2015, Archives, November 2015, The MFA Years

To Teach, or Not To Teach

As I prepare to register for my last semester of classes, I’ve been thinking a great deal about my future and how it might look with an MFA on my resume.

Like many of you applying now for MFA programs, the fact that the degree allows us to teach was a major draw for me versus just trying to figure out the writing thing on my own. My main priority, however, has always been learning the art of creative writing with the invaluable opportunity to do so in a community of writers.

And so it is that even as I’m wrapping up a teaching practicum crammed full of tips and strategies and methodologies and pedagogy statements and drafts of syllabi, I have decided not to apply for a teaching position next semester. The simple reason being that the schedule wouldn’t allow me to take the classes I want and that, after all, is why I am here: to learn.

Stony Brook has a good set up in that students can take a one semester class to learn about teaching and gain a bit of hands-on experience before being thrust into a classroom full of freshmen undergrads who probably don’t want to be there. Word on MFA Street is that many programs just put their MFA candidates in the classroom without any preparation so I suspect we’re ahead of the game.

Stony Brook also offers a minor in Creative Writing which automatically generates the need for teachers and so each semester there are a handful of positions available for MFA students to be Teaching Assistants (TA), although they are basically running the class on their own from day one, checking in periodically with other TA’s and the program directors.

Some of the students, depending on their funding, are expected to teach and some love it and some don’t. Some wish they had more time for their own writing, but most generally agree that is a reasonable strategy to at least give students the opportunity to teach under the safety net of the program. The students get experience, earn some money and the program has a  built-in pool of teachers to draw from. Seems like a win-win for everyone.

That said, I am still not applying…yet. I do not have funding so I am under no obligation to teach. What I will do is wait and hope for a chance to teach either in the summer or next fall and see how that goes. If I can teach, great, if not, I’m not too worried.

With the advantage of being a much older student (51 and a half), I already have a skill set to fall back on for earning money and, truth be told, that will pay better anyway only because I have twenty years of experience in my “old career” rather than coming in as a newbie instructor.

Sadly, teaching – as you probably all already know – is staggeringly underpaid but it still remains a good option for writers both in terms of continuing to learn as well as a way to stay in the community of artists and writers and get paid, but above all because of the flexibility and time it allows for your own writing.

Another factor worth considering, that a friend pointed out to me, is that once we’ve graduated, one of the things that helps writing instructors get hired is to have published a book. For me, that is a point in the favor of waiting and keeping my priorities on my learning and writing and, in turn, publishing my first book.

For whatever it is worth, these are my observations on teaching in the context of the MFA. If you’re still deciding where to apply and are interested in teaching, perhaps check to see if they offer any courses to help you learn how to teach the art of creative writing.

You might also find out just how much time you’ll be expected to teach, if that is a part of your funding package, so you’re prepared for the reality that you might not have as much time as you’d anticipated for your own writing and the weigh the benefits for whatever will serve you best.

At the end of the day, however, do always stay focused on what is best for you and your writing. Pursing an MFA is a luxury, in many ways, and the semesters fly by quickly, so make it as glorious as possible!



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