Why most English teachers can’t write


by cheri block

Mr. McCarthy handed out textbooks on the first day of school, way back in 1967. They were small composition books and for me would be both the source of wild written ecstasy and tightly controlled word choice. Every week during the school year, we in Advanced Composition tackled a new skill. On Monday, we studied a short example of said skill. On Tuesday, we tried to emulate a master. On Wednesday, Mr. McCarthy gave us license to try our own version. On Thursday, we wrote during class time and by Friday, we submitted our short papers to the teacher for evaluation.

On Monday morning, Mr. McCarthy returned our attempts. Row by row, he passed back each paper, neatly folded vertically in half.  The critiques were polite but direct. There were no “Good job! Write from your heart! or Huh?” comments. The suggestions were serious and sincere. They also included grammatical corrections with language such as phrase, clause, subordinating conjunction and the like. And they included a grade, rarely an “A.”

As you can guess, I thrived under such discipline and honesty. Most kids do.

Today, most people teaching English in the high school classroom do not teach composition but rather, discuss literature. It’s more fun than correcting a paper.

Did married Hester make the right decision to go for a roll in the forest with a minister?

Should Huck have turned Jim in to the authorities?

Why didn’t Kino throw the Pearl of Great Price back into the sea before his son Coyotito was shot?

While these questions are stimulating  and make for a terrific class discussion, learning to avoid overuse of adjectives and adverbs is more important. Learning not only to select precise vocabulary, but also to write in parallel structure adds variety to sentence construction. Alas, these skills are ignored today in many public school classrooms.

The chairwoman of my program at Stanford told one of my peers that in her (the professor’s) experience, most teachers admitted to the program can’t write.

If the teachers can’t write, how will they instruct their students to do so?

About Cheri

Writer, artist, cable television host, grandmother to four!
This entry was posted in Education, Writing and Teaching and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

53 Responses to Why most English teachers can’t write

  1. ccsaw says:

    You question is rhetorical and I agree with the observation. It is not limited to the teaching profession. It plagues all the professions and trades. Take flying as another example-a good pilot should be able to navigate with the most rudimentary of instruments. A chart, compass, and a basic radio frequency direction instrument called an omni direction finder. The heading on the chart (map) must be corrected by the wind direction and speed and magnetic deviation that exists because true north (on the chart) is not the same as magnetic north that is displayed by the compass. This traditional technical knowledge is part of “dead reckoning” – the tried and true basic navigation known by pilots everywhere. Its accomplished with active thinking and a slide rule.

    2011-pilots still have to learn dead reckoning to become licensed, but they skim over the details and few are proficient because GPS navigation makes it easy. No need to perform the calculations on an aviation computer (circular slide rule), just punch the data into the GPS/NavCom and it does all the work.

    I don’t know about you, but I want my pilot to be able to navigate the old fashion way, … GPS units are known to crash just like your computer. And I want my teachers to insist on rigor and scholarship.

  2. Don says:

    Similarly, engineers need to be able to make quick seat of the pants estimates, knowing when and when not to be precise. Many rely too much on the various tools.

    But as for the young generation, I say good: Less competition for me. (Or more crappy books, but I read very few anyway.)

    • Cheri says:

      The students whose parents want them to write, and write well, will pay for after-school training in whatever discipline the parents believe to be lacking.
      What what about the child/adolescent whose family cannot afford this luxury?
      They fall behind and the gap between the well-educated and the sloppily-educated grows larger.

  3. Richard says:

    Every week at school in England I was required to produce an English essay of four hundred words for homework. It was corrected ruthlessly and given two numerical marks, each out of ten, one for content and the other for construction, spelling and grammar.

    Every essay had to be prefaced with a plan, every paragraph had to be as near to one hundred words as possible and there had to be a discernible link from one paragraph to the next.

    Despite five years of this, I still came across anomalies and imagined them manifestations of my ignorance when in reality they were the beating heart of a living language. Discipline and honest criticism are vital but a wise teacher does not allow her charges to become caught in a web of technicalities. I cannot imagine you ever allowed this to happen. There is some merit in writing English as it is spoke.

    No-one in all those years once mentioned parallel structures to me and I have just had to try an online test. I shall watch for it now, but a brief scan of my blog has indicated freedom from transgression. So perhaps there is a natural order that does not need to be taught.

