Text of speech given by Jim P. McGonnell, 2007 National High School Journalism Teacher of the Year, at the JEA/NSPA Fall Convention in Philadelphia
I would like to thank the Dow Jones Newspaper Fund, Rich Holden and Linda Shockley for sponsoring the awards program and for providing the opportunity to be with my family and friends. I would also like to thank all my colleagues and friends from the Findlay City Schools and the Ohio Scholastic Media Association including Candace Perkins Bowen and Georgia Dunn, who have served as mentors and friends.
To my family who has to suffer when things aren’t going so smoothly, especially my wife who a number of times has kept me from getting fired when she “tones” down my letters to the administration over various issues. I love you both very much thanks for your support. Finally, I would like to acknowledge Nabil Shaneen, one of my most colorful and dedicated ex-editors, Candace and John Bowen, Jack Kennedy, and Renee Burke all good friends and respected colleagues for their kind words in their letters of recommendation.
This truly is a great moment for me. To look out from this podium and into the faces of people I have admired and looked up to since I started teaching and advising newspapers. To just be in the same room with many of you I now call my friends, is humbling yet heart warming. I almost didn’t reapply for this award again, many said it was too soon, wait a few years, but I thought I don’t know how many more years I have left, so why not. Another reason I was apprehensive……….I did not want to follow Alan’s outstanding speech of a year ago… and now who do I get, Bobby Hawthorne, just great.
So my friends here we go.
Near the middle of my 30th year of advising and teaching, I began hearing voices in my head. Now getting older has not been that tough, but I did think this was strange. At first it was just mumbling, a low “dadadadadada” then as the months went on, the voice became clearer, more defined.
Now I must admit my wife is a reality TV junky, and to make her feel better and spend quality time together, we watch all of them, American Idol, Amazing Race, Top Design, and Survivor. We get caught up in the drama, we call in, and we cast our votes.
So I was not surprised when I started to recognize the one voice in my left ear. In the right ear, I had heard a low humming, it was catchy but again nothing recognizable.
When May finally had gotten here and the rat race to get everything done by the end of the year subsided, sitting in my office alone I could now hear him, clear as could be.
“Get your torch, it’s time to go,” I could not figure out why Jeff Probst was telling me to extinguish my flame, it was time to leave. Just as I was about to tell him I really was not ready to go yet, in my right ear I finally recognized the familiar sound of my disco days, Gloria Gainer was singing louder than ever. “OH NO, You will survive, don’t you walk out that door, you’re not leaving here right now, HEY HEY.” Now she did alter the lyrics for me somewhat, but the two messages were clear.
Thus the dilemma, Probst was telling me it is time, the 30 years on this education island has been a great ride but enough is enough. I must admit, it was tempting but I declined and listened to Gloria.
As I sat there considering my future, I came up with 5 reasons to continue teaching and advising and why high school journalism programs, newspapers, broadcasts, and now video yearbooks are my life.
Here are my top 5 reasons to stay.
Money-It would be a huge loss of income if I retired at 30 years instead of 35. Teacher retirement in Ohio at 35 years is a good thing. I have a daughter in college and a freshman in high school, who is in my journalism program and could often be heard chanting in her bedroom, “four more years, four more years and she was not taking about George Bush.”
She just wants to go on the trips, I am not that naive. Plus my wife said if she had to keep going, so did I. Being a principal she makes more money than I do.
Fun- I am still having fun and I like the fast pace of today’s youth. Why would I want to give up the late night sessions, or as we affectionately call it “Hell Week”, where we finish final layouts and put the paper to bed.
Making cappuccino runs to Speedway, celebrating holidays, visiting graveyards and haunted house are highlights. Definitely one thing we all look forward to are our annual trips to some of the most interesting cities in America. Looking for watch “deals” in Chinatown, and cruising the hills of San Francisco, where a 7ft transvestite, and I am not kidding, he, she, it was 7 feet tall, leaned over the hood of our car, licked our windshield and asked our full van if we “wanted to have a good time,” as my kids are screaming from the back seat, “floor it”.
Breathtaking moments of standing on the rim of the Grand Canyon at sunrise, touring the Washington DC monuments at night, or having a once in a lifetime dinner atop the World Trade Center at dusk were just a few awesome memories I’ve had as a high school journalism teacher.
I still love my job…… a lot.
Okay some days the paper work, red tape, administrators, parents, fellow teachers and even some students make it not so fun. But I love my kids and how each month through the drama of high school, they turn into these work alcoholic and responsible journalists that publish a decent paper every month, and in turn make a difference at Findlay High School.
One thing I love about teaching media classes they are always changing and fast paced, rarely are 2 days the same. With that being said, journalism teachers need to keep up with change. Our curriculum must provide the skills and principles so our students are well aware of what is happening “now” with both media and technology.
