12 Tips to Help Balance Teaching and Writing Life (kind of)


I am asked this question by teachers ALL. THE. TIME:

"How do you balance writing novels with teaching high school English full-time? What's your secret?"

I tend to look over my shoulder and think, Are you talking to me? HAHAHAHAHAHAHA! There is no balance. There is only do.

"But online you look like you have it together."

Yes. Social media isn't reality. It's a daily struggle.I think it's important to establish why I write because I would not torture myself with my schedule if it weren't a high need (not a want) in my life.

Writing keeps me sane. Writing is where I find my solitude and escape.  My favorite part about writing is planning structure, seeing what happens, and editing for clarity and emotional impact. That same passion translates to being a good teacher since my favorite part of teaching is planning lessons that will make students think and adapting for clarity and impact.

Writing for teens while teaching teens is a powerful alliance. My students keep me connected to the current generation. As a young adult author, I read a ton of YA books to keep current with the industry. In the classroom, that knowledge helps me recommend books to my students. Students also take my writing advice more seriously now that I'm a published author since they know it's coming from an authentic place. Win-win.

However, teaching can be an energy-sapping monster. In case you think my teaching schedule is probably light and full of highly motivated students, and that's how I manage, I assure you, it isn't. I teach at a large urban high school, and I have hundreds (yes, plural) of students in my English classes this year, including a wide range of reluctant readers as well as AP Language and Composition students. Yikes.Here's what I've learned, what I've tried, and where I've failed, to inspire and provide, uh, a reality check. (Some of my advice will work with anyone struggling to write with a demanding, full-time day job.)

Tips to help balance teaching and writing (kind of):


1. A teacher's workday must have an end, and you must draw that clear boundary line. Say that mantra to yourself every freaking day. Does it make you tear up a little with stress relief? You cannot work on lesson plans, grading papers, emailing parents, filling out administrative paperwork, etc. throughout the day and into the deep recesses of the night. It isn't human, and you will become a worse teacher, not a better teacher, for it.

Give yourself a mental clocking out time.  Draw a boundary line based on your time, not tasks remaining. Either go to school early or stay late, but don't do both. I shut off my teacher brain at 6 pm the latest no matter what. I often go for a walk after my teaching day ends to clear my head and transition to home.At least twice a month, I preserve one day off from teaching, writing, and social media that I call a "me" day to just be. It helps me recharge fully since writing and social media also have no clear end times.

2. Sunday nights are for recharging, not for grading or writing. I learned this one the hard way. I used to cram in extra grading and writing on Sunday nights, but then I paid for it all week. If you stay up late on a Sunday night doing work, your internal stress levels never get a chance to rest and reset for the next week. Sunday nights should be for relaxing and recharging. Read for pleasure. Spend time with family. Remember what's important to you.

3. Set aside a dedicated day and time for your writing, probably either one hour before teaching or one hour in the evening. Or dedicate two hours every Saturday and Sunday to write.  Most people can write between 500-1000 words in an hour. So minimum, in less than a year, you'd write the rough draft of a novel.I write 500 words, or for one hour (whichever comes first) at night during the school year. I take a week off writing when grades are due for report cards. I originally started the Twitter Writing Challenge group to keep me accountable and motivated, although I haven't been as active with them since I found that posting a public, daily word count when an editor/agent is waiting for my work is way too much pressure for me. I know many writers with busy day jobs who joined the #5amWritersClub on Twitter for motivation.

You might be thinking, "But I'm so tired. Teaching wipes me out." Yup. Do you know you are at your most creative when you are exhausted because your critical brain is too tired to argue against your ideas? Teachers should be primed for creative things since we're so damn tired!

(Heads up, though: If you are a new teacher, please give yourself a few years before adding professional writing goals to the mix. Your first three years of teaching are vital to learn how to be an effective teacher long-term, and you need to focus all your energy to building those skills first so you can rely on them later. I've been teaching for almost twenty years, and it still isn't easy to manage both.)

