Matt Porter is a Victorian based children’s author who is also a currently serving full-time Primary School teacher. His CRAZY RELIEF TEACHER series of books are hugely popular and well known. Matt spoke to me recently about his dual careers as writer and teacher.
I understand your current job within the Victorian Education Department is as a mobile library teacher in rural schools. Can you tell us a bit about that?
I am a MARC (mobile library) teacher in the Hamilton area (about 90 mins drive from Ballarat, outside of Melbourne) I visit 8 schools on a fortnightly basis and teach 4 hours of library a day. My biggest school has 105 students while the smallest one has 7! My lessons teach literacy skills but my main aim is to instil a love of reading and books in students. We do fun activities such as trying to break the records from the Guinness World Records books or creating theme parks based on the Dewey System with each section of the park based on a Dewey section. I drive a Sprinter van to the schools which is full of books that the students borrow. It’s a Department of Education job with the same conditions as everyone, it’s just I teach at 8 schools instead of 1. I teach Prep through to Year 6, sometimes all at the same time. My job is also great as there are no staff meetings, yard duty or reports!
The job is great for me as I get to work with books all day and I find I’m able to keep my head in the ‘book/writing space’ whereas when I was teaching in a classroom it was hard to then switch into a writing frame of mind at night. My principal is very supportive of my writing. I am able to take leave each year to run writing workshops in schools as an author. I’ve been lucky enough to head to Queensland for Book Week for a few years and enjoy your beautiful weather! I currently work .9 and use my day off to visit schools or write. I have the first 4 weeks of next term off to visit schools. I really enjoy these times as I can share my passion for writing with new students. I try to make the sessions interactive so the workshop based on my character Mr Jackpot sees the students playing gameshows that teach writing skills.
Your first teaching post was at Bannockburn Primary (near Geelong) on a 3/4 class. Would you give us a brief rundown of your teaching career to date.
I attended Ballarat University from 1999-2002. My first teaching job was at Bannockburn and I was there until mid-way through 2010. During my time at Banno I taught grades 2/3, 3/4 and 5/6. In 2010 our first child was due (we now have 3 kids) so we moved back to the area where my wife and I grew up, Port Fairy. I taught at Merrivale Primary School in Warrnambool from 2010-2015. I taught grades 3/4, 5/6 and PE. Merrivale had a lot of staff who worked 4 days a week (including me) and for one year I was the ‘floater’ who didn’t have their own class and taught in each teachers’ classroom on their day off. I enjoy working with students and the teamwork aspect of teaching.
The idea for my Crazy Relief Teachers series came into my head while teaching at Banno. The teacher next door was absent and the relief teacher called himself Mr Midnight and dressed as a cowboy. He sang cowboy songs for most of the day. Another relief teacher, who we called The Puzzler, spent two hours teaching the students how to solve a Rubik’s Cube on another day. Those two made me think it would be a good idea for a series of books where a school gets a procession of Crazy Relief Teachers.
Your first commercial publishing success came seven years back with the books PICTURE PERFECT and MY COUNTRY. Please share with us the story of those early days as a burgeoning writer.
When I started teaching in 2003 (I feel old saying that!) I read the books of Roald Dahl, Andy Griffiths and Paul Jennings to the students. The students’ reactions were priceless and I loved how they hung on every word and laughed loudly throughout. I have always loved writing and thought if I could get even a fraction of the reaction those brilliant writers got then I would be over the moon. It took me two weeks to write a 10,000 word story that I hoped would be published … I was very wrong. I got plenty of rejection letters from publishers, however there was some positive feedback in that my ideas were funny (but my writing was terrible). I then did three things:
- I enrolled in writing classes. These were online and involved reading, completing various writing tasks and then submitting stories to a tutor.
- I wrote on weekends, after work and any opportunity I got.
- The best thing I did was research authors and find the ones who didn’t have teachers’ notes/activities on their websites. I emailed these authors and offered to make activities for their books for free and in return I asked if they could mentor me. Several authors helped me in this way, in particular DC Green who has been a huge help and mentor for me.
