How to make the leap from teacher to author

by | Nov 22, 2021

What does it take to make the transition from educator to published author? As co-author of many books, I’ve developed an interest in how other educators have navigated the process from classroom to print.

For Dr Janelle Wills, who penned Thinking protocols for learning, it was all about embracing her love–hate relationship with writing in order to share her decades of knowledge – and passion for education – with readers clamouring to soak up her advice.

In this conversation I spoke with Janelle about her writing journey – and gained a few tips for anyone else dreaming of writing a book.

Gavin Grift: If someone had said to you twenty or twenty-five years ago that one day you’ll be an author and educators across the country and around the world will have access to your thinking and published works, what would you have thought?

Janelle Wills: I wouldn’t have been shocked by the concept that I would write a book because I was already doing journal articles, white papers and conference presentations. So that bit wouldn’t have shocked me, I guess, but the widespread nature of it would have surprised me.

So writing has always been something that you’ve enjoyed, and getting your ideas out there in different forums has been something you’ve always valued. But it sounds like the extent to which you were able to do that through publishing a book is the surprising bit?

Writing isn’t something that I particularly enjoy. I have to be in the right mood to write. What I love is researching what I’m going to write about, thinking about how the different pieces fit together and figuring out what that might look like in a practical sense. Then my writing flows and I enjoy it. The irony is that I have a low self-efficacy for writing and yet my PhD focused on the impact and development of self-efficacy.

What were some of the milestones in your own thinking that led to the publication of Thinking protocols for learning?

The seed of an idea had been there for a little while I guess, and people had been constantly encouraging me, saying I should write a book. (And now they’re telling me to write a second book!) So then I needed to think about what I really wanted to write about – what was I really passionate about? And it turns out there are many things!

During this time, teachers were also telling me they lacked a resource that provided them with practical tips and strategies. As teachers, we get ‘should on’ all the time. People say, ‘You should do this, you should do that,’ in terms of theory. Rightly so, teachers were saying, ‘OK, give me some simple things that I can actually do in reality’. I had been sharing different practical applications with teachers who were asking where they could find the ideas in one resource – that’s how the book came about.

In the end that’s what my book ended up being: a compilation of lots of practical applications linked to research and theory, along with the things that I’ve grown to be passionate about like the importance of metacognition (high-level thinking that enables understanding) and self-efficacy. There are also practical strategies in terms of how you group students. Let’s face it; just like adults, kids are not born to work in collaborative teams. So what are some practical things we can do to manage this?

Thinking protocols for learning includes many things that I learnt along the way in my own teaching practice.

For anyone who’s thinking about writing a book, would you say that a good recipe for success would be combining what they’re truly passionate about with what people genuinely want help with?

Definitely. Plus, I do believe – and this is just the geek in me – but you’ve got to have that solid research base.

I guess it’s getting that magic sweet spot in terms of your research and also incorporating the practical. For example, my PhD wasn’t going to translate easily into a book, but there are elements of my PhD that have gone into the book. So it’s definitely about trying to get that right mix of the research and the practical.

Your book includes many approaches and practical strategies, but you also draw from an evidence base that says, ‘Here’s why they might be useful.’ If someone is thinking about writing a book, but is perhaps lacking the self-belief or the know-how, what advice would you give them?

I know this sounds like an ad, but reaching out to Hawker Brownlow Education is invaluable because they’re so supportive. The whole proposal process makes you really think about some big questions. Why is this book needed? What exactly do you want to do?  You’re pushed into engaging with that thinking process.

I’d say just jump in because you’re going to be supported all along the way. An editor and the editorial team will help you to tighten your writing and give you constructive feedback.

So that process will help you filter and refine your ideas to the point where people might find what you’ve got to say valuable. And perhaps a last tip for any budding authors out there?

Be patient – you’re not going to have a book written overnight.

Gavin Grift

With experience as a teacher, assistant principal and educational coach, Gavin Grift’s passion, commitment and style have made him an in-demand presenter of keynotes, seminars and in-school support days. As a speaker, Gavin connects with national and international audiences on topics ranging from Cognitive Coaching and quality teacher practice to professional learning communities (PLCs) and learning-centred leadership.

Janelle Wills

Dr Janelle Wills is the lead training associate for High Reliability Schools, the New Art and Science of Teaching and other Marzano Research topics. She works extensively with schools, regions and systems throughout Australia. With over 30 years of teaching and leadership experience, Dr Wills maintains a strong commitment to continued learning that enables her to remain both informed and innovative in her approach.