    Differences between the US and England are an endless and fascinating study. We were, for example, required to use different from rather than different to and there were severe penalties for using different than. It was only later I discovered that Fowler in Modern English Usage preferred the US different than.

    Then some mistakes really grate. I have in mind things like the course of true love never did run smooth, written by some ignoramus.

    • Cheri says:

      You have a lot to say here in this comment.
      First (and in no particular order of importance to me) is your own training. You write extremely well. I imagine that your years of legal training and practice also contributed to your facility with words and ideas. Your teachers in those days must have been competent instructors with standards.

      And by the way, I don’t care what Fowler says: the correct use is “different from.”

      It’s funny about those mistakes that grate. They are the ones that you hear spoken in company or out in public. They seem to be spoken just for you.

      • Richard says:

        Thank you for your kindly praise, but I labour under no illusion.

        I suppose five years’ competitive top-stream grooming, two disastrous years of maths and physics and forty years engaged in nothing but purely functional wording left a certain intense, utilitarian scar on my stuff.

  4. Richard says:

    Spot the non-parallel structure!

  5. Cheri says:

    Here you go, Richard!

    Every essay had to be prefaced with a plan, every paragraph had to be as near to one hundred words as possible and there had to be a discernible link from one paragraph to the next.

    Every essay had to be prefaced with a plan, every paragraph had to be as near to one hundred words as possible, and every paragraph had to be linked discernibly from one paragraph to the next. 😀

    I shall comment on all the comments later, but you knew I would bite this bait, didn’t you!

  6. Richard says:

    Oh yes! Any more? 😀

    I’ve been trying to think up a caption for the photograph.

    How about:
    In the Dock, or
    Dawn Hanging or
    Escape from Alcatraz or
    Fault Line or
    Holding Together, Somehow .

  7. Wot, none of the esteemed commenters here has yet quoted Shaw? Cited the inevitable line, the mother of all smartypantsy quotes on this subject?

    So it falls to me. I must. Herewith:

    “He who can, does; he who cannot, teaches.”

    • Cheri says:

      Oh yes. That quotation. Here’s my take after 26 years in public education and 14 in private education. It’s all about what we pay people for what they do that often determines who enters a specific profession. I know there are exceptions (blah, blah) but I make the statement generally.
      In the last half of the 60’s, California ranked high in education. In those days, a teacher could provide for his family on a teacher’s salary. Some terrific folks were teachers back
      then. Some real stars taught at my high school.
      The unionization of teachers, weak school boards, lousy administrators–all of whom operate with little to no accountability and no continuing education requirements–are some of the reasons average people enter education.
      I left public education in 1998 because for me, that quotation was true.

      • Yup. Thus she quoth, for future historians of America’s decline.

      • Richard says:

        I had thought these problems in education were confined to the UK.

        What are the solutions? Will there be effective resistance to change? Is part of the answer really to spend more money on teachers? The same issues present themselves throughout the public sector and in the economy at large.

        They are deeply political because they are at the core of human nature. We all seek certainty and security and we all believe we give more than we receive. Those are the factors which cause decline.

        It is brutal, but the only test we have is a civilised marketplace, unsullied by deliberate interference, whether by the state or – more importantly – by those who seek to make money out of money. That way you foster excellence. An impossible ideal, but an indication of the direction to take.

        There has to be a safety net, of course, for those who, it is perceived, are simply unable to compete.

      • Richard says:

        I note you have called your husband twice but he still hasn’t responded.

        He obviously prefers his tractor to your spaghetti bolognaise.

    • Philippe says:

      “He who can, does; he who cannot, teaches.”

      Woody Allen said, “Those who can, do; those who cannot, teach; and those who cannot teach, teach gym.”

      I’ve found this so true.

  8. Oh so true. Where are the Mr. McCarthy’s of yore? But why teach anything any more–there is an iPad app for anything you need in life.

  9. Richard says:

    Ever the diplomat, Andreas! 🙂

    Smartypants are often wrong. The best do both; they can’t help it.

  10. wkkortas says:

    I left the teaching profession, and still can’t write worth a damn. What now?

    • Cheri says:

      Why did you leave?

