Friday, 22 July 2016

The Burden of the Educator, by Dan Metcalf

Education is a scary word, isn't it? It practically reeks of authority and grown-upness. It is particularly scary when you find yourself in the job of actually providing any sort of education related services or materials, as I accidentally did recently.

With two older sisters as teachers and seeing the sheer amount of work they came home with, I was dead set that I would have nothing to do with teaching. I always saw it as a grown-up profession, something that you have to wear a tie for and in my teens I was adamant that I didn't want that sort of career. Indeed, the only sort of career I liked was the one defined as “to move swiftly and in an uncontrolled way”. I went to university after being encouraged by my extremely patient careers guidance officer to apply, on the understanding that 'you can always drop out if you find something else you want to do'. Somewhere along the way I forgot this bit of advice and just carried on with the degree, although I never did find something else I wanted to do, apart from drink cans of Fosters from 10am and watch The Simpsons.

On emerging from the confines of University with a degree in writing, I had a on/off relationship with a career in the film industry and then ended up in retail before embarking on a 'proper' job, that of a librarian. Curiously I never equated my role as the organiser and curator of information as that of an educator (which I had vowed never to be), but many would argue that the position of librarian is firmly entrenched in the education sector. I encountered mature students, home learners and every summer would help to keep children's reading skills up to scratch by way of the Summer Reading Challenge. I even jumped ship towards academic libraries for a long period but it never occurred to me that I was becoming that which I feared most: an Educator.

When I was laid off due to cut-backs (Thanks Coalition Government!), I seized the opportunity to take my side-career of writing more seriously. I had already been ghost-writing for a while and it seemed possible. Amazingly I secured a contract to write a series for a – gasp! - education publisher! I took to taking deep breaths and began whispering to myself 'Don't panic, Dan. Just make up the stories like you always do...'

But my Lottie Lipton books were based in the British Museum and so required a fair amount of research on the historic artefacts there. I had included fun puzzles at the end of each chapter to engage the reader. My themes covered the ancient Egyptians, Romans and Greeks. The editorial team even started to bombard me with questions: 'Is this object really in the British Museum?' or 'Could we change this part for accuracy?'.

“I don't know!” I wanted to shout. “I made it up – that's what I do!”. With a few stiff drinks and the application of bum-to-seat to do some actual work, I got through it.

Then the school visits began. I found myself facing classes or even whole schools, each pair of eyes looking at me to teach them about how to write, and what I write about. Hands started to go up; questions were asked. Then I found the most amazing thing; it's cool to be a teacher. The students look up to you, they repay you for your imparting of information in ways I never knew possible. On a recent schools tour to promote my newest books, The Eagle of Rome and The Catacombs of Chaos, I was handed pictures and thank you cards, complete with suggestions for future Lottie Lipton Adventures (Vampires vs Zombies, anyone?)

Being an educator is a terrific burden, which I why I take my metaphorical hat off to teachers, teaching assistants and librarians everywhere (not that you're reading this. By the time this is posted you'll be on your summer hols, prancing in a meadow of poppies singing 'I'm free! I'm free!'. Or sleeping for a month, whichever you feel you need to do most). But I think I know now why so many do it; it's rewarding and fun. I now go into schools as much as possible and enjoy every second. It's not like teaching everyday of course; I get to be the cool/weird guy who infects the students with ideas and then leaves the teacher to deal with them and calm them down. I'm kind of like an uncle who baby-sits for a day, feeds your kids three tubes of smarties and then hands them back at the peak of their sugar high. Only, y'know, in a creative way...

So I have now made my peace with being an 'educator' (of sorts) and embrace the role wholeheartedly, rejecting the fear that comes with the burden. But I still won't wear a tie...

Dan Metcalf is the writer of The Lottie Lipton Adventures. The Eagle of Rome and The Catacombs of Chaos are published on 28th July by Bloomsbury Education. See for more info on Dan and his books.


Sue Bursztynski said...

Absolutely right, Dan! I read so many posts by writers who feel good about themselves for doing school visits and imply that they're better than the teachers who have to do this every day and don't get all the fun stuff. And don't get thank you cards from the kids, or rarely, anyway. Glad to see you get it.

And a librarian does educate. And find the ideal book to match with the reader. I've just spent half a morning with a student who likes fantasy but wasn't interested in anything I showed him. In the end, I persuaded him to borrow a fantasy anthology so that if he didn't like the stories he wouldn't have invested too much time, and if he did like something I could find more books by the author concerned.

Education writing is a good market if you can crack it. I wrote some education books a while back. A book published in 2002 is still bringing me decent royalties. The trade industry doesn't keep things in print unless you're a major bestseller.

Dan Metcalf said...

Thanks for the comment Sue! Absolutely right, librarians do a great job. Thinking of all my librarian buddies as they jump headfirst into the Summer Reading Challenge!

Penny Dolan said...

Glad to hear how happily you stepped into the educator role, Dan, and that you enjoy the enthusiastic response those young audiences give you.

I don't think many of the authors or illustrators that visit schools feel they are "better" than the teachers and other staff. However, it is possible - without dissing anyone - to observe that there are aspects of the current education system that aren't working as well as one would hope, for the children, the staff or the school as a community. I'm sure many teachers, TA's and the still-remaining librarians feel that too.