Walking in My Shoes: A Guide for Post-Secondary Folks Interested in Secondary School Writing Centers

At the half dozen or so conferences I’ve attended over the last year, there’s been a noticeable spike in the interest in secondary school writing centers from college and university peers.  Moving closer to the main party from the hidden corners of the Burkean Parlor is an exciting development because we have worthwhile perspectives, excellent pedagogies, and best practices to contribute to the larger conversation about how to build, sustain, and improve writing centers.  Working more closely with our post-secondary partners also helps us develop and grow professionally, particularly as we learn the administrative skills required to be a successful director. 

While we’re excited that you’re interested in our work and that we’ve been able to form closer collaborations, we need to talk about some problematic and troubling trends.

Some Context

As we work together more closely and more often, having a contextualized understanding of the state of secondary school writing centers is vital.  Last year, I worked with a team of people to create and administer a Secondary School Writing Center Census through IWCA. Here’s a snapshot of what we learned:

NCTE 2017 - Secondary School Writing Centers SIG

We have a large segment of our population that is relatively new to being a writing center director and often these folks are self-trained.  One of the most difficult aspects of secondary school directorship is that teachers are being asked to perform administrative functions that they didn’t train for and never thought that they would have to do.  Although we’re making progress through new organizations like the Secondary School Writing Centers Association (SSWCA) and IWCA, real-deal mentorship has traditionally been difficult in secondary school centers, as centers are often not geographically close or well connected to others in the field. We also have a significant population of people that are either not compensated or undercompensated for the work they perform in the writing center, as some institutions struggle to see the value in something that may not look like or align with traditional secondary school practices.   Moreover, writing center work is most often something that we do in addition to teaching three-to-six class each day.  In other words, writing center director is an “and” in our job titles.  The point of this snapshot isn’t to draw distinctions between us—we share some familiar institution realities—but I wanted to provide insight into how to understand the very long, existentially perilous, and incredibly rocky road many secondary school centers walk.

Tips for Talking About Us and to Us

 Come Prepared

Every so often, a post will appear on WCenter that’s a generic request for information about secondary school writing centers: do we exist?  Are there any centers near me?  How do I start one?   This happens to us frequently at conferences, too.  The discussions are always about the basics, and rarely, if ever, about the rich legacies, amazing programs, and vital systems we’ve built in our schools and communities.

While our field is relatively new, there have been some true pioneers—scholars, activists, and researchers—who have put in an uncountable number of uncompensated hours to ensure that newcomers had resources and guidance when entering the field because there wasn’t much to be found about secondary school writing centers. We’ve worked hard to ensure that many of these resources are widely available for free online to anyone wanting or needing them. 

While your requests for information are awesome, there’s an onus on post-secondary folks to educate themselves about our contexts, structures, and realities before asking us to share our collective knowledge with you, especially when simple poking around would uncover so many great resources from some of the smartest and most thoughtful people I’ve ever met.  As we’ve tried to become more central in our Burkean Parlor, we did the work—we studied, we wrote, we published, we presented, we collaborated—and it’s important that it’s reciprocal.  My writing center has two very successful collaborations with university partners, and, in each case, our partners took the time to think about our context and learn about our work.

Honor Practitioners

Honoring the smart, thoughtful practitioners in secondary school writing centers is a must.  Many folks have been on-the-ground practitioners for years—researching, writing, training tutors, presenting at conferences, building partnerships, closing achievement gaps—that its disheartening to see how little value our voices and our experiences are often given.  These folks have done some hard scrabble, often in unthinkable conditions, to establish themselves, their centers, and their tutors.

