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Stories and art are what make life worth living: An Interview with Stephanie Latham

Stories and art are what make life worth living: An Interview with Stephanie Latham

 |  Author Interviews

 

For the kids who are eagerly waiting for the school term to finish and for the summer holidays to begin, please bear one thing in mind – so are the teachers! Schools are some of the most important institutions in our modern society, they quite literally hold the future of our world, but running such a place requires great determination, knowledge and patience.

 

In her poetry collection, Litany of a Teacher, Stephanie Latham tries to condense her feelings and experiences into beautiful passages of prose. In this interview, we spoke with Stephanie about her passion for teaching, the preconceptions of the profession and explored another side of her creativity – her love of Dungeons & Dragons.

 

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You are an English teacher, with your time at work directly influencing the writing of your poetry book. Our first question, what were you like yourself studying in school?

 

I was honestly a bit of a nerd in school! I did most of my homework and attended my lessons, but not to any great effort. I was not a star pupil by any stretch of the imagination, but I’ve always been naturally academic, and I love learning, so I enjoyed it for the most part. I was a complete social outcast though!

 

I managed to find what I lovingly call ‘my people’- fellow nerds who were good natured enough to put up with my eccentricities, and we’re still friends to this day and I’m incredibly grateful to them. Bullying happened, as it often does in school, but I had my friends and the support of my mum, so I focussed on my studies and the things I enjoyed and gained confidence from them.

 

I never thought of myself as a poet, though at the time, poetry for me was written by old white men who waxed lyrical about daffodils until I reached GCSE. That’s when I was introduced to poets like Carol Ann Duffy, Imtiaz Dharker and John Agard, and it inspired such a love of poetry that I was forever changed. I will never forget reading Havisham by Duffy, The Right Word by Dharker or Half-Caste by Agard for the first time, and just thinking about how poetry can be fun.

 

On a school trip, later in my teaching career, I had the opportunity to attend a Poetry Live event to hear these poets read poetry live, and I thought to myself ‘I’d like to be up there one day’. I’d love for one of my poems to be in the GCSE anthology one day, if only because I want students to enjoy poetry like I do - and so I can show students how to analyse it if it were ever to come up in the exam. ‘You want to know what the poet’s intentions were, kids? Here you go!’

 

 

 

 

Teaching has always been a necessary profession, especially gaining respect during the Covid-19 pandemic when all students faced home learning. What is your favourite part of such an arduous job?

 

That’s a hard question to answer, as there’s so much about teaching that I love. I’m a secondary school teacher, and I love literature, so my absolute favourite moments have to be when students start to love it, too. The moments where students gasp about what just happened, or start debating about a character, or really start to grasp the nuances in poetry - the moments when my passion for the subject makes THEM passionate about it.

 

I’ve always felt a purpose in teaching, too - I’ve always wanted to help people, and help the world become a better place in some small way. So many of us now focus on the sciences, or mathematics, and these subjects are of course important, but I feel like the arts and literature are often forgotten. Books can change us, and some have changed the world, so if I can inspire someone in some way - whether that’s the next great writer or even just encourage children to read more - I feel like I’ve made some small difference.

 

Stories and art are what make life worth living; they help us to explore, to understand, to be more compassionate and empathetic, to see things in a way we wouldn’t have done otherwise, and it’s my job to open that door for as many students as possible.

 

The holidays aren’t bad either.

 

 

 

 

To teach a child requires complex preparation and a rigorous attention to detail, which many people may not realise. What misconceptions of the profession do you think exist in our society and is this the reason why you have chosen to write your book?

 

I think the biggest misconception is that we start at 9am and finish at 3pm and that’s our job done - I wish!

 

My colleagues and I work around the clock during the school day, but it doesn’t stop there. I know teachers that start at 6am and don’t stop until 9pm - they take work home with them! Teaching can be an all-consuming profession. We spend a long time marking, and planning for lessons, and filling out forms and contacting parents that often we work much longer than our contracted hours. It’s stressful too, with pressure from all sides - from students, from parents, from school leaders, from society and the government, from Ofsted and other agencies - it’s relentless.

 

At the core of what we do are the students, and that’s another misconception- that at the end of the day, we go home and forget about them, but that’s not the case for any teacher I know. We are constantly thinking about how we’re going to help this student or that student, or worrying about exams for them, or racking our brains about their options. We want students to do well in their exams not because we expect it of them, but because we want them to have the choice for whatever their future holds, and we know good results open more doors.

