The Dangers of Being a School Teacher and a Writer

As a writer, I’ve never been a fan of censorship. As an English teacher, I wasn’t a fan of it either. I’ve said just about everything in the classroom, including “shit”, “fuck”, “nigger”, and more. Hell, I once told a student to “scissor me” (disclaimer: I was asking her to hand me the scissors and had no knowledge of the sexual connotation of such a phrase).

Naturally, most of my outbursts of profanity occurred when I was reading from great works of literature. I wasn’t the type to walk into the classroom and tell the kids to “sit your asses in your fucking seats.”

My fiction has never been overly filled with profanity either. Nor was I ever big on sharing my writer identity with my students or coworkers. Inevitably though, the private life of a teacher will come out. Whether you are a writer or a former porn star, your students will eventually come to know more about you than you ever wanted them to know.

It happened to me one day in the writing lab when my honors students were doing research. As I prowled the room attempting to catch students off task, I spotted a student reading a story on his computer. Never one to deter students from literature, I leaned in closer to see what he was reading. When the student realized I was hovering over him, he had that “caught-red-handed” look on his face.

“Mr. Tower, this story is inappropriate,” he said before I even realized what he was reading. Then I spotted the title and author: “A Dick Move” by Nathaniel Tower. The first line of the story was “Yesterday I was fired for fucking my boss’s secretary.”

Now, as I mentioned before, I am not an overly profane writer. Compared to Bret Easton Ellis, I’m pretty G-rated. Of course, this student had to find the most vulgar story I had written.

“Please get back to work,” I told the student.

The next day, that class was abuzz about their author-teacher. I did my best to calm them down: Yes, I write fiction. No, I’m not famous. No, we don’t need to talk about it. No, we aren’t going to read my stories in the classroom.

Soon, it was back to work. Maybe I hadn’t written anything offensive

enough, or maybe their attention spans didn’t require a deeper exploration of my authorship, but the topic rarely came up again. Still, I realized it was time to be more careful. After all, I had heard of teachers being fired for their behavior outside of the classroom. Could my budding writing career land me in similar trouble?

I decided to take some action to prevent this from happening. First, I removed the most profane stories from the publication list on my website. Sure, the students could still find the stories if they wanted, but I would at least make things more difficult for them. Next, I contacted a few editors asking them to change m

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y byline on the stories they had published (in particular, I was concerned about several stories I had published about my experiences in the classroom). Fortunately, the editors were happy to do so–and several even replied that I was not the first teacher to make such a request.

My paranoia didn’t last long. Within a year, I was writing stories more vulgar than the one that student had stumbled upon in the writing lab. I knew the odds of getting in trouble were small, and I was going to write what I wanted to write.

Over the years, some students and even some parents found out I was a writer, but none pressed the issue too much. They had other things to worry about. Really, I was just lucky that the wrong student or parent never became interested in my extracurricular pursuits. If so, I may have ended up like this guy whose science fiction novel about a school shooting may have cost him his job. It’s probably worth mentioning that my novella Hallways and Handguns features a school shooting and a lecherous teacher. What would my school district have said if an angry parent had uncovered this book? Would I have suddenly been accused of being a mass murderer and a sexual deviant?

When I moved to Minneapolis and stopped being a teacher, I became much more open about my writing. Many of my former students and coworkers found out about it, mostly thanks to social media. Of course, that was all after the fact. It wouldn’t matter at all if a parent took it to the school board now.

So what’s a school teacher to do? Can we write what we want and be open about it? Personally, I wouldn’t recommend promoting your work in the classroom–especially if what you write is in anyway controversial. Nor would I recommend that you censor yourself as a writer. Ultimately, you need to know the proper time and place for each pursuit, and you need to be ready to accept the consequences that might pop up in this insane world of ours.

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9 thoughts on “The Dangers of Being a School Teacher and a Writer

  1. I don’t promote my work in the classroom, but I have copies of my recent book covers taped to my office door. Not a single student has ever asked about them. Then again, I teach college level, so that may make a difference in whether anyone would find them “inappropriate” or not…are zombies inappropriate?

  2. Well said, Nate. I, too, have used a nom de plume from time to time in fear of retribution. It’s a very fine line sometimes, even in higher education. My theory is, if a writer makes it big with a difficult, interesting piece, all is forgiven, but if she tries and fails, that one student/one parent thing can destroy a career. Funny how that works, but not in a belly-laugh kind of way.

  3. Great post. It was entertaining, and I also think that you make a really good point! I’m a teacher/writer too, but my students are adults, so it isn’t quite the same for me.

  4. I no longer teach (college comp), and I’m now an office drone, but I still do not divulge that I write fiction. (Some of my nonfiction writing has turned up among my coworkers.) I even use a pen name as a buffer.

    I have worked at jobs where the company (or at least some people in the company) felt it had the role of moral authority. It did tell employees that their lives outside of the office were fair game for continued employment consideration. I feared that my boss might come to feel it was her job to preview and edit and finally approve my work before I submitted it for publication. That never quite happened, but I was given some commentary on my articles after they were published and given suggestions for topics to write about. Then I was asked if I had written the suggested articles (I never had) and then why hadn’t I?

    I left that job long ago, and the company went out of business. (There was a period where every company I ever worked for went out of business. I even wrote a story about it that was published.) But I still feel that my writing is my business, and the safest way to keep it like that it to keep quiet about it.

    1. Thanks for commenting, Paul. It’s interesting to hear your perspective and learn about how writing fiction or even non-fiction can be a danger in any line of work. I agree that writers aren’t completely safe in any profession. I don’t talk about my writing at my current job. It’s not that I am trying to hide what I write so much as I don’t want it to be something that we talk about a lot (although growing a bigger fan base would be nice).

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