National Writing Project

Teacher Turned Author Heartily Endorses NWP

By: Gavin Tachibana
Date: July 2008

Summary: After a 31-year teaching career, Coleen Armstrong, writing project teacher-consultant and award-winning author of The Truth About Teaching, relishes her role as a mentor of teachers. At the head of her recommendation list for professional development is the National Writing Project.


For someone who now publicly touts the National Writing Project, high school English teacher Coleen Armstrong took some convincing at first.

She was already a veteran teacher and a published and prolific writer when, in the late 1980s, a colleague insisted she take a summer "writing class" known to transform the way teachers teach.

"He had been nagging me for four or five years, `You have to do this, you have to do this, you have to do this,' and I was like `Yeah, right,'" Armstrong said.

Finally Armstrong relented, and in 1989 she joined her first summer institute, with the Ohio Writing Project. She had to admit, it was even better than her friend had predicted.

"The thing that is just indescribable that you can't relate to other people who haven't been through it is the camaraderie and the bolstering and the support, and the tears that come to people's eyes when you read your stuff, and the congratulatory remarks," she said. "It's just wonderful.  It's the way teachers should be with each other all the time."

In fact, Armstrong relished the experience so much that she returned for the two-week advanced institutes not once or twice, but each of the following five summers.

"It was the time to write which was a gift to myself," she said. "There's no such thing as a bad NWP class, at least not in my experience. Everyone just becomes so supportive."

It's just wonderful. It's the way teachers should be with each other all the time.

In fact, Armstrong placed the writing project as the number one program for teachers' professional development in the Spring 2008 issue of the Teacher Professional Development Sourcebook .

When asked, "What sort of professional development opportunities are most helpful to teachers to advance their careers or deepen their satisfaction?" Armstrong replied:  "A superb one that I heartily recommend is sponsored by The National Writing Project. . . . The insights and the camaraderie gained, not to mention the validation of having peers shouting `Yes!!!' to what you've put on paper, can jump-start the soul and leave you walking on air for months."

Becoming a Mentor—and Author

Armstrong retired from teaching in 1999 after a 31-year career, but since then has made an even bigger name for herself as a writer. With her conversational writing style and practical solutions, Armstrong has become a sought-after educational advice columnist. She recently penned a set of columns for Teacher Magazine's Ask the Mentor series about Getting Ready for the School Year , tackling everything from classroom decoration ideas to teacher/principal conflict.

In 2006 Armstrong authored The Truth About Teaching: What I Wish the Veterans Had Told Me , winner of an Independent Book Publishers Association award. In this 125-page "love letter to new teachers," Armstrong dispenses advice she hopes will prevent years of heartache for beginning teachers.

"My main purpose was to save them the agony of 25 years of floundering around by offering them cut-to-the-chase solutions that we all should come up with sooner, but who has time?," she said. "Who has time to figure anything out when you're just basically trying to keep your head above water every day?

"I think I said something as simple as buying multicolored plastic milk crates and putting them on the radiator with a different color for every class period, and when the kids were absent and they missed something, I would put all the appropriate papers and assignments in that bin.  And if they asked, `What did I miss?' I just had to point and they'd go over and figure it out for themselves.  Well, for the first 20 years or so I would have to stand at the door and tell each kid who walked up to me what he'd missed, which is ridiculous!"

Armstrong's next project is another book, titled "Next Year I'll Be Tougher and Other Assorted Tales of Teaching," a mix of stories, some uplifting and others harrowing. She details some intense, even life-threatening situations that her students found themselves in and recounts what was going through her mind when they confided in her and how she developed as a teacher.

"It's emblematic, I think, of the kinds of caretaking we are expected to do with these kids because they don't want to talk to a professional—they want to talk to us," said Armstrong. "And we are not qualified, we don't have the time, it's not our job, and yet we find ourselves sucked into this stuff anyway.  And it happens to all of us.  There are some incredibly damaged children out there, and all the government cares about is test scores."

(For a related story, read Armstrong's 1997 Quarterly piece, "Sounding Board: The Writing Teacher as Confidant.")

Who has time to figure anything out when you're just basically trying to keep your head above water every day?

Keeping the Magic Alive

Armstrong sympathizes with the current generation of new teachers, half of whom leave the profession within five years. She says the increased demands combined with the pressures of standardized testing have rendered the job almost "unperformable." But, like her colleague so many years ago, Armstrong advises a path to fulfillment.

"For 31 years, every year and in every class I would always strive to create a cohesive camaraderie where the kids would talk amongst themselves and share openly where they'd been or what they'd experienced with each other. NWP helped to show me an ideal situation and what I ought to be striving for each year more clearly than anything else ever could."

Although sometimes in the classroom "the magic just wasn't there" according to Armstrong, her experience with NWP helped give her the resilience to keep trying. "NWP can show teachers that you can create magic. It can take place, once people are willing to share and let down their guard and think as a unit, and think about how alike we are rather than how different we are."

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