It’s the start of another school year. And for those highly engaged teachers who are out there connecting on social media, building your PLNs, some of you are thinking that it’s time to start (maybe restart) a teacher blog. If that’s you, or someone you know, great! I’m all for it! (Feel free to send me a link to your blog post too).
You have a head full of thoughts and a heart full of teacher gold, and you’re ready to conquer the blogosphere! But before you do, I have a few things I want you to consider, because I have read some–to put it generously–less-than-stellar posts. Some were so bad, I decided that I would never return (….but then I felt bad about thinking that, because we all need to start somewhere, so I opted to take a long break instead).
Confession: I was a bad blogger. Like, really bad. I one time wrote about how I looked good in a speedo, hit publish, and shared it on social media. What was I thinking? (and stop wondering. I didn’t look good in a speedo).
I have started several different blogs. Started, and abandoned. I don’t know if I am any better as a serial post publisher, but I am persistent–I keep combing back! And that’s at least one quality needed in becoming a better blogger.
So, if you are starting out (or restarting, like I did four times), and you want to avoid the pain that I walked myself into, I will share three big mistakes teacher bloggers make, and give you practical steps to avoid them.
Mistake # 1: No Consistency
When I started out, I had no plan. I just had the urgency to write. I wanted my thoughts shipped out to influence the world! Okay, I was also harboring a desire to make a little money with my words (I have three kids, a baby on the way, windows that need to be replaced, and cars that are not improving with age).
Basically, I would write when I wanted to write. After a post, I would slowly lean back with a satisfied grin on my face, and sit in awe at what I had written down. I would hit post, and share with friends. No one commented, no one shared it. I take it back, I would get comments, but they were from my friend Greg about how I misspelled 12 words, and confused “your” and “you’re.”
I have visited blogs that have been set up for over a year, and there are only five posts. Two were good, one was mediocre, and the other two needed some serious work. Also, each post was different from the others. Maybe one had a word count around 500 and another was a 3,000 word tome.
If a blogger writes this infrequently and that differently each time, readers will go elsewhere.
Step 1: Find a user-friendly content management system (you know, the thing you post your blog with). Clearly, I use WordPress. Years ago, someone said I should use it, so I did. Now I know it really well, and don’t really want to learn anything else because I am trying to consistently get my posts shipped. At this point, it doesn’t make sense for me to switch.
I have heard of other user-friendly content management systems:
- Blogger (I find it ugly, but highly functional)
For me, it was all about finding a site that was easy to learn so that I didn’t have to fuss over how my posts were getting out into the world. I could just write and publish. Easy.
Step 2: Post Regularly. Right now, and I mean like as you are reading this, you need to decide on a posting schedule. How often can you post? Okay, now let me as that question again. How often can you post, really? I didn’t ask how often would you like to post. I said “can” you.
At this point in my life, I am convinced that I can post twice a week. I don’t know if that will hold up. I might have to adjust to once a week. I deluded myself into thinking that I could post five times a week at one point. That was laughable.
Think it through, and come up with a number. If you teach English Language Arts like I do, then you need to get real about your level of commitment. Can you do once a week? once every other week? once a month? It would be better for you and your readers if you posted once a month rather than going three times a week and then flaming out in a month.
Step 3: Use a template. This is a huge time and energy saver. Also, it helps you keep a consistent word count. I am using a template now (though I am breaking the mold on this post a little, especially on word count).
My go-to blogging guru is Michael Hyatt (not a classroom teacher). He helped pave the way for me, and I use his template, though I modified it for a teacher blogger. If you’re interested, you can access the Google Doc I use HERE (it also has links to Michael Hyatt’s posts about creating a template).
Mistake # 2: No Focus
When I started blogging, I wrote about whatever had my attention, I thought was funny, or bothered me. If I had a consistent reader (which I may have had two), then that person didn’t know what he was getting himself into (remember the speedo?).
I have seen teacher blogs where the writer talks about everything that goes on from the classroom, to the cat, to the wine she enjoys on the weekend. Sometimes there would be useful information and perspective that I could apply to my life, but most of the posts were about things the writer cared about. That’s fine, but your reader has to care about those same things in the same way that you do to maintain his or her interest.
“But, I love biographies!” Sure, when the person is already interesting because of something great he or she did. I love Hockey, and the San Jose Sharks are my team. If a half-way decent biography hit the shelves about Brent Burns, I would snatch it up quick. Why? Because the guy is a sensation! Not only did he win the Norris Trophy in 2017 (best defenseman in the league) while being one of the top scorers on his team, the dude has flair you have to see to believe (plaid suits, a lumberjack beard, and the most charming toothless smile a Wookie has ever had. Here, take a look!). The point is, he’s interesting because of his skill and personality, both of which have taken him 30 years to develop. So I would like to know more about what makes this guy tick! But if you’re not scoring 80+ points a season from the blue line while getting your teeth knocked out, I don’t know why I should be interested.
Step 1: Find your WHY. This is probably a better first step than finding a user-friendly content management system. If you’re going to post consistently, you need a focus. The best way to get focused is to have a really clear understanding of WHY you are posting.
Just to be crystal clear, I am NOT talking about the subject matter of your posts. I mean the motivation behind blogging to begin with. Why do you want to do it (by the way, making money is an okay reason, so if that’s where you are, you are free to let go of any guilt you may feel). What will drive you to keep posting?
