Confessions of a first-time journalism professor

Gina Germani

IMPERIAL VALLEY, California — I feel like I should start this out with, “Hello, my name is Gina Germani and I’m a recovering journalism instructor.  I suffer from psychological dilemmas, and compulsive and destructive behaviors as a first-time teacher.”

The things that made me drunk with disappointment, challenge and joy are countless—and they all occurred in a period of just 16 weeks last spring after I agreed to teach just one three-credit introductory journalism class.

Just one little community college class.  How bad could that be?  Piece o’ cake, I thought.

By training and trade, I am only a journalist and not a teacher.  But for long years as a street reporter, I had many college interns assigned to “shadow” me on a regular basis—including NBC’s David Gregory during his college intern years in Tucson.  So, I have been a teacher of a lot of young people over the years, and only because I was just doing my job.

Close-up NEWSThe difference, however, is that the young people shadowing me professionally knew they wanted to be there, seeking and delivering answers; and the kids sitting—often apathetically and listlessly—in my class didn’t really know whether they wanted to be out there reporting or not.

That was one of my sobering failures as a first-time teacher:  I frustrated myself with trying to inspire, trying to encourage, trying to populate the next generation of journalists.

But my main failure is the most embarrassing.  I failed to recognize that my students were just beginning to explore their talents and their opportunities as kids just out of high school.  While I beat them over the head with Associated Press style and things like, “Put the gosh dang comma INSIDE of the closing quote mark, will you please!” I wasn’t showing them that they could be pioneers in an industry that is suffering mightily in the digital age— in their era.  (That’s a blog entry unto itself.)

In a rural, border community where many young people—even college kids—may or may not have a firm grasp of the English language, may or may not know how to navigate the worldwide web, and where cultural boundaries on both sides of a farming border often restrict ambition, inspiring—even communicating—are tough tasks.

Out of the 19 students who were there the first day of class back in February, only seven completed and passed the course.  Most who dropped out never even bothered to say they were dropping out or to give me a chance to woo them back.

That was indeed a grueling semester for me—a beginner in the world of education.  But then, as I should have known all along, it was never about me.  “These things and people are put in your path for a reason,” one sage educator told me not long into my first semester as a teacher.

Patience, Grasshopper.

And patience did pay off.  I did have some great joys as a first-time journalism instructor:

  • when one of my students ran breathlessly into class saying he got photos of an arrest on campus and he got interviews, too—all on his own;
  • when one of my students was accepted into the very competitive Student Campus program at the National Association of Hispanic Journalists convention in Puerto Rico—fully paid;
  • when I watched my students interview—with interest and zeal—one another during a class one day and then produce well written, insightful and compelling stories on their fellow classmates;
  • when one solid F-student came in with a perfect A on a midterm exam;
  • when four of my first students were published here on Borderzine.com as a culmination of their semester in my introductory journalism course

You never fully understand what an educator means when they say they’re proud of their students; you might just blow it off as fluff and proper pronouncement. It is never about the teacher, which was another one of my big mistakes as a newbie:  I took it all personally; I thought it was about me as a professor.

Indeed, it’s always about the students—in success, and even in failure.

Postscript:  I’m still recovering from that first semester. But, I’ve decided to face my dilemmas and destructive behaviors head-on by teaching not just one introductory journalism course for Fall 2009, but a second multimedia journalism course as well.

Grasshopper… patience.

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