4. Keep a written record of your progress for tangible accountability. It's too easy to put off writing and not see the negative, cumulative effect it's having on your goals. I use Pacemaker to set private, daily word count goals and full draft deadlines. It adjusts when I don't write and recalculates an end goal (much like an amortization calculator for debt.) It's highly encouraging to me to see my progress and failure in real numbers.I also stay accountable through my local critique group meetings once a month. If you are serious about writing, you need a trusted audience of people willing to read early pages and give you honest feedback while you return the favor. If you are writing for children and teens, SCBWI has great resources for finding an open critique group by region. That's how I found my group. I also know some writers who use Critique Circle online.

5. Start a bullet journal. You need a good calendar system for school, family, and writing deadlines and goals. The best thing I ever did was start a bullet journal at the advice of a writer friend when I published my first book. I couldn't manage all the details for different tasks and deadlines.  If you find you have lists and sticky notes everywhere, it's time for a bullet journal.It's a way to organize lists, notes, and deadlines without losing anything. It's gets the daily and future clutter out of your head. It's better than a calendar or agenda because you create it as you go, and it expands with all the aspects of your life. The key is the table of contents (or index) you build for quick access later. I'm telling you, it's cathartic not to have to remember everything anymore. Some people get fancy with their journals, but I am not artistic, and I really don't have the time. I have one bullet journal for tracking my teaching, writing, and family long-term commitments and daily to-do lists, and other random ideas that pop into my head. It handles it all. There are a ton of videos out there, but here's a basic video to get started

.6. Delegate, then let it go. One problem teachers have by profession is we are oh so helpful... so bloody helpful and accommodating that we often take on too many tasks out of kindness to others while not paying attention to our needs.Are there tasks that aren't worth your writing time that you can let go or pay someone else to do? How many things do you do for other people when they are fully capable of doing it themselves? Are you a parent? Do you still do everyone's laundry even though they are old enough and fully capable?Stop.Will your place be messier? Yes. Let it go. Do you want to write?

You aren't any less of a parent or friend or spouse if you make other people more self-sufficient. You are helping them become stronger, more reliable people who see you respecting your needs and your dreams. My kids are older (age 21 and 13), so this is easier for me than it may be for you if you have young children.The key is not to delegate tasks and then become passive aggressive and micromanage them. The key is to delegate and let things fail. That's the only way others will take on the task themselves, knowing you won't rescue them in the end.

Delegate in your classroom as well. Students want to help you. Give them classroom roles, make them classroom helpers for extra credit. Save energy for important tasks, like instruction, feedback, and grading, and set up processes in your classroom where students help students.

7. You need a number one supporter. You need the emotional support of others to be a writer. Writing is fun, but writing is hard. It requires sacrifice, creative bravery, and personal discipline. You need at least one person in your life who is always rooting for you through the ups and downs. My hubby is absolutely my number one supporter. He has never, ever questioned or complained about my writing time, traveling to book events, or meeting with my monthly critique group. Quite the contrary. He has always known that writing is the absolute one personal thing I need in my life.

8. Use your school vacations and summers for writing marathons. This is prime time writing, where I try to get ahead of my writing schedule. Writing helps recharge my creative batteries. I do not grade papers during vacations since that would suck the life out of me. These vacations are to recharge from the stress of teaching, not time to "catch up" with unrealistic grading practices.

9. Use technology to write and teach. Teachers have a lot of typing to do, and sometimes my hands and wrists get tired. Since I write my novels in scenes, I love using the program Scrivener for rough drafts (it has separate folders for each scene and compiles everything into Word later). I paid for the additional app so I can dictate words into my phone, and it will save to Dropbox and update to Scrivener on my laptop.  It's not perfect (it's often confused by my lingering Boston accent), but when I'm exhausted, it's better than typing. Plus, I can use the app on the go, so if I'm waiting for my daughter to get out of practice, I can still work on my novel.

This year I plan to incorporate more technology, peer editing, and verbal feedback on student writing assignments since my class numbers are so high, with mini-lessons to address common issues.  I won't put feedback on final drafts, only a score.  Also, to the English teachers out there, pep talk: You are not hired to be the personal editor of each student. You are supposed to be teaching them to edit. Those two things are not the same.Remember this: The best teachers stay student-focused, not paperwork-focused.