I had a few near misses from 2005-2009 and I kept trying and didn’t let myself get too discouraged every time a rejection letter came. After a while I started getting personalised rejection letters (rather than the standard ones I usually got) and these contained feedback, suggestions for improvements and the offer of re-submitting the manuscript once it had been improved. This gave me encouragement to continue. I then had two stories accepted for publication in Challenge Magazine (Pearson Education): Australia’s Funniest Gnome Videos and The Best Friend Test. This gave me something to put on my Writing CV (other than ‘World Record Holder for Most Rejection Letters Received’) when submitting to publishers. I was thrilled when Picture Perfect and My Country were accepted by Blake Education as readers. Not too long after that I received two offers for the first Crazy Relief Teacher book: Mr Sergeant and the Dodgeballs of Doom. One was for more money but the book would be published as a one-off, while Celapene Press offered to sign up for a series. I’m very happy I went with Celapene Press and now there are 4 books in the series. I’ve now got a 5th book coming out with them. I’ve also written the first book in a new series that I can’t say too much about other than it’s a sporty series and the first book comes out in January. That series will be published by Ford Street.
Your ‘Crazy Relief Teachers’ book series currently boasts four titles. Are you working on another one and if so can you give us a sneak peak regarding the plot and main character?
I’m very excited that the 5th book in the series will be released in late September! It’s called Ms Runway and Australia’s Next Top Merino. When Jennifer Runway, host of the famous TV show Australia’s Next To Model, takes control of the class she initiates a modelling competition to boost student numbers at the rural school. However complications arise when Pete enters his pet sheep, Delta Goodram.
Where I teach there are a lot of sheep farmers and a sheep festival called Sheepvention.Woolly West Fest is part of Sheepvention and it’s a literacy festival for kids. Each year they go into schools and run literacy activities with sheep and wool as the focus. I was teaching lessons for this where the students had to change the title and cover of a famous book so it would have a sheep as the main character (hence James and the Giant Sheep and Zombie Rams from Ewe-ranus). As an example to the class I changed the Top Model TV show to Top Merino. I then thought it would make a good idea for my next book. At the same time one of my schools had lost a number of students so its enrolment was quite low. I combined the two ideas and the students in the school have a Top Model competition to attract more students. Here’s a sneak peak of the cover.
Any thoughts on Mr Schneebly, the archetypal crazy relief teacher portrayed by Jack Black in the epochal 2003 movie SCHOOL OF ROCK?
I love that movie! He’s so over-the-top as a character and it’s a great story. I once read a quote by Roald Dahl that said to exaggerate your characters, if they’re going to be mean, make them really mean. If they’re nice, make them really nice. I guess I’ve attempted that with my Crazy Relief Teachers. Mr Sergeant, the army officer, makes the students ‘drop and do twenty’ if they get an answer wrong and he treats dodgeball like it’s a war. Mr Jackpot, a gameshow host, is over-the-top and an exaggerated version of the gameshow hosts I grew up watching in the 80’s/90’s. I was a big fan of Jack Black and the early Adam Sandler films. However my favourite movies now are the ones made by Simon Pegg, especially Shaun of the Dead.
Are you familiar with any of the books of British author Mike Carey? He penned the zombie apocalypse novel THE GIRL WITH ALL THE GIFTS back in 2014 that sold in excess of 500 000 copies and was later adapted into the 2016 film of the same name starring Glenn Close. He’s someone who’s joined the long list (which includes Dan Brown and J.K.Rowling) of former school teachers who became champion writers.
I’m not familiar with Mike Carey’s work. I do read a lot of children’s fiction for work and also because it’s a great way to improve as a writer by reading the work of great authors. I read a lot of non-fiction in my spare time and Bill Bryson is a favourite of mine. His A Short History of Nearly Everything is my favourite book. I also read a lot of biographies and am currently half-way through a book on Jim Henson. I love reading about people who have led interesting lives. I also like humorous books such as Freakonomics, or people who have done zany things such as Join Me and the book on the Australian Sudoku Team. One day I’d love to do something like that.
While I’m not familiar with Mike Carey, I do know of lots of teachers who have become authors. I believe Andy Griffiths was a high school English teacher and Paul Jennings has a teaching background. Michael Gerard Bauer was a teacher and is John Marsden a principal?
And just finally Matt, in the course of your involvment with school students how many times have you encountered the situation depicted in this cartoon?
Can’t say I ever have Glen.
Thanks Matt and I know I join with the readers of this blog in wishing you all the best with your future careers in both writing and teaching.