I’ve been to three conference presentations in the last calendar year about secondary school writing centers that didn’t involve a single secondary school voice in person or digitally.  There’s an ugly paternalism when those with no history or substantive involvement in secondary school writing centers pass themselves off as experts in our field, especially when we’re in the audience.  Indeed, I was so jarred by what I saw at one conference that I left early, and I know many of my colleagues felt similarly taken aback even though they decided to stay. Most secondary school directors would relish the opportunity to be on a panel with you—in some cases, it’s the only way they’ll be accepted to the conference—so it’s vital to develop a relationship with directors and invite them into your process.  Similarly, when requests for information about secondary school writing centers come through the listserv, the first person to answer is usually a member of a postsecondary writing center.  Your excitement and enthusiasm about our work is welcome, but let us speak for ourselves.  When you answer first, it silences us, preventing many of the awesome, thoughtful people with years of experience from responding.  It’s more than symbolism to allow us to answer first and have our voices be primary; it’s giving powerful space to expert voices that haven’t always been heard.

I’ve had many people tell me that they’re allies when I’ve gone direct with this message, but allies don’t award themselves the title.  If you are or want to be an ally to secondary school writing centers, it’s important to remember what responsible allies do.

See Us


We want to be involved in the larger writing center world, which is why we keep coming to conferences, participating in professional development opportunities, and the discourse going on listservs, Twitter, and online forums. When you see in these spaces, you need to seeus in these spaces. 

Many secondary school directors have reported feeling unseen and unheard, and, some, when they are seen, have reported hostility toward them and their tutors.  I experienced the former over the last year as well where, twice, post-secondary directors that I know walked right past me in hallways at conferences without a glance, nod, or acknowledgement to talk to the person right behind me.  We don’t need a long conversation, but a simple hello and eye contact can go a long way in making people from a smaller, typically marginalized group feel part of the larger community.  It really only takes one bad experience for folks to avoid spending their hard-won time and hard-earned money to come to conferences. The same set of circumstances applies within sessions, too.  Audible sighs and visible eye rolls when secondary directors (or their tutors) ask questions or make a point are troubling, and it’s consistent enough to discuss it here (note: we’ve gone direct, too). Like most of you, we have to fight for any time away from the classroom (districts have to pay substitute teachers) and many of us are on the hook for our total cost of attendance.  The impact of every pass without a glance and every negative word is the same: people never coming back.

I teach in a well-resourced district, have formal and informal leadership roles, present at conferences regularly, volunteer for several professional organizations, and have a large local and global professional learning network; imagine how someone who doesn’t have the same privileges feels when they’re invisible in these venues.  I was so shocked by the lack of acknowledgement at the conference, I’m genuinely not sure if I’ll ever return. 

Follow the Leaders

I’ve met some really great folks who have been amazing allies to secondary school writing centers since I’ve been involved in the work: Christine Modey, Brett Griffiths, Ann Blakeslee, Cathy Fleischer, Jackie Grutsch McKinney, and John Nordlof are only a few of the many.  Follow their lead.

Higher Needs, a Pyramid + Feedback

In How to Reform Capitalism, Alain de Botton writes:

“Most of us are, a good deal of the time, properly at sea: burdened by complaints, unfulfilled hopes, barely formulated longings, restless, anger, and grief.”

The argument, in extended form, is that capitalism isn’t really a “mature” system because most people aren’t happy, even if they can’t really say why. de Botton attributes the unhappiness—this sort of nausea—to capitalism’s inability to attend to our social, emotional, and even existential needs.  This line of thinking isn’t necessarily new (or even particularly groundbreaking), but it is instructive when I think about conversations with students about the kinds of feedback they want and the kinds of feedback they actually receive.

While students are often criticized in teacher-centered spaces on Twitter or at educational conferences as being overly focused on quantitative outcomes, like grades, we need to consider how our own behaviors contribute to the transactional nature of our classrooms, schools, and districts.   We can think of instances where we used grades as an attempt to motivate students to complete an assignment, or worse yet, where we weaponized grades to compel compliance with a rigid set of our regulations, reinforcing the power asymmetry between teachers and students.  Amy Hasinoff, a professor at the University of Colorado-Denver, discussed her own struggle with grading: “I was using grades to get the results I wanted…I was frustrated with the feeling that my job was becoming more about explaining and enforcing rules rather than teaching and learning.”  If the conversations we have with students are centered on points, especially justifying deductions for font choices, staple placement, and, yes, even lateness, we can’t be surprised when students are unhappy with us or with school.  Here, it’s worth thinking about how many students simply do what we ask because they want to avoid interactions with the oppressive power of grades and those assigning them.  When the work is transactional and rooted in compliance, we can’t be surprised when students skip to the bottom line and avoid taking risks.

