|Me at a school|
For me, it's a joy. Truly. I should think 90% or more of visits to schools absolutely make my day, gladden my heart and restore my faith in humanity. School visits make it worthwhile putting up with all the practical, emotional and financial rigours that the jobbing writer endures.
As the end of the school year rapidly approaches, here are my personal thoughts on the subject, as distilled from loads and loads of schlepping around the country and trying to hold 10-year-olds spellbound for 45 minutes...
- It does get easier. When I started going to schools, I wasn't terribly good at the whole keeping-'em-spellbound stuff. Er, OK, to be brutally honest, I bombed. Big time. But now, though I say so myself, I'm a pretty good public speaker. After a while, all that stuff actor luvvies say about 'reading an audience' stops sounding like pretentious drivel and starts making sense. You really can play it on-the-fly and adjust your performance as it goes. And it is a performance.
- OMG, RELAX! Even if you're terrified, you must come across as entirely confident and at ease. Nothing loses a classroom full of kids quicker than nerves. Nothing.
- Find your natural habitat. Personally, I much prefer larger groups of kids, the bigger the better. I know others like the smallest groups possible. Stick to what you're comfortable with. If you don't like talking to more than one class at a time, don't be persuaded to address the entire school at Assembly. With that in mind...
- Learn to say 'no'. For example, I'm not a teacher. Never have been. I thoroughly enjoy talking to an audience and hearing their ideas, but I simply can't do the full 'workshop' thing and replace what a teacher would do during a lesson. I've learned from bitter experience that if a school says something like "we'd like you to lead a story-writing session and help grade their efforts" I must say (gently!) that my skills don't stretch that far. After all, they wouldn't expect a visiting firefighter to do that, would they? And with that in mind...
- Be clear and up-front. Have it right there on your website what you can do in schools. I try to make my Teacher's Page as comprehensive as possible. Go through the National Curriculum and see if you can tie what you talk about into something specific that children will have been learning about in class. Teachers really appreciate that.
- Help schools help you. Do whatever you can to save teacher-time. Give them a flyer they can put up around the school, for instance; if books are going to be on sale, order the stock and do the fetching and carrying (see note below); email the school some free chapters - or send them a free copy or two, if you can afford it - that the children can read before the event.
- Do it yourself. Never let a third party organise a school visit for you, unless it's someone you know and trust (a personal contact at a publisher, for instance). If you're standing in front of a large group of kids, and they don't know who you are, or why you're there, and you're clearly wasting your time, you can bet there's a third party involved. I hate to say it, but public libraries are the worst offenders here. Not all of them, by any means. I've been doing some visits through Birmingham Central Library recently, and they're totally wonderful. But many aren't. Sad, but true.
- Charge a fee. I've done freebies in the past, and I'll very occasionally do them now, but the rule of thumb is: invoice 'em! Schools do expect to pay visiting speakers. You're a professional giving up your time. Of course, the million dollar question is: how much? A safe bet is to go by standard Society Of Authors suggestions, around £300 a pop, but I know quite a few writers charge more. I'd say, be flexible but don't undervalue yourself.
- Giveaways are nice. If your budget will allow, take along a supply a bookmarks or pencils - pre-printed with info about your books, of course - which every pupil can have. Even these days, you'll find the occasional school that gets jittery about the 'if one kid can't afford a book, no kid shall buy a book' idea. A giveaway helps reassure them that you're not some slavering greedy Bob Diamond figure.
- Whatever happens, smile. It's rare, but sometimes things do go wrong. I've been left alone with a class of baying maniacs; I've been berated in a crowded Staff Room for writing a book which included the word 'witch'; I've had teachers yattering and marking homework all through my talk; I've had secondary pupils tell me just how boring they thought my book was; I've talked to kids while the council rat catcher has laid bait behind me... At all times, smile sweetly. Never criticise, never walk out, and never lose your cool (well, cases of full-scale assault excepted, I suppose). Because, unfortunately, the only person it'll reflect badly on is you. All anyone will remember about you is your purple expression of rage. Not fair, but there it is.
|Me at another school|
|Yes, it's World Book Day, and|
yes, I'm the twit in the
Sherlock Holmes outfit
Note on point 6: How many books should you take to a school? I've found that, on average, around 15%-20% of the children you talk to will buy a book. Ask the school exactly how many kids you'll be seeing and judge accordingly.