I am often employed as a writer in schools. This means I go around to schools, talk about being a writer, read from my books, answer questions or/and run writing workshops. After my engagement, my booking agent, presents the school with an evaluation form.
Sometimes I wish my booking agent would present me with a form to evaluate the school's performance.
Many of these gigs are sheer joy - the students are excited and prepared to be engaged. The school has done some work prior my visit to encourage the students to ask questions or participate in the workshop. They have worked out a realistic schedule for me, based on student wriggle-time, class size and work to be achieved. The best schools are not so concerned with quantity for money, but with quality. They would rather see four or six classes of students particpate in writing workshops than 250 students wriggle thorugh an hour long talk. The best schools are not always predictable - one of my happiest writing-in-schools experiences was in a regional school with very little funding but a lot of enthusiasm and this enthusiasm was imparted to the students.
Some of these gigs are sheer horror. You go home swearing never to expose yourself to this kind of work again. You grit your teeth through these days and think of the money but it is never enough.
Here are some things that have happened to me:
I have been introduced variously as Catherine Bateman, Catherine Bates, Kathleen Batson and other variations on the theme. It isn't that hard to get it right.
I have been greeted with comments such as, 'I haven't read any of your books' or 'I really liked the first one you wrote, you know, X Y Z' X Y Z was actually written by a completely different writer. If you haven't read the books, shut up about it. Do I need to know? If you get the title wrong,I'm usually polite enough not to mention it. But I'm secretly putting a curse on you.
As a verse novelist I also get interesting variations, 'None of the kids like poetry, but I managed to persuade some of them to read your novel.' Wow! Perahps a more tactful approach could be practised?
Before I've reached a classroom I've had teachers announce mournfully that they don't expect me to do much with this class of no-hopers, but we'll struggle on and there are biscuits for morning tea. Not surprisingly this comment fills me with apprehension. Surprisingly, these are sometimes the classes that produce great work. I do understand teachers are attempting to warn me, but I'm not sure I want to be warned in advance. I'd rather make my own judgements. Afterwards feel free to say, 'Don't worry, that was the worst class but gee, they didn't do too badly, did they?' before leading me off for a calming cup of tea.
Tea. Lunch. I've walked into staff rooms and been left to fend completely for myself. I've actually worked for two days as a writer in residence at a school before someone told me where the staff room was - that was unusual, I agree, but it is a true story. I've travelled for an hour and half to do a day's work at a school, including run something for half of the lunch time and discovered the school hadn't actually organised any lunch for me. At all. I finally queued up at the canteen and then had ten minutes to wolf down a salad roll.
I've waited at an airport, with other writers, for two hours for transport to another town having been assured that a parent would be picking me up when my plane landed. Not only was there no parent, there was no phone call to tell me this wasn't so. I, and other writers, had to call our agent who had to call the organiser (festival this time, but a schools festival) and then we were told a bus would be around some time. No one knew for sure what time. When we finally arrived, having had no actual lunch, we were told there was a 'cocktail' launch and dinner was cocktail finger food. No, they said, surprised, we didn't organise dinner. After all there'll be nibblies at the launch.
I've travelled for an a hour and a half to discover that the teacher who organised the booking had failed to remember that it was on. This was after I had rung and left a message and been assured by the administration staff that they would email her my confirmation.
I've arrived at schools to discover that they've 'just squeezed' another workshop/talk in, if I didn't mind, because they suddenly realised that these students hadn't been included. I may not have minded given enough warning and negotiation. I do mind an extra forty-five or fifty minutes if it takes me over the ASA guidelines. I also mind that no one showed me the courtesy of contacting me prior to the event.
I've arrived at schools to discover that they've changed my role. 'We had you down as a poet, but none of the students are interested in poetry so we've changed that to story writer. So you'll be doing a double-period workshop with 60 students on story writing. Okay?'
'But you write stories, don't you? We didn't think you'd mind.'
I wouldn't have minded, if I'd been told last week. But now that I've prepared a 45 minute workshop/poetry slam for 45 students for one period, you bet I do mind!
I have had teachers stand at the back and talk all the way through my talk.
I've had teachers mark papers during a writing workshop I've given, so completely and obviously unengaged by the whole experience that their diffidence permeated the classroom.
You would think that a school willing to pay for a guest speaker, would also be willing to extend simple professional courtesy to their guest. You would also think they'd want to get their money's worth.
The schools who really get the most out of guest writers put time and effort into the experience on all levels. They take the time to research the writer. They do not expect a performer. Writers are not necessarily performers. There are some who are, the vast majority are not. Writing generally is a solitary act. Not all children's or young adult writing is comic. Not all writers moonlight as stand up comics. A well-researched gig will present the students and the teacher with the experience they expected and paid for. Some well directed questions to an agent, a little bit of surfing the 'net, a browse through the library, will help aquaint you with your chosen writer's style.
Engaged class room teachers make for engaged students. Some of the best workshop experiences I've had have been where the teacher has sat down and done the exercises with the students. Students enjoy watching their teacher tackle something different and teachers have said to me later things like, 'wow, I'd forgotten how hard it was to think of something on the spot like that! I think I'll be gentler with them in the future!'
Getting the most out of your gig means more than putting maximum squirmy bums on seats.
Okay, I'll go back to my burrow now.