The Good, the Bad and the Overwhelming

When I meet with my English department counterparts, I think about their lives, the fact that they have six – SIX  – English classes to prep, teach and grade for, and I am so happy that I do not.

I am a journalism adviser, who happens to teach a couple of English classes.

Something will come up in our meeting about my newspaper or yearbook responsibilities, and I inevitably hear, “Oh, I wouldn’t want to be you,” or something of the sort. So I guess the feeling is mutual – sort of.

I look at their days and see hour after hour of students mostly sitting in rows, putting up with my going on about participial phrases or topic sentences or some piece of literature that I and maybe four of them find fascinating. I think about the mountain of formal paragraphs, essays or research papers that they have to grade, and I count my blessings.

To be fair, they know that I put in a lot of extra hours.

Advising is not for everyone, but it’s the only kind of teaching I really want to do. When I begin to think it’s more than I want to handle, I hear from a former student that he’s going to be managing editor of his university newspaper next year or another who has realized that she wants to teach journalism and English – like I do. There are plenty of good reasons to do what I do. But when it all gets frustrating, I cannot help but break it down into the Good, the Bad, and what’s currently eating at me: the Overwhelming.

The Good

1.  I get to connect with kids on staffs in a way that I do not in a regular class. We spend a lot of time together as they produce content, come to me for advice on how to get sources to talk to them, how to get a parent to understand why they need to be able to stay a little later, or how to handle an issue with an other staffer. Conversations about their lives, both present and future is better than any shiny apple, even if I am supposed to be posting my lesson plans. How can I tell them I don’t have time for that?

2.  We bond over crises. Over the years, it’s not farfetched to say that some of our content has not been received well. Sometimes we’ve messed up, and we have a staff meeting – which sounds way more formal than what it is – and figure out where we went wrong and how to resolve it. I mostly guide, play devil’s advocate, try to get them to see different perspectives. Sometimes the staff and I have done our jobs, but the readers don’t appreciate a viewpoint that differs from the mainstream. Empowering students to use their voices, to be responsible, to understand their freedoms and their limitations is exhilarating.

3.  Students do work in here that they are proud of. Watching new staffers beam over their first bylines and photo credits is pretty priceless. The kids love to hear from fellow students about something that was in the paper or yearbook. It gets even better when a faculty or community member takes the time to write or email to commend something we have done. And, of course, in the fall both staffs trek to conference for yearbook awards, and in the spring, the same happens for newspaper awards. Both staffs always do well, and they support each other. It’s validation that they are doing something worthwhile, and they are doing it well.

4.  At the end of the year, along with whatever I’ve conceived for a final, I have staffers write a reflection of the year. What are you most proud of? What do you still need to work on? How will the skills you have developed in this class help you? I get some of the best responses. Truth be told, I do these reflections for me. It’s purely selfish. After the long year of ups and downs, I need a mood-lifter, and I always get it. One of my favorites this year: “This is the only class I actually work in.”

The Bad

1. I put in A LOT of time. I stay at school daily until 5 p.m. or so, then stay with newspaper for late night each cycle and a work Saturday for each deadline for yearbook. Every year I think that if I could only get more organized in the summer, things would go more smoothly and require less time. I work all summer long looking for new ideas to make things run more smoothly or just make them better. While my teacher counterparts are spending time at the lake, or Schlitterbaun or wherever else real people go when they don’t have to be at work, I am opening the lab for yearbookers to come in to complete spreads. My teacher counterparts rib me about spending so much time at school. This usually hits me the wrong way.

2.  Advising is kind of a dangerous job. My students’ work is published. It’s out there for criticism. It is the nature of the journalism beast to be a watchdog. If real-world journalists are to keep government and other officials in line, reporting wrong doing as well as successes, shouldn’t student journalists be doing the same in their world, the school? Shouldn’t they get to cover issues that affect them, issues that are important to them? Yes, they should, and without censorship, which my students are lucky enough to get to do, but there is still a background of self-censoring. I’ve been called to the office a couple of times in the past six years, and these were not comfortable situations. To keep their right to publish without prior review, they have to be careful about what they choose to write about and how they go about it. See No. 2 above. These can make for some scary times. Advisers are fired or moved to other positions quite commonly, and quite, quite often for questionable reasons. I advise a student-run newspaper. Content decisions are theirs, but I have to advise, get them to see all possible outcomes of what they decide to cover.

