Matt Goodfellow: Teachers as Poets

On an actual in-person school visit earlier this year (I know, a rarity, right?), a teacher mentioned she’d spotted how many writers had a background in education. Off the top of my head, I can think of… Jan Dean, Brian Moses, Roger Stevens, Pie Corbett, Coral Rumble, Andy Seed, James Carter, Wes Magee, Rachel Rooney, Me, Sue Hardy-Dawson… I’m sure you can think of more…

So, why, in my opinion, is the teaching profession such a successful spawning ground for writers?

Aspiring teacher-writers are around their target audience all day – they read to them and can see first-hand what they like and what they don’t. There are plenty of opportunities to slip their own writing in – or I certainly did – to gauge reaction.

Teachers enjoy engaging with children. I hated the paperwork, pressure and ever-increasing workload of life as a teacher, but always loved talking to children – having a laugh, hearing what made them tick. It inspired poems…and still does. Teachers who want to write will have their receptors tuned in.

Also, the wannabe teacher-writer will (hopefully!) get to witness in full glorious technicolour those already doing the job – when I was a primary teacher, I was lucky enough to have writers including Jan Dean, Brian Moses, Tom Palmer, Nick Toczek and Wes Magee in school – and watched what they did and how they did it.  Some did assemblies, some didn’t, some only worked with KS2 classes, some did Q+As etc – they all had their own style – and I could cherry pick!

Those with a teaching background will be confident in pitching the level of work they ask children to do in their sessions – and, on a practical level, will have an awareness of how to organise a workshop session: what equipment will all classrooms have? How should a 30min/45min/1hr be structured? How much input is needed in order to get the children writing?

Teaching is one big performance! You can be the finest writer of poetry the world has ever seen – but stand in front of a 3-form-entry infant school, or a 4-form-entry junior school where the streetwise Y6s eye you with the utmost suspicion, and you realise that you have to be able to perform – entertain, engage and hold the attention of children (and the adults sitting round the side!). An audience of adults watching a boring performance will most probably remain polite…. 350 bored 5-7 year olds will immediately let you know they’re bored.

Alongside the day-to-day classroom ‘performance’, teachers will generally have a track record in delivering assemblies, the physical act of standing up in front of large groups of children and being the focal point. This doesn’t come naturally to everyone but those who’ve taught will have had to do it…and will have developed their own style. Even as a class teacher with no leadership responsibility, I was on a weekly rota for Key Stage 2 assemblies (and often had to cover whole school assemblies) – it was a time when the other class teachers stayed in their classrooms catching up on marking etc and crucially allowed me to deliver whatever official message I had to deliver…and then sneak some poems in to get them road-tested in front of mixed ages…what work? What doesn’t? What gets the Y6s joining in as well as the Y3s etc?

No wonder so many writers come from a teaching background!

Matt Goodfellow

Matt Goodfellow is from Manchester. He is a National Poetry Day Ambassador for the Forward Arts Foundation. His most recent collection is ‘Bright Bursts of Colour’ (Bloomsbury 2020).  

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