Monday, 19 July 2010

Five tips for Visiting Authors - Meg Harper

You won’t all want to be visiting authors – and I may not be for long, given the recession! But inadvertently I’ve done a lot of this sort of work in recent years, partly because I really enjoy it – so, if you’re interested yourself, these are my tips:
1. Be Nice. I’ve said this before and Penny Dolan famously says it too in her informative and amusing guide to school visiting. You have nothing to lose and everything to gain by being nice from start to finish – and when you first arrive, there will be few clues about who the key players are especially on a dressing up day. The Head might be the one in the toga with the laurel wreath but could equally well be one of the many snowmen. Expect absolutely anything and store it away to dine out off later. There is absolutely no point in getting uppity and every point in riding the storm – wild horses might not be able to drag you back to this particular school/library etc but you want them to recommend you to others! I’ve had the headteacher who asked if it was OK to have her piano lesson in the same room as I was holding my workshop, the recorder group playing in the next classroom divided from me with a vinyl screen, the tour of schools where they hadn’t factored in a lunch break, fire drills and a real fire...endless fun! However...I will not carry on with children or teachers talking over me and I make this very clear by waiting with a pointed smile (just watch it – these nice smiley teeth are still teeth...) or with teachers a very concerned, ‘Sorry – is there something wrong?’ Let’s face, it there may be! I’ve even gone as far as (isolating the particular child with a look), ‘Do you know, I’m really surprised! I usually find in schools that children are quiet for visitors!’ Still smiley, still nice! If you get left on your own and you’re not happy, follow Helena Pielichaty’s tip and follow the teacher out (nicely!). You shouldn’t be left on your own. If it’s a quick nip out to grab paper, fair enough – it shouldn’t happen but it will – but anything more than that and you should take nice action.

2. Travel by train where possible and practical. Advantages – you will be picked up and therefore won’t suffer the stress of finding the school lurking obscurely behind the giant yew hedge, struggling for a parking space and negotiating the security system. You’ll also have a golden opportunity to demonstrate your niceness to the person who collects you – even the taxi driver who probably has a child at the school or knows someone else who does! Disadvantages – you may have a heavy case to battle with and you may not make a quick getaway – combat the former by not taking too many books to sell. Unless you are Mark ‘I can sell sand to the Arabs’ Robson, you probably won’t sell very many anyway and this will only dishearten you if you’ve taken a hundred. Wherever possible suggest a 9.30 start rather than 9 – you’ll avoid the hectic rush of pupil arrival time and registration.

3. Get all arrangements confirmed in writing. I have a booking form I ask to be filled in. Very early on, I was asked by Ottakars to do a World Book Day visit and thought I had declined. Come the day, I was ill in bed – very unusual as I was home-educating my four kids at the time but had begged them to leave me in peace for a couple of hours. And then came the phone call – Ottakars had a class of schoolchildren waiting for me – where was I? I have never dressed, bundled my kids into the car or driven faster in my life but I don’t want to repeat the experience! Recently, I was reliant on an agency to book me into a B&B – and I hadn’t bothered to get that confirmed in writing. Oops a daisy......

4. Be flexible and creative but don’t agree to do anything beyond your capabilities. I now have workshops for every age group which I advertise on my web-site (you definitely need one!) and I have the confidence to know I can probably create something new to almost any spec – but I have very tentatively built up my work with pupils with special needs. Recently asked if I could cope with a school where every child had English as an additional language, I was honest about the fact that I didn’t know and suggested I visited as writer/drama practitioner rather than just the former! I’m still very careful about accepting jobs where I’m specifically asked for ‘boy appeal’.

5. Wear trousers! Then you don’t need to worry about ending up on stage with your lovely skirt tucked in your knickers – I had a very lucky escape with a teacher sprinting after me to unhook at the last minute or the sweet little year 1s clustered round your feet leaving snot trails. So make that machine washable trousers too, just in case.....
Last word – enjoy!

The photo was done for the particular schools web-site so I trust it’s OK here!


Linda Strachan said...

Great post, Meg. It is so important to be nice to people, even when things are going wrong. So much more professional, too.

I love school visits and travelling by train also gives me time to write but carrying props as well as books makes it unrealistic sometimes.
I rarely take books to sell especially on primary school visits because the children rarely have money with them for books, but I do have an order form with a space on it for their name for dedication. I leave these with the school to send out after my visit and I sign and dedicate the books before I send them back to the school. This works really well.
But I think the most important point of all is to enjoy it. If you are enjoying it that enthusiasm and sense of fun make it a better experience for both the children, and the teachers.

Andrew Strong said...

Excellent advice. Working full time I don't too many visits, but the one I would add (from personal experience) is don't get hideously drunk the night before.

Meg Harper said...

Ha!Good point, Andrew. Linda, I love your idea about sending books afterwards - I'll try it out!

Miriam Halahmy said...

This was really useful Meg, I have no doubt I shall be re-referring to it once all this gets underway for me next year. I used to be a teacher but the thought of going in as a visiting writer fills me with dread. I suppose its a bit like a doctor being admitted to hospital. LOL.