3.  Grading and expectations are tough teaching issues with publications classes. In these project-based labs, every student has different aptitudes, different levels of ability in different areas. And they all have a variety of assignments. Make that fit a gradebook. I’ve found ways over the years. But it’s never as truly even and fair as I’d like. What do you do about a student you’ve had for four years, who is capable, but has suffered progressive senioritis since the end of his freshman year? He’s there and his stuff is complete when you need it to be, but no earlier. And if you only kind of need him, he’s only kind of there. How do you grade that? It’s tricky. What about the super editor who is so busy helping everyone make their stories and pages better that her own assignments are almost always late? Doesn’t set a good example of meeting deadlines for the staff, and it always makes me nervous. But she always comes through. Always.

4.  Some students just never find their niche. For some student staffers, the production class simply isn’t what they’d bargained for and they continually hold things up. Maybe their writing requires so much editing that it’s no longer their story by the time it’s FINALLY finished, and that process never seems to improve. Or maybe editors have to give them photo assignments, but always feel they must send backup. Or maybe that student just never seems to have the sense of urgency required to get things done. Student staffers who hold up the entire process are probably what irritate me the most, as I can never seem to find a way to “fix” the problem. They usually know this isn’t their thing and don’t return the following year, but once in a while, it’s clear to everyone but them. That’s a tough situation.

The Overwhelming

1.  Grading can get overwhelming. When English essays have been in my grading folder for over a week, but newspaper drafts have stacked up near the RTG (Ready to Go) deadline and the yearbook spread proofs are over a week late being edited and returned, I get overwhelmed. I’ll spend a weekend drowning myself in grading, give only deadline grades on newspaper stories, cursory glances over yearbook spreads, having faith that editors have caught name misspellings and apostrophe catastrophes, and I move on.

2.  Yearbook staffers who don’t stay caught up on their work during the year and don’t come in on summer lab days prolong the task for me and for the dedicated editors who are there cleaning up everyone else’s messes. And that really ticks me off. And it makes me feel like a bad teacher. Even though I have tried to get those slackers to get caught up in those last few weeks, the fact remains that by the end of the year (some years have been worse than others), there are spreads that should have been finished that are not. Yes, their grades reflected their unfinished work. But now the person in charge of that spread has a new summer job or church camp (how can I say anything bad about church camp?) or they don’t have a way to get to the school. They knew this was coming. Did they think it would magically get done? Did they think the editors would just finish it on up? Did they think I would do it (maniacal laughter here). It breaks my heart to see the dedicated ones paying for their good work by having to work more, having to lose a part of their summer just because they care.

3.  The yearbook index almost kills me every year. And this year is no different. It’s a position that doesn’t really need anyone until second semester at which time everyone is neck deep in their own assignments. I’m with a new company this year, so I had hoped the index might be easier, better. It’s not. I put myself in charge, so I could see it done thoroughly, correctly. Seems this system only indexes by portraits. That means only students who had yearbook photos taken will be automoatically indexed, and only by the name on that portrait. So anyone who moved in after school pics, but was photographed and captioned has to be added in. Also any Christopher who also goes by Chris will not be complete. After placing and formatting my index (before I discovered how limited it was), I printed it and proceeded to CHECK EVERY SPREAD for names and pages that may not show up on the index. We’re talking hours of pouring over pages and cross checking with index content. I hate indexing. And, yes, if I had realized what I was getting into, there was a better way, but by the time I figured it out, I was too far in. Fortunately, I have a good teacher friend who came in and helped me out the past couple days. Before me, she advised the book for two years. She gets it, she really does.

Once I get past the Overwhelming, read over and smile at the Good, make a respectful nod toward the Bad, I can keep going. Without the Bad, I might not fully appreciate the Good. Without surviving the Overwhelming, I might not realize how strong and determined I am.


About teachjournalism
I am a high school teacher of journalism, technology and reading. I advise the school's newspaper and yearbook, both student-led publications. Documenting and sharing my experiences is a way of reflecting to improve my own work and and inviting commentary so that we might all benefit. I believe, as I tell my students each year, that we all learn from each other.

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