editor of more than a dozen nonprofit magazines and just finished his first memoir, Share the Chameleon, about attempting to break his family’s cycle of abuse, as he becomes a father for the first time in his 40s.

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One Response to “Blood, Sweat, and Tears: Lessons from the Teaching Internship”

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