 

The funniest misconception from students is the idea that teachers don’t have a life outside school. The looks on students’ faces when they see us out and about in the real world is honestly hilarious - it’s a mix of horror, wonder, embarrassment and confusion, and most of them desperately try to pretend they don’t know us, so we won’t drag their parents into a conversation about school. Pupils in younger years seem to think we live at the school and sleep in the cupboards, but even older pupils are surprised to see us outside school. Yes, we have lives and interests outside our subjects - who knew!

 

 

 

 

Hours of time and effort is required when teaching. When did you find the time and how did you plan out your process to finish writing and publish a poetry collection?

 

Honestly, writing for me is cathartic. I didn’t actually plan to write a poetry book at first - I wrote poetry because I felt something, and I felt it so strongly that I had to get it out somehow. I don’t want to add to the ‘tortured artist’ conga, but I wrote a lot of it when my depression was at its worst, or when someone I knew was going through something.

 

I’d write poems on my phone on the train home, or when I got a spare five minutes at lunch time, or late at night when I couldn’t sleep, and my anxiety got the best of me. Occasionally I’d re-read my poems and edit them here and there, changing bits and adding things, and once or twice I included them in a lesson (not because I wanted to show off, but because I wanted to show students that if I can do it, anyone can!)

 

Eventually I just had so many poems that I’d written and saved, I thought ‘why not put together a book?’, and since I didn’t have a reason not to, I decided to go for it. I organised them into some form of order and emailed it to a few publishing houses before Pegasus Publishers kindly decided to pick it up, and here we are! I guess the lesson I learned from it all is to write because you love it, not because you feel you have to.

 

 

 

 

Our final question relates to your self-declared love of Dungeons & Dragons. How has your storytelling and character-building experiences playing D&D helped you in your writing? Could we see a fiction title from you in the future?

 

Absolutely! I’ve written a fantasy fiction novel, though I’m not sure it’s any good - I’m still in the dreaded process of editing, and it’s gone from one book to two, but it’s there! D&D has helped me in so many ways. My groups in particular have been brilliant, giving me a huge variety of characters and situation to write about, but there’s a deeper level to it than that. There’s a level of connection and camaraderie that builds long-lasting friendships, and I think exploring new worlds and problems with people from all walks of life makes us more empathetic. It helped me understand my own strengths, and appreciate the strengths in those around me, too.

 

It will come as a surprise to absolutely no-one that my favourite class to play as is a bard and that I like to talk my way out of things, but D&D has also brought out the best in even the most reserved players. Our wizard, while not the most outspoken member of the group, takes meticulous notes on everything, while our rogue (who is arguably the quietest) is a master of strategy. It’s something I’ve tried to include in my novel- the idea that heroism isn’t always brave, or charismatic, or even always likeable- it comes in a myriad of forms, but it’s actually working together that will get the job done.  

 

I’m currently playing in a completely homebrew campaign, and our DM is the BEST storyteller. She’s planned an entire world, with its own intricacies and sub-plots and an army of NPCs, and with so many emotional twists and revelations that she’s actually made us cry more than once, both with laughter and sadness (I’m sure she considers that an achievement!). I don’t know how she keeps track of it all, especially when we as players go off the rails! Her storytelling has inspired my own in ways I can’t even begin to fathom, but she’s mostly influenced my planning - she thinks more about the end goal, about where she wants the story to be at key points, and lets the characters write the rest and I found the same with my own writing.

 

As I wrote my poems, I thought about what the core emotion or message that I wanted to convey was and let that flow. It’s the same with my novel - I knew where I wanted characters to be, or what I wanted them to do, but for the most part they sort of took over and wrote themselves!

 

D&D has also taught me about how the world could be. In D&D, the evils we come across can (hopefully) be defeated, the villain vanquished, the people protected. Of course, we can’t do that in everyday life, but there are ways to fight these battles in small ways of our own. I can’t single-handedly combat racism, or transphobia, or corruption - but perhaps I can add my own voice in some way to those already speaking out; perhaps I can enchant someone enough to consider things they hadn’t before; perhaps I can inspire compassion and strength; or maybe even just show someone who is struggling that they are not alone.

 

 

Litany of a Teacher is available now in paperback.

 

 


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