It’s important to remember that humans are biologically designed to want feedback that helps them learn and grow; we seek out high-level interactions that help us review, revise, and relearn.  In de Botton’s argument about consumer capitalism, he argues that the vague unhappiness comes from companies, brands, and advertisers only fulfilling our most basic needs—the bottom of Maslow’s pyramid—without ever attending to our higher needs.  In my conversations with teachers over the last year at school and at conferences, I’ve frequently heard some offshoot of “grades are a form of feedback!”  While this isn’t necessarily untrue, grades only meet the most basic needs of our students.  If we’re not giving our students substantive, timely feedback that they can use to review, revise, and relearn, we’re not meeting their highest needs, which can exacerbate student feelings that school is transactional, especially when grades are “noisy,” meaning they don’t solely measure mastery of a skill, they measure a host of other things, usually revolving around compliance.

Graphic: Samira Jamali

Worse yet, when our grading and feedback practices stay at the bottom of Maslow’s pyramid, our students are not be developing important skills that they will need to be successful in and after our class, inside and outside of school because errors are seen as areas of deficiency rather than areas for improvement.  As P.L. Thomas shares:

“I struggle to break through students resisting the drafting, feedback, revision process because they have been taught to submit instantly perfect work; that their identifiable flaws are the loss of points—not necessarily areas to learn, grow, and excel.”

If school revolves around grades and grades are centered in the student psyche as reinforcing deficit-oriented thinking, we can’t be surprised when there’s disengagement and avoidance.  As much as we’re programmed to seek out feedback, we’re also programmed to avoid pain.  This is especially true for students who our educational systems aren’t structured to support and who grades are often most weaponized against.

In How to Reform Capitalism, de Botton argues that true motivation occurs when we feel the purpose is high enough to act.  We need to keep this in mind when we ask students to engage in an activity or an assessment simply for a grade.  The purpose simply isn’t high enough, as grades can often have deleterious effects on student engagement.  Instead, I argue that helping students see assignments as real-deal learning experiences that they can use to improve their skills is a high enough purpose, especially if they know that you are an invested partner and collaborator.  Providing timely, feedback that directly addresses a student’s wants and needs and that can be immediately applied to their learning goals is an excellent way to develop working, trusting relationships with them, as is taking and applying their feedback about how to best meet their needs.  Too often, we talk about building relationships with students as something wholly separate from classroom practice, but the two have intimate links.  Indeed, rethinking and reforming feedback and grading practices is key to building schools capable of closing achievement gaps. 

Last year, I revisited student-led face-to-face grading with some of my students after moving away from it, and I had forgotten how purposeful and meaningful it felt.  While I still had in-class conferences with students throughout the writing process and many students used our school’s peer Writing Center, hearing students talk so passionately, openly, and critically about their process was a revelation, so much so that the discussions often went well beyond their scheduled time.  Students wanted feedback on their prewriting strategies, organizational tips for paper structure, and advice on developing more critical relationships with their source material.  The grade wasn’t even mentioned in a vast majority of the conversations because, in the end, the grade mattered very little—students have unlimited opportunities to revise using feedback—and because the purpose felt higher than a number in PowerSchool.


Using any high-level feedback strategy effectively, whether its face-to-face grading or something else, requires us to gain students’ trust over time by showing them that we’re collaborators in learning willing to share power and vulnerability with them, and it also requires us to trust our students as people who want to learn and grow and can do so without the existential threats of grades and grading. 

Our students will be happier, and so will we.