For me, it’s about making an impact. I don’t do this for money (it actually costs me to keep up this site). I do it because I have had the fortune of others’ help. I want to do my part to pay it forward. I was chasing this for years in department head and district leadership roles. I got zero return on my investment there. So I took my show on the road, posting about what I have learned and how I have struggled, that has genuinely helped people. When I get a comment on the blog, a thank you tweet, or an email about how I have helped someone, it makes my week! It motivates me to keep posting.
Step 2: Find your niche. Don’t be all over the place. What are the elements of your teaching that you want to focus on? For me, it is all about how I get my students to take up the responsibility their own learning. When I entered the profession, everyone was blaming teachers for how poorly students were doing. So the teachers were made to do more, and the burden of learning shifted off of student shoulders on to teacher shoulders. That was not right, and I want to help teachers manage their expectations, and get their students to own their learning. That’s what I write about.
Your entire classroom is not a niche. If you’re thinking that everything you do is amazing and should be written about, I’m here to tell you you’re wrong. Instead, think through these questions:
- Who has had the biggest influence on your teaching? Why?
- What practice do fellow teachers keep asking you about?
- What do you do that impacts your students the most?
If you answer all those questions, and you’re still not sure of the answer, ask a really close friend what they notice you do really well. You may be surprised what you learn from others about your expertise! And what you think is mundane may be mind blowing to others.
Step 3: Add value for your reader. If you wrote a blog post and then advertised it on social media, you want people to read it. And if readers come to your post, what do they get for reading it? How are you adding value for them?
- Information–what happened.
- Insights–what does it mean that this happened.
- Assistance–how to make good things happen or avoid bad things.
And since you are going to be posting regularly, why should readers keep coming back. What is in it for them? [hint, this post has several links, advice, and a template for newbies. You’re welcome!]
Mistake # 3: No Story
This was not my struggle. I tended to go the opposite direction. I had a point to make, but it would get lost in a story. But I have seen teacher blogs that are full of vagaries, whims, and generalities. From one paragraph to the next, I can’t discern the point! Worse, I have no picture of what they are talking about–If the audience can’t picture you’re subject matter, you’re post is dead. No one will engage with it.
My students do this in their writing. Here’s what I have discovered after countless conversations about this phenomenon. The students have a clear picture of what they they are talking about, but they want to appeal to a general audience. So they generalize! They hope that through generalizing more readers will be able to picture see what they are seeing. Although I can empathize with the thinking, they are forgetting the stories that mean the most to them, stories that have universal themes, are particular and very concrete.
This is the trap some teacher bloggers fall into. The worst is when the blogger invokes the reader with “we.” Please don’t do this to me as the reader. Don’t speak vaguely, then nudge me, and say “right?” I’m sorry, I don’t know what you’re saying, and please don’t bring me into it. And that’s when I take an extended break from that blog.
Step 1: Tell a transformation story. It’s not just about story-telling. It’s about a certain kind of story-telling. People like transformation stories. I love to watch movies about characters that work their way through a difficult conflict and come out changed. You do too. Why not put that in your posts.
I am still learning this lesson. A couple of months ago, I was messaging with someone on Instagram. I offered her a strategy for teaching a certain novel (adding value), and she was really grateful. I told her that I would write a post about it.
When I sat down to write it, I was just going to do a “here’s how this works in my classroom” type of post. But as I thought it over, it wasn’t enticing for the reader. I worked it over for a while, and instead I came up with controversial post title that dissed a beloved strategy, and then told the story about how I came up with something I think is better. I was surprised by how many people were touched by the narrative. And then it was the story that had them considering using the strategy in their teaching.
Step 2: Put me there. Like I said, I love stories. Take me to the struggle that you are having, tell me what you were thinking and feeling as you were wrestling with this big idea, and then tell me how it all worked out. The internal life of a teacher is full of drama, second-guessing, elation, guilt, doubt, wins, losses, fails, and victories. Your posts need these elements too. It will connect you with your readers in powerful ways.
Step 3: Be concrete. Don’t give me the opportunity to be confused. Also, don’t let me get away with thinking that I know what you’re talking about. If you use a word that I can get wrong, explain it or define it, so I get it.
I was helping a friend revise an article recently. She used the word “confidence” to describe what her students felt as a result of a phenomenal year of teaching and learning. Really it was the culmination of 13 years of hard work on her part, where it all came together and her students really felt confidence in their abilities because of her. There was passion in her voice when she talked about it (she may even have been fighting tears of joy). But when she wrote the word “confidence” in the article, without any of that context, that story, as a read it, left me to fill in that “confidence” frame with any picture I conjured up. It turned out we had two different understandings growing out of the same word.
If your reader needs to get what you’re saying in a particular way, then you have to be concrete. You have to make your reader get it, and get it in the way that you want them to understand it. If they don’t see it your way, they may get the wrong idea and miss the point.
QUESTION: What’s your biggest challenge in writing a teacher blog?
If you haven’t already, follow @MakeThemMastrIt on Twitter, and like the Make Them Master It Facebook Page. I can’t wait to talk about how we can increase the impact we can have on each other and our students!