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73-year old teacher goes all-out to help students
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Why did you become a journalist?
I took a pre-journalism class in ninth grade because I had always enjoyed writing and I thought it was worth a look. For our first assignment, we interviewed the JV football coach press conference-style and each student had to write a story. The best one was published in the junior high newspaper. Mine was selected and after I saw my byline for the first time, I was hooked. Eventually I became editor of that paper and worked at the high school and college papers, learning about editing and even page design and the business side of the newspaper industry. I had a blast.
When I was in college, my paper wrote about a decision the university had made quietly to take away some student grants and many students were going to be left scrambling without the help. After our stories and editorials, the university reversed its decision and to this day, it is one of my proudest moments in journalism. I love journalism because I get to find out things for a living. I talk to people and I can do something creative every day.
How did you work your way into the education beat?
I have been lucky enough to cover a wide range of stories -- from county government to courts. As a general assignment reporter I found I enjoyed education stories because schools touch on such important topics -- children, learning, social issues, success stories and tragedies. As an assistant editor, I sought to work with education reporters, and when the opportunity became open to become an education reporter, I lobbied for it.
What does your beat entail?
I cover elementary and secondary education in a semi-rural county in central Florida. I concentrate on school board policy, although I also write about curriculum, employee issues, profiles and features on individual schools. I love going into the schools and seeing how programs and policies actually work in the classroom and I try when I come across something that could be a dry topic to come up with a way to make it personal. Part of my day is spent talking to members of the public who call me with concerns or ideas because anything education-related is of great interest to so many.
How do you keep up with educational trends on the local and national level?
I try to read publications, such as Education Week, that keep up with national trends and look over the dozens of papers and periodicals I receive at work. I also read other newspapers for trend pieces and for information that can give me comparisons with the county I cover.
Are students and their parents interested in the same type of educational stories or do they tend to read only about certain issues?
Basically, they're both interested in the same type of stories. They want to read about the state accountability system and what it says about their schools. They want to read about overcrowding and construction needs, changes to grading policy or the dress code (which at one point was very controversial.) It seems adults are more interested in curriculum and money issues -- the budget, teacher salaries -- than their children.
What's the most enjoyable part of your job?
Being able to talk about teachers, parents and students about learning is the best part of the job. I've seen some amazing things in classrooms -- students who run TV studios or go out into their communities to teach migrant children how to read, principals who will take children out of class to tutor them until they understand fractions.
I enjoy becoming an expert on something such as our state's testing system and being able to explain that to people.
I like that this job is flexible, in that I don't have to punch a clock, and that I can never be bored. As well as being a reporter, I have been a copy editor (who writes headlines and does the final editing on stories), an assignment editor (who works with reporters to perfect their stories) and done other jobs.
I like having access to the latest information and events and the opportunity to meet people, in some cases whom I've admired. I went to the Clinton White House to cover a story about a student who won a prestigious award. I got to hear Nelson Mandela when he spoke to Howard University students in Washington, D.C., a few years ago. I sat in the same courtroom as Lorena Bobbitt, who become known world-wide and sparked a debate about the war of the sexes. Sometimes, I'm a part of history, but most days I'm just satisfied to give something to my readers that will make them go, "Hmmm."
What's the hardest part of your job?
It's hard to hear people constantly bad-mouth the media. I sometimes talk to people who criticize me for not giving them well-rounded information about a certain issue and then hear them recite to me information I've published in a story. Or I become frustrated that people accuse us of covering up something bad happening with schools, but are never willing to go on the record so it can be exposed.
If you weren't a journalist, what would you do?
Even before I became an education reporter, I thought I would enjoy teaching because I enjoy children and young people. I still do, although now I realize how tough a job that is. I have always enjoyed working with interns or young reporters and I think I have a knack for passing along knowledge. And I am always seeking to learn, which I think it's an important quality for a teacher.
How has technology changed the way you work?
I can hardly imagine not having the Internet to do my job. I can find any piece of information I can think of, but I'm careful to double-check because anyone can put information on the Net. I use it for background, for finding experts who can comment on trends, to see articles in newspapers around the world and to communicate with sources who are not always accessible by phone.
How do you stay objective when you're writing about things you care about?
That's a very good question that I grapple with. I see people working hard in school and I start to feel protective of them. But I know I'm not doing my job if I let myself be blinded by that. I avoid socializing with people I write about. I make it a point to talk to people with whom I disagree or who will give me the opposing view of an issue to include in my stories. I've heard it said recently that it's impossible to be objective, but journalists should strive to be fair and accurate. That's what I try to do. We all have experiences that we bring with ourselves to our jobs. I know that I'm drawn to stories about immigrant children struggling with adjusting, because I was one of them. But I also know that when I write about bilingual education, I must listen to those with different experiences and let them talk in my stories, without my filter.