Friday, 13 July 2012

Why do I tutor courses on writing children’s books? by Paeony Lewis

I’ve tutored lots of courses on writing children’s books. Several times I’ve been asked why I teach the courses. Aren’t I just creating more competition? Well, I’ve never thought of it like that. But why do I do it? Hmmm…

Is it just for the money?
No way! Adult education is appallingly paid. It may appear OK, but that’s before the time-sucking, soul-bruising paperwork that takes longer than the courses.

Aren’t writers recluses? Do I teach as a way of meeting people?
No. If you write picture books of 500 words, you don’t have to chain yourself to a computer for months. It’s those that live in an imaginary world of 150,000 words who most need to hide away. However, I’m still a writer and most writers are nosy and like meeting people.

Maybe I teach because I have a fetish for scrawling on white boards and flip charts?
Nope. Do I need to expand on this, or will you take my word for it?

Then do I teach because I pick up lots of ideas from student’s stories?
Incredibly, that has been suggested. The answer is NO. Utterly, totally NO! Sometimes I need to tell a student I’ve already written a story based around what they think is their new idea. I also stress that this shouldn’t stop them writing their own story because you can’t copyright ideas and we all bring our own style, interpretation and experience to a story. Nuff said.

Ah, so it’s probably because, “Those who can, do; those who can't, teach.”
That condescending quote originally came from a George Bernard Shaw play. It always irritates me when used to squash teachers. What’s wrong with enjoying both? If you have a passion for something it can be fun to share. Grrr…
(Calming breath…)

So, do I teach simply because I enjoy teaching?
Well, I wouldn’t do it for free. However, I did a BBC personality test and it seems I’m a ‘nurturer’. Does that explain why I enjoy teaching? Not sure. And I’m not sure about personality tests. Though it may explain why I ‘nurture’ too many pets.

Then maybe I teach because I also learn?
In a weird way, that’s sometimes true. Having to articulate how I do something reminds me of how I should be doing it. Does that make sense? I can’t teach others if I don’t understand it myself. Therefore I have to analyse what makes a successful picture book story. Although, of course, there isn’t a magic formula and sometimes ‘knowing stuff’ is most useful when analysing why a story isn't working.

Finally, does teaching inspire me to write?
Oh yes, it provides a good kick in the bum! By encouraging others to write, I’m also encouraging myself. Plus teaching reminds me how much I know. Oh, and how much I‘ve forgotten.

So I’ll keep on tutoring classes, because even with appalling pay, frustrations with Adult Education, gratuitous paperwork, and very occasionally a student I’d like to gag, I still enjoy teaching something I’m passionate about: picture books and children’s books. Hope students enjoy it too! And as for how much can be learnt on a course; that's another blog...

Paeony Lewis


  1. Great post, Paeony. It got me thinking as to why I teach, I decided it's because it's fun to do and fun to talk about writing.
    I sooooo agree with you on the “Those who can, do; those who can't, teach.” It drives me crazy (or should that be crazier?)

    1. Oops, I'll try again - my reply vanished.

      Thanks, Lizzie, and I'm relieved I'm not the only one who snarls at that 'quote'! And I agree it's fun to share time with others who enjoy writing. Px

  2. Thanks, Paeony. I don't regularly teach but I do do workshops occasionally for adults writing for children and I've always found it's been really useful for me, getting my ideas about what makes a great book etc really firmly in my head. And it's great working with people who are really interested, too. Doesn't matter how long you've been writing, you can still learn something off an absolute beginner....

    1. The students I find most tricky are the ones who think they're doing just fine and don't need to experiment. You're right, we never stop developing our writing, Clare.

  3. Great post, Paeony. I do workshops with children, and it's always intriguing and revealing, one way or another. Adult ed obviously a different world though...

  4. I teach creative writing in the community - independently, not through any other organisation. So the paperwork etc is not a problem: I'm my own boss. The disadvantage is that I have to do my own marketing! I really enjoy it - as Juliet says, you keep learning, and I really enjoy hearing what my students come up with. And I certainly agree, Paeony, that it's good to have to articulate and explore what you do. And I enjoy their enjoyment - it's refreshing...

  5. I guess you do it because you choose to do it so there must be some reward somewhere for you. It's probably easier to get a relationship going with kids as they are very open and honest. I suppose tutoring adults is harder as they tend to have barriers to criticism. The best questions involve 'why?' Why write? Why tutor? Why enrol in courses? To get something out of it - what I don't know ...

  6. Great post, Paeony. I know what you mean about teaching to learn. I was a teacher for many years and I well remember how clear a topic became once you'd stood up at the white board teaching it... although a little less competition would be good, now you come to mention it!

  7. I love that moment when somebody doesn't really think they can do it, but they listen really closely, and try really hard, and read out what they've written really tentatively - and they've got it! They've absolutely got it!
    That moment makes it all worthwhile.
    And once... that was me.

  8. Thanks, everyone. I wasn't sure I'd get any comments with this post.
    Emma, yes, sadly, it's a different world. Our Adult Ed seems to doggy paddle its way through cuts and changes in funding, whilst logic and students don't make it to the surface. I've tutored for a couple of unis and that was easier.

    Sue, I really should follow your example and work independently.Every year I contemplate it. It must make you able to be more responsive to individual student needs.

    Alan, yes, adults come with more emotional baggage, though at the same time that makes them interesting. The teens on my courses always make me smile because they are up for anything.

    Thanks, Rosalind. So shall I tell students not to bother with stuff like characterisation, and thus rid ourselves of competition?! Sneaky!!

  9. I'm with Malachy on that one, It's a joy to see someone achieve something they never thought they could, and I don't think it matters if that person is an adult or a child.
    We've all been there.
    Also that moment when you are explaining an aspect of writing and you realise that you are guilty of forgetting it in your own writing.
    Interesting post, Paeony

  10. I agree, Linda. I adore the way confidence grows.

    1. I'll also add that I suspect one of the reasons I adore seeing confidence grow is that I had no confidence in my own writing during my school years. I now know I'm mildy dyslexic and I still don't like writing by hand if anybody has to see it. What a difference it would have made if home computers had been around in the 70s. However, with computers I can relax and not worry as anything can be corrected. Even so, my confidence is still fragile and therefore it's so satisfying if I can get unconfident students to feel good about their writing; albeit they also need to accept that we all write rubbish sometimes and shouldn't get hung up on it!

  11. I love to teach especially when you get a group that gels. I have also found I gain as much as the students. It forces me to read about the craft of writing and forces me to keep on writing to get better. And as you say if you don't understand the subject then there is no way you can teach it. Recently I took a class called writing for profit and pleasure. During the course two of the students had pieces published in magazines - the first thing they had ever had published. To say I was in smug mode for a while is an understatement.

    1. How great to happen during the course. Deservedly smug, Lynne!

  12. I've really enjoyed this post and the responses stirred. I have never taken a writing class (shame!), but have taught art to young kids. And like Malachy I was most touched observing the moment when student 'really got it', not the visual outcome necessarily but the creative path that was just forged.

  13. Thanks, Julie. And that's a good point that the straightforward outcome doesn't necessarily reflect the importance of the creative revelation.