Words of Advice from my English Teachers

By Christopher Valencia |

When I look back on all my English teachers, I notice a few who taught me some valuable things related to writing (and sometimes maybe about life). Most of my English teachers were always interesting characters. During my high school years, I recall one of them – a short woman with a strong character – standing on the table and shouting to get many noisy high school students to calm down. When I was in college, I remember one of my English professors loved – and I mean looooooved – the poetry of Walt Whitman. As she spoke about his work and read it to us, it was like she had entered a trance and forgotten we were there.

[Image Description: Bugs Bunny wearing medieval attire reciting poetry]

Caption: My college English professor.

Although English teachers can be an interesting breed, some of my teachers taught me a thing or two about writing and education in general. Below, I will share some of those moments when one of my teachers taught me something I have kept with me on my academic journey.

Words & Doodles

We begin with my high school days.

[Image Description: Saved By the Bell characters high-fiving one another]

Caption: The good ‘ol days.

Not to go too far back in time – since many of us are graduate students – but besides some foundational matters on writing, one of my teachers taught me a cool trick to remember new words. Simple really. When you learn a new word, draw a picture (even if you are not Picasso) next to it to help you remember its meaning. These small doodles should make some visual connections to the new word. If you are a visual learner, these words will stay with you for the long run.

The Ol’ Pencil & Paper

[Image Description: Someone writing on a white notecard with a pencil]

Caption: When in doubt, write it out!

Now, fast forwarding to my first writing class during my undergraduate years. It was a 7am class, so many of us were still groping towards consciousness as we trickled through the classroom door. Though the teacher of this class sometimes rambled and discussed many random topics (like how his grandmother posted pictures of food on social media and how he was concerned about this), he taught me many practical things.

I remember when he was sharing our first writing assignment for the class with us. He held up a pencil and paper and said: “Do you all know what these are?” Of course, we all knew, but he was trying to make a point. He knew most of us were a part of the age of smartphones and spent a good amount of time staring at our phones and computer screens. He told us that instead of going immediately to a computer and typing away, we should try writing our thoughts down on paper. He encouraged us to write an outline or create a bubble map to give our writing a sense of direction. You can even get creative and make visuals. Maybe this seems old-fashioned, but try to see if it helps your writing process.  

A Love for Literature

My next teacher was also from my undergraduate years. I enrolled in three of her courses because she was an excellent teacher. She knew her stuff and taught me the basics: writing is revising, word choice and sentence variety, and – if you are an English major – knowing and using literary terms to analyze literature.

But most of all, she loved literature and knew how to get her students to love it. She told us about how, back in her days in college, her English professors made her memorize the first few lines of the general prologue of The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer. She could even recite it before the class in its original language (Middle English with all the accents).

I did not go home and read all of Chaucer’s work in Middle English, but because of her, I was inspired to read a good amount of his work – along with several other books.

[Image Description: LeVar Burton from Reading Rainbow and Kermit the Frog reading literature]

Caption: Get to know what you read.

She also told us that a real lover of literature can quote an author word for word. I took that to heart and practiced memorizing several quotes myself. And in the process, as I memorized a few quotes, I noticed my vocabulary increased, and my writing improved as well. I unconsciously used words and phrases that were now in my memory.

Identify and Use Your Strengths

And lastly, I got some advice from another teacher from my undergrad days. Every so often, there is that one English teacher who will allow you to choose: you can either write an essay on a research topic or explore and write a creative piece of writing (fiction, non-fiction, etc.). The advice I learned from the academic freedom this teacher gave us – though unintentionally – was to identify and use my strengths. This advice was helpful because we all need to make different academic choices in graduate school. And at times, we will be given the freedom to explore. While learning new things, we should remember our strengths and leverage them to our advantage. As one advisor shared with me, keep following your interests.

Regarding my teacher’s assignment, at the time, I leaned more toward a creative writing project. So immediately, I began writing – and page after page came forth. In the process, I learned a lot about what topics interested me from this exercise. Perhaps the option to work on a creative piece of writing can sound a bit difficult or disinteresting for some students. So, if you would rather choose a research paper instead – that's great! The point is to identify and use your strengths and to follow where that path may lead. This advice can go a long way for our academic work and interests.

[Image Description: Point of view of driving down a forested mountain road.]

Caption: Follow the path that best suits you.

While there are more words of advice that other teachers have offered me (and not just English teachers), I will leave you with those few. We can all recall some of the advice our previous teachers shared with us, making this list longer. Hopefully, their advice still encourages you in your academic and personal pursuits.