10. Be aware of your physical body.  Be aware of how physical you are during the day when teaching. Since writing is sedentary, you have to manage your physical movement when teaching without wearing yourself thin. If your physical body is exhausted, you will come home and sleep instead of write. I have a joint and muscle pain issue, where I get really sore and stiff if I sit or stand for long, so I have to stay aware and change my physical position every twenty minutes, or I will pay for it later. I alternate as much as possible during the day so my physical exhaustion won't increase my mental exhaustion and stop me from writing at night.  I use the body scan on the Calm app for a twenty-minute daily meditation to check in with my body and stress levels. I also go for walks to break up my day. This year I'd like to get back into early morning yoga as well. I love Yoga with Adriene videos.

11. To avoid writer's block, try writing based on your daily emotions.  If I have a funny experience teaching, I work on a humorous scene in my novel. If I have a sad experience, it's tear-jerker time. If I have a frustrating day, it's time for a battle scene. This works best if you have a plot outline of scenes to complete.

12. ...or try ending midscene. This really works for me. When I'm writing at night and on a roll, I cut myself off at a time limit, not when I finish a chapter or a scene. I limit myself to one or two hours max, then I end midscene, even midsentence. That way I get enough sleep to function properly, and I'm dying to get back to writing the next night. (See more on my writing process here.)

Do you have any additional tips on balancing teaching and writing? I'd love to hear them.

P.S. I forgot coffee and dark chocolate. Can't survive without those!


The Importance of Mentors and Books: My Experience Having a "Big Sister"

Mrs. Ferguson

Mrs. Ferguson

Me as a kid

Me as a kid

When I was seven, my mother told me I was getting a "Big Sister" from the Big Brothers Big Sisters program. Since my brothers were too young for the program, only I would be getting one. I was getting a fake, older sister because I was special. Yeah, I was skeptical, too.

When Mrs. Ferguson arrived that first Wednesday, she limped into our apartment with a metal cane. I received the rejected Big Sister. The Big Grandmother.

She did her research on me, though, and found out that we had something in common. We both loved to read. Our first stop was at the Southworth Public Library in Dartmouth, Massachusetts. I had never been to a library before. She showed me how to navigate the children’s section and gave me space to explore. She headed to the biography section. Back at the counter, Mrs. Ferguson handed over her library card and asked the librarian if I could have an application.

I didn't know they gave kids library cards. No one else in my family had one. I held that application like it was a golden ticket.

After the library, Mrs. Ferguson drove us into the woods.  I worried that I was in a real life Hansel and Gretel situation. Bad things happen to children in forests. It turned out her house was an old cabin with weather-beaten shingles camouflaged among the trees. She showed me her wild garden, explaining flowers and plants with names I quickly forgot. I liked how she let them grow free.

Her home brimmed with tangible treasures. Ships in bottles. Intricate silver tins. Yellowed maps. Benches stacked with books. Landscape paintings by her husband. Haunting art photographs taken by her daughter using only a pinhole of light.

Two enormous antique mirrors hung on opposing walls. White Christmas lights sparkled around them even though it was late spring.  I remember examining myself full-length in one mirror and seeing my back in the other one across the room. From a certain angle, I could see myself standing behind me as well, and another me, and another, front, back, front, back, like parallel versions of me waiting in different frames for different futures. I lost and found myself in those twinkling mirrors.

Then it was time for baking. This was it—I was a goner, a confection in her oven. She opened a cabinet and pulled out a box of cake mix, saving me from a heart attack. While the cake rose alone in the oven, she taught me to play dominoes, backgammon, and gin rummy. Two hours later, it was time to leave fairy tale land where I got to play the fake princess instead of the broken child.

As time when on, you would think I would've respected my time with her. Nope. As I grew older, it was embarrassing to tell my friends I couldn't go bike riding because I was going with my Big Sister. I lied to them and made up excuses. I didn't want them to think I was abnormal.

I started to test her. Several weeks I pretended to be sick to sabotage the program. I didn't want to be someone’s project. Any normal person would've given up. She kept coming. Every freakin' Wednesday. She was more stubborn and persistent than I was. I gave in and learned how to trust someone.

For seven years Mrs. Ferguson picked me up every Wednesday and brought me to the library and her home. I read Amelia Bedelia, The Phantom Tollbooth, Nancy Drew, Encyclopedia Brown, The Babysitters Club. I began hiding romance novels from her at the library counter. Moved on to King. Koontz. Alcott. Angelou.

