I (along with 39 others) was asked to contribute 500-1000 words summing up what NWP means to me. I’m not sure I could do it in a book-length piece, though maybe I could do it in a haiku:

Young struggling teacher
Lifted by Summer Institute
Retired Director

No, doesn’t come close. Okay, who is my audience? Is it young teachers entering the profession, floundering as I once did? Feeling overwhelmed, small, under a microscope, everyone expecting that college and student teaching has created a professional who knows the answers, but finding that it’s not as easy as it looks, and that these eager or bored or angry or sad or hurting or confused faces cannot be fooled; they know when you are confident and when you are uncertain, and they crave your certainty, your control, they want you to have all the answers, to make it easy for them, and ultimately you learn you’re all in the same boat, learning together, but the lessons are painful and lead to sleepless nights.

What can I tell the young teacher attending a summer institute for the first time—that it’s never completely under control? To have ideals, but not hold yourself to them? To understand that if you’re doing the best you can, that’s good enough? To try to create community? To listen to students, especially the ones who are the most difficult? To give everyone a voice? To write, write, write, and share, share, share?

Write, write, write, and share, share, share.

To understand that there will always be far too many demands and expectations, objectives, and content standards, and that schoolwide, districtwide, nationwide goals will come and go and ultimately you should strive to make your classroom a place where learning takes place most of the time? It sounds somewhat defeatist; but it was my Truth. And every student I have met years later has smiled when she asked, Do you remember me? Yes, even the young man last week who was picking up the garbage can from my driveway.

Or am I speaking to the NWP veteran? The Director who has spent a career in the university setting and was asked to take on this extra project and found it taking over his life and career, guiding his research, pushing him toward leadership, management, budgeting, administrative roles he never envisioned. Or am I speaking to the classroom teacher who found a home in her local Writing Project site with like-minded teachers who supported each other as writers, who listened to and responded to each other’s stories of divorce, deaths, and illnesses, of births and embarrassing moments, of likes, dislikes, travel stories, fantasy, or poetry. Who got asked and answered, Yes, and found, as I did, it was not like at school where you learned that saying yes could lead you to doing other people’s jobs, to jealousies or politics, to uncomfortable positions making presentations of new strategies or curriculum that someone else decided was best for your school or district or was purchased from a textbook company and you were to follow the script and tell others to be true to the Program. Somehow the Writing Project was different; the teachers were working together, supporting each other, asking questions, exploring new methods that they truly believed in, and…what is it, what’s so different about this? Oh! They’re listening to ME! They think I have ideas worth listening to! These amazing teachers who have so much to teach me think I have value? I’ve never heard that before! Yes! I will present my classroom demonstration at that workshop; I will help write that grant; I will attend that national meeting. Oh my goodness, here are these amazingly smart people from all over the country, and they all listen to each other, they all work together, they all write, they all ask questions, none of them claims to have all the answers! Yes, I’ll serve on a national committee; are you kidding? You want me, an elementary school teacher to co-direct the Rural Sites Network? Yes, I’ll write an article, participate in a study. Just say yes became my rule of thumb when it came to NWP.

Only when I saw my local Writing Project site in danger did I say no to NWP. No, I can’t right now, I have to lead at the local level. And that was truly the hardest work, at least for me. How can anyone ask busy teachers to do more? And how can an outsider really operate in a university? But those are simply questions, the answers are, in the end simple: It’s never completely under control. Have ideals, but don’t hold yourself to them. Understand that if you’re doing the best you can, that’s good enough. Try to create community. Listen to the teachers, especially the ones who are the most difficult. Give everyone a voice. Write, write, write, and share, share, share. Understand that there will always be far too many demands and expectations. Oh, I left out one important ingredient…celebrate success! Congratulations on 40 years of changing the lives of teachers through holding summer institutes and improving teaching and learning throughout the world, NWP!

EpsteinPaul Epstein is the Director of the West Virginia Young Writers Contest, and former co-director of the Central WV Writing Project, affiliated with Marshall University.