      • wkkortas says:

        To be honest, I’ve always felt teaching was a bit like the priesthood; if you didn’t have the calling, you were just fooling yourself, and were likely to do more damage than good. I found out fairly early on that I didn’t have the calling, and got out before I did any permanent harm.

  11. The emphasis, today, is on oral communication; composition is so “passée” and takes too much time. From 1980 onward, my big problem was having young professionals who could not put two ideas together on paper nor write a decent report.
    I remember when my son’s first grade teacher told the kids not to bother too much with calculus because in later classes they would have machines doing it for them. I did not believe the poor child until I heard the teacher repeating that horror in a parent/teacher meeting and that was 36 years ago.

    • Cheri says:

      And even oral communication among many students is weak. In our community, a group of parents started a business for “public speaking.”

    • wkkortas says:

      I think you’ve hit on something important there; most teachers have never worked in the public sector (full time, anyway–I’m not sure what a stint at McDonald’s does for anyone) before they enter a classroom, so they have limited contact with that world and what it requires. At one time, teachers worked summer jobs outside education; granted, it was because they had to, but I think that type of experience would be beneficial.

      • Cheri says:

        The same principle should be true for admission to the university: all freshmen should be required to work for two years before they begin college. Radical statement, I know.

  12. ccsaw says:

    Cheri, I must protest. Many (not all) of my esteemed colleagues make boatloads of money and they are neither scholarly nor well spoken. The legal system is often imprecise and crude and therefore attracts those who can neither teach nor perform with academic excellence in the sciences. Not unlike many teachers today. So the amount one is paid does not definitively determine the quality of of the teacher, lawyer, physician- are there examples of successful novelist who can’t write??

    • @ccsaw what a can of annelids you have opened with that question! who wants to go first?

    • Cheri says:

      I did not mean that what one is paid determines the quality of the individual…I said that a certain type of individual often enters a profession based on potential earnings. Didn’t I say that? If not, I need to take a writing lesson…oh boy.
      The high performing students of today usually do not enter the teacher corp; they go into science, business, engineering, law and medicine.

    • Richard says:

      Do the vast majority of lawyers work well above their capacity, Steve, or was I the only one to have that constant sense of inadequacy?

      Contrary to popular myth, qualifying as a lawyer is not a licence to print money. That becomes apparent from very early on. Those without other motivation soon give up.

      A tiny minority make a mint, true, but a lot more pretend they do. It costs a fortune to run an office.

  13. Philippe says:

    I think I’ve told of this before in a long-ago comment on this blog, but I’ll tell of it again (always a sign of old age). I had an English teacher at my senior school who one day said to us, “If you all would only read, my job wouldn’t be necessary.”

    I never forgot this.

    My advice, too, to any young person wanting to write the English language at least reasonably well, is read, read, read, read, read, read, and read………

    But the reading should be of good writers. Gradually you will get the feel of how to write a good English sentence. The apposite words will simply slot into place. You will sometimes write sentences or paragraphs, that when you re-read them will make you ask yourself, “Where did that come from? Did I really write this?” It’s an entirely unconscious process, and will come out of all the voluminous reading you’ve done.

    How, for example, did Winston Churchill learn to write as he did? He did it through reading for several hours a day, over a period of about three years, the writings of the likes of Gibbon and Macaulay. Hence their style became easily to be discerned in Churchill’s writings and speeches.

    All the great writers we admire were voracious readers from when they were children.

    I also strongly recommend learning at least one foreign language well, preferably one of the Romance ones, or German, and to do some reading in these languages everyday routinely (the internet now provides a wonderful opportunity for this). A foreign language teaches one to really think about one’s native English, and to learn things about it which one didn’t know before.

    Also, after a period of tortuously writing in that foreign language, returning to write in one’s native English feels so effortless.

    All of the above, though, should be taken with the proverbial pinch of salt, since I’m not an English teacher.

    • Cheri says:

      Well, I’ll respond to your apt comment in a way that I have responded on this blog (always a sign of old age… 🙂 ).
      You are spot on.
      I especially like the suggestion of reading skilled writers instead of “Rescue Copter.”
      We used to have a lot of fun in my classes trying to emulate the masters. The students were allowed to use contemporary scenarios but in, say, Hemingway’s style.

