3 Things I Learned As A Sudden Teacher

I’m a hypocrite.

I teach the importance of maintaining a consistent online presence, but I haven’t updated my blog since New Year’s Eve. To fix this, I’m spending Labor Day (a holiday celebrating the American workforce), writing about … work.

I call myself a “sudden teacher,” or someone whose academic experience extends to being a teaching assistant in graduate school. I supervised writing workshops and graded papers. The professors I worked for handled exams and answered panicked end-of-semester emails from students.

Now, those responsibilities are mine. In June 2015, I accepted a one-year teaching position at Tennessee Tech University. It turned into a three-year lecturer contract. I am grateful for the opportunity to apply years of professional journalism experience to academia, but full-time teaching is a significant career change.

Here are three things I learned in my first year as a sudden teacher and how I intend to improve myself as I enter a second year.

1. Test-writing is fun.

During my first year, I goofed on three test questions and graciously adjusted grades. I thought compiling questions would be simple (a dash of true/false here, a pinch of multiple choice there), but students interpret information differently. Example:

Q: Would a blogger or anyone independently engaged in gathering information for publication or broadcast qualify for protection under Tennessee’s shield law? (A “yes” or “no” answer will work.)

I was proud of this question because the answer (“yes”) isn’t in the textbook, and I dissected specific points of Tennessee’s shield law in class. Essentially, the question was a gimme for those who paid attention.

Turns out, one student paid attention to lecture and semantics. Her answer: It would depend on if they lived here or not.

She was the only one who noticed the question’s missing detail, and I awarded her the points. The next iteration of that question will note that the blogger is a Tennessee resident.

2. One syllabus does not fit all.

Like I mentioned above, my classroom experience stemmed from being a teaching assistant at a journalism school that embraces digital media and encourages live-tweeting during classes. I worked those elements into my curriculum with mixed results.

My introductory reporting and copy editing class has been taught by media professionals with extensive print experience. Their syllabi heavily emphasized Associated Press style. Although I also have a newspaper pedigree, I was dead-set on barrelling into hashtags and content creation and personal branding and the inverted pyramid and AP style and …

Needless to say, there were times I felt like I was forcing water into a cactus. I realized I should give them the vegetables (developing a basic news story) before dessert (using Twitter for branding).

This year, I’m reserving online content creation for my multimedia storytelling class. The intro reporting class will get a taste of Twitter, but the emphasis will be on the classics (interviewing, writing and editing).

3. Introduce the art of self promotion.

I was recruited to Tennessee Tech by a former professor. When I was his student, he once said that a resume was the best place to talk about oneself. No one else would brag on your behalf.

Employers want to know a student’s skill set, but they also want to see how they’ve used them. As I mentioned above, reporting students will learn the basics, but there is also a publishing component. My biggest failure in my first semester was not introducing the simultaneous fear and joy of getting a byline. If you’re a communication student who is writing without the pressure of your work being read, what’s the point?

This year, reporting students will maintain Humans of TN Tech, while multimedia storytelling students will create WordPress sites focusing on a topic of their choice. Perhaps these projects will nurture portfolios and strengthen resumes. But more importantly, I want students to be proud to put their name on their work.

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