At thirteen, the program ended. She said she would keep in touch. I thought that’s just what people said to make goodbyes easier. But she wrote me cards, and we'd still get together every few months to catch up. Every birthday she would send me a book in the mail. She even met my oldest daughter, and we spent several afternoons together collecting sea glass and blowing bubbles.

Barbara (Sid) Ferguson was a stranger who volunteered to care about me faithfully for twenty years. She taught me about growing up gracefully with passion, connection, and creativity in my life. She had high standards yet broke rules if it would bring joy. Her funeral was an outdoor tea party where guests wore crazy hats and told jokes. Even in death, she had style.

We never talked about my childhood. We didn't talk about anything important or life-altering. And ironically, that time spent not talking about heavy stuff helped me develop my inner peace. Art, nature, creativity, books--these are the spiritual tools of survival that are most often neglected. These helped form my identity so I didn't get stuck in patterns of dysfunction.

She would've been thrilled to hear that I've become a published author. I thank her for giving me the quiet gifts of time and commitment. In 2001 I must’ve written her a letter thanking her. While I don't have my letter to her, I saved her written response. I think it's only fitting to end this blog post by sharing her words to me.

Letter from Ferguson p 1

Letter from Ferguson p 1

Letter from Ferguson p 2

Letter from Ferguson p 2

Writing Habits: Why 500 Words A Day Works For Me (and might work for you)

I'll admit it; I'm jealous of everyone who gets to participate in NaNoWriMo each November. There is NO WAY I can write a novel in November.  I am a high school English teacher. You can try to inspire me by saying that I can do anything I put my mind to...blah, blah, blah,  but it is physically and mind-numbingly impossible for me to write an entire novel in a month and still meet the needs of 100+ students, never mind all the reading and paperwork that goes along with it.

I know it's not only teachers who face NaNoWriMo envy. You may be working at an office job that requires loads of reading, writing, and number crunching to the point where letters blur into unrecognizable shapes by evening.  You probably take paperwork home to finish. You may be a stay-at-home parent who is so exhausted by the needs of your children that you don't even have time to read a novel in a month, never mind write one. But I can write at least 500 words each day. And so could you.

Writing 500 words a day may seem too easy to some writers and daunting to others.  Some days I can write 500 words in 20-30 minutes. Other days it takes over two hours of bloodletting before I get there.  Then there are those magical days when the words won't stop flowing from my fingertips, and I've lost track of space and time and eating.  Instead of 500 words, I hit 2K.

Here's the secret: It's not about the number. It's about the daily commitment.  It's about creating a habit of the mind.

A few things happen when you commit to daily writing:

1. You feel more like a writer. You walk around with a kind of inner satisfaction that you are accomplishing something no one else can see. Yet.

2. The story has time to marinate in your subconscious, and in turn your subconscious helps you fill in the story. The pulse of the characters stays fresher in your mind and carries into your dreams.  Fantasy and reality start to mix, and you find yourself coming up with dialogue in the middle of a grocery store checkout line. You start to zone out in mid-conversation with people to scribble notes.  The act of creating becomes second nature.

3. You stop beating yourself up about not writing because you are writing.  Writer's block has a snowball effect on procrastination.  Writing every day stops the avalanche of white page misery.

4. When you miss a day, which inevitably happens, you care. You defend your territory the next day. You snarl at people and demand they give you space to get the 500 words down on paper.

5. Your word count grows. And grows. When you write at least 500 words every day, you have 15K by the end of the month! And guess what? The magic of 500 words a day is that many times, you will get into the flow and write much more.That's the difference between establishing a writing habit and only writing when you have a chance or when the muse strikes.  You renew the promise to yourself as a writer each day  rather than letting life keep your pages blank.

And yes, of course sometimes I take a vacation from writing to refuel, to do other creative things, be inspired by the world, or when life throws me a curveball. But once that inspiration hits, I’m back in daily writing mode.

Inspired? I'd love to hear from other writers who have demanding day jobs.  Has 500 words a day worked for you? What else have you tried?

(This post first appeared in July 2014 on writingchallenge.org.)