      My biggest educational regret is that I am not fluent in any language other than my native tongue. I took 4years of Spanish and can communicate, but that’s about it. I wish I had taken French. This deficit comes back to me now that I have become so interested in Norman history.

      Thank you for your long and important comment.

  14. Cheri says:

    It is brutal, but the only test we have is a civilised marketplace, unsullied by deliberate interference, whether by the state or – more importantly – by those who seek to make money out of money. That way you foster excellence. An impossible ideal, but an indication of the direction to take.

    Your statement is part of the solution. Once the marketplace is free, unfettered by union control, performing teachers and schools will compete instead of just be.

    • Richard says:

      @ Cheri:
      Once the marketplace is free, unfettered by union control

      You embark upon detail.

      A civilised marketplace is one where bargains are struck and honoured without fraud or threat, as determined and enforced by the state but with a presumption of freedom.

      Collective bargaining and the withdrawal of labour thus have a rôle, though parties are to bear the full consequences of their actions.

      • Cheri says:

        Richard and Paul,
        Here, I am referring to the teachers’ union. I, too, believe that unions have an important role to play in some sectors. Where would the California farm workers be had Cesar Chavez not rallied for a farm workers’ union? They would be working without medical benefits, etc.
        The teachers’ union is an outdated model. It spends heavily on politics. The buildings that CTA (California Teachers’ Association) owns are expensive to maintain. Weak teachers who feel threatened by even weaker administrators run to CTA for legal representation when they should be getting to that large stack of uncorrected student papers. These same teachers are the loudest barkers on the strike line. I know. I have been through three different teacher strikes, the likes of which are seared into my memory.

  15. Unions may have become too powerful for their own good and that of their members but eliminating them altogether and going back to unbridled boss control is not a solution I would promote.

  16. Cheri says:

    I wish school administration had even one ball of an “unbridled boss.”

  17. Cyberquill says:

    thos who can wright blog & thos who cant right teach riting

  18. Cheri says:

    tee hee
    During all thos yers I was teachin writin, I didn’t right mysef.
    I couldn’t right to beat the band.

  19. dafna says:


    I don’t know when it began, but lately after reading your blog and your other comments, I find myself nodding my head in agreement nearly every point you make.

    That’s a long way from the way I related to you when your writing… was “narrative” the word you used?

  20. Cheri says:

    Hi dafna,
    Sometimes it’s easier to relate (or not) when writing is persuasive rather than narrative, don’t you think? My pieces are so short, they really aren’t particularly persuasive either. Just little snapshots of ideas. I probably should write more about education…maybe I will!
    Thanks for your comment, dafna.

    • dafna says:

      Hi Cheri,

      It is easier for me to relate to your “persuasive” style, only because that is why I come to these blogs… to get to know the bloggers.

      Our replies are also little snapshots of ideas, and they are fairly consistent and revealing. You have probably come to expect certain opinions or point of views from certain readers 😉

      When I first started reading your “narrative” style or short stories, they were so squeaky clean I could not relate. Now that you have thrown in an opinion or two, it amazes me how often we see things similarly, even though we come from such different backgrounds.


      • Cheri says:

        I tend to avoid pieces with opinion, as you have observed. Perhaps living in the San Francisco Bay Area (or sitting through 26 years of meetings during which folks would be full of opinions and themselves…without much fact behind a whit of what they said) has directly affected my decision to write narratives, etc. As for squeaky clean, all I can say to that is that my life has been far from perfect although I have tried at every turn to do the right thing and make decisions which would allow me to sleep at night. But I am just as flawed as the next human being.
        Thanks for reading, dafna.

  21. Cheri says:

    Hi dafna,
    I am away from my computer for the next 4 days and would like to respond to your comment when I return.

  22. Philippe says:

    @Dafna – You said to Cheri: “……It is easier for me to relate to your ‘persuasive’ style, only because that is why I come to these blogs… to get to know the bloggers…….”

    Perhaps you feel, as do I, that our opinions about anything say more about us than about the topic in question? So you are more interested in where the speaker is “coming from” than in the words the speaker says?

    For what it’s worth, it is my opinion that women are more attentive to where the speaker is “coming from”, to what lies behind the words; whilst men are more attentive to just the words.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s