Hello all you lovelies checking in on Beyond the Stars! I recently had the pleasure of working Amber Elby, who is the author of Cauldron’s Bubble! I recently did a review of Cauldron’s Bubble, which you can find here, and Amber agreed to come on the blog with a Guest Post.
I am probably too relaxed honestly, but I told Amber I had no preference on what she posted, all I wanted was to ensure that she was happy with what she sent me. She sent me a list of options and I chose one that hits close to home for me.
I am actually in school right now getting my Bachelor’s degree and I will have an emphasis in education. I am preparing to take my practice PPR and possibly teach after graduation. Obviously I love reading, so I have thought about writing as well, but I am not very good at it. But enough behind my reasoning.
I would like to welcome Amber Elby to the blog and thank her for joining us here today!
A Journey from Teaching to Writing
by Amber Elby
I never expected to be a teacher, especially not a high school teacher. But as I approached graduation, it became clear that I could not find employment in my degree field. My timing was terrible: I was about to earn a Master of Fine Arts degree in Screenwriting during the height of the Writers’ Strike, a period when every screenwriter was essentially unemployed. I knew I had to do something if I wanted a job.
To be clear, teaching is the most noble profession, and I have the greatest respect for teachers. It’s difficult, and it takes years of training to do it well. Even though both of my parents were teachers, I took a different path with my education and focused instead on writing.
But when I realized that I could not immediately pursue a career in writing, I went to night school and earned a teaching certificate to complement my undergraduate degree in English. Austin had a teacher shortage at the time, so one week before graduation, I attended a job fair and landed a position teaching English and Screenwriting at the Liberal Arts and Science Academy, the city’s academic magnet school.
Within a few months, I went from writing dozens of script pages each week to the more challenging task of teaching American teenagers how to appreciate Beowulf and The Odyssey. The problem was that I never really stopped writing, at least not in my head. Even though my days were spent managing my classroom and my nights were a constant grading spree, I imagined stories that were inspired by my environment.
The students themselves helped this creativity with their curiosity and questions, continually sharing events from their personal lives. I listened to their concerns and joys, their speech patterns and dramas and angst, and they helped form characters in my heads. I listened to tales of their vacations and siblings and awkward dates, their parents and sports teams, and I listened to what they loved about literature and what they hated.
You see, young people have little agency when it comes to the literature they consume. If they are lucky enough to have free time, they may be able to read one or two books each semester. Yet if they are like the vast majority of high school students, their free time is spent whirling between extracurricular activities because their goal is college, and college applications ask if students are in track or choir, not how many books they read. So reading falls to the wayside, at least reading for pleasure, and students only consume the required texts for class.
And honestly, many required readings are boring. Well, they’re not boring so much as inaccessible. So much of a teacher’s time is spent simply trying to get students to understand a literary work – its archaic language and antiquated allusions – that there is little time left to actually discuss and appreciate the text. As a high school teacher, I soon found myself moving away from traditional “this word means this” and “here is another metaphor” education strategies and back to my creative writing roots; we discussed characters’ motivations, plot structure, conflict, arcs, and in doing so, we enlivened our learning environment and made a deeper connection with the literature because we could actually relate to the stories. The students learned how to make literature come to life: the characters became real people with whom they could relate, and the students in turn took control over their literary education.
I would like to say this strategy of combining writing theory with literature worked and that I had one of those “Captain, my captain” moments, but the truth is that I quit teaching high school after two years. As I said, it’s difficult. Like many K-12 teachers, I could not endure the long hours, stress, and inadequate pay, so I instead moved to the community college where I still teach. Now, my focus is more on the literature itself and less on the students simply because our classes are shorter and transitory, so I instead appreciate and explore conventions like syntax and setting and listen less to stories about my students’ pets and parties. But I still often find myself thinking back to the time when I began my teaching career.
Remember that teachers are the bridge between young people and knowledge. A teacher’s job is to take basic understanding and mold it into lasting, deep comprehension. But it is also their job to turn young people into kind and functioning adults. So every day, teachers build worlds inside students’ heads and motivate dramatic personal change, much the same way that authors create new civilizations and develop dynamic characters. Teachers and writers are one in the same, in many ways.
My advice is simple: if you are a teacher and want to become an author, think about your students. Be inspired by them. Consider what they enjoy about reading and what they observe when they read. By doing so, you can create characters that speak to young people like your students, and you can spur students into listening to texts and to themselves. Also remember to never stop learning, or imagining.
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Meet Amber Elby
Amber Elby was born in Grand Ledge, Michigan but spent much of her childhood in the United Kingdom. She began writing when she was three years old and created miniature books by asking her family how to spell every, single, word. Several years later, she saw her first Shakespearean comedy, Much Ado About Nothing, in London. Many years later, she studied Creative Writing at Michigan State University’s Honors College before earning her Master of Fine Arts degree in Screenwriting at the University of Texas at Austin. She currently resides in Texas with her husband and two daughters and spends her time teaching, traveling, and getting lost in imaginary worlds.
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