Whatever the medium – print, radio, television, or Internet – if news organizations are to be trusted they must prove themselves scrupulous in their insistence upon accuracy and their dedication to fairness.
Our students need to be taught how to be responsible, professional and fair. Growing up with Channel One many view the Anderson Coopers and Tracy Smiths more so than the Peter Jenningses and Tom Brokaws as cream of the journalism crop. They are the new wave of journalism, and I guess that is not all bad, when you consider there aren’t many models for them to follow.
The Stephen Glasses, Jayson Blairs and even the Toledo Blade photographer who altered pictures of the Bluffton, Ohio baseball team’s field after their bus crashed in Atlanta, have tarnished our profession. Students do not understand what is wrong with Wikipedia, even when you explain that the information can be altered by anyone who has an internet connection.
Student journalists must be taught how to balance their rights with responsibility. Readers trust them to be honest, fair and accurate, especially with controversial school issues. They truly may be the only voice students in our schools have left. Our student body wants our student journalists to ruffle some feathers, fight for their rights and find out the truth, even if our administrators don’t like that. But with that goes responsibility, to look at both sides, weigh the issues, then write responsibly what they have found, and not just be faultfinding whiners.
All of you. I would miss friends and colleagues. Ones that continue to make a huge difference in my life. Ones that everyday when I walk into my classroom, you’re with me, not physically of course, but I carry the knowledge of what you have taught me over the years. You make a difference everyday in my classroom.
Does that make sense to you? Because everyday when I walk into my room, with me comes John Bowen, Jack Kennedy, Homer Hall, Dick Johns, Terry Nelson, Kathy Craghead, Rene Burke, and so many more.
It gets crowded up there sometimes depending on deadlines and how the day is going, but because of your wisdom, guidance, knowledge, compassion, humor, sarcasm, and willingness to share I stand here today as one of the lucky ones to be honored by the Dow Jones Newspaper Fund.
I’m really am pretty lucky, but actually my kids are the lucky ones. They get the experience and knowledge when all of us are standing in front of my classroom and trust me, it is getting more and more crowded as more people come in my life and make a difference.
That learning base expands in the summer also. While some see teaching summer workshops as a job, for me, it is professional growth, but I also enjoy the camaraderie of spending time with friends. From Florida’s tropical Camp Orlando to Betsy’s sweatshop at Michigan State and even bantering with Tom Gayda in Muncie, renews my spirit for the upcoming school year. I’m proud to be part of such a dedicated group of people that care and give so willingly to their students.
I still make a difference.
English Novelist Charles Kingsley once said. “Never, if possible, lie down at night without being able to say: I have made one human being, at least, a little wiser, a little happier, or a little better this day. “
Our publication offices, studios and newsrooms are safe havens for kids who may not feel the love at home or in the hallways, who get dragged down by the high pressure testing our state legislators have turned our schools into.
All states have standardized tests; some can stop our students from walking at graduation and receiving their diplomas. We reward kids for a sameness or oneness in thought. We want everyone to bubble in the right answer, so our schools receive good ratings. But my goal goes beyond good ratings. We all encourage our students’ individualism; we want to nurture good responsible journalists.
We are creating many of our country’s future leaders; ones that can problem solve, multitask, communicate, and think critically. Ones that will make their own difference in peoples’ lives time and time again.
We preach individual convergence stressing the importance of being a well-rounded person. That lesson is reinforced in our journalism classes, we converge our media so we teach kids how to produce stories for print, broadcasts and now the web. We always encourage our students to brainstorm different paths of thinking in editorials, columns and coverage.
Because we make a difference everyday, so do our kids and even better, they want to make an impact. It becomes contagious and spreads.
They tell stories about others.
Who knew a story we did on a homeless boy in St. Louis, Mo., at a national convention, would be identical to one of our new students sitting in a basic English class or a student’s story of struggling with weight during wrestling season is the same as a girl’s in a Communications class, and hers is an everyday battle.
Or a news story on Relay for Life, is really the same story about a boy’s mom who had been in and out of chemotherapy and is near death.
My students ask, “Have I done enough, will my story make a difference in someone’s life?” Throughout my career, I have had some amazing kids that have left a lasting impression on me as well. Since being named teacher of the year, I am realizing more and more I have done the same. Some years it is hard to see if you left any type of impact on students.
I have been invited to several class reunions, received numerous congratulatory phone calls, notes, messages, and visits. It has been overwhelming, surprising and very endearing.
One editor wrote me three weeks ago, reminding me that we ended on bad terms, but today, 12 years later, when a situation came up at work, she knew exactly what to do. “You came to mind,” she wrote. “I had to make a tough decision, one that had to be made, like ones you made over and over again.” I had to write you a quick note, that turned into a 2 page letter thanking you now, as I should have done all those years ago.”
Another student I heard from was a photographer who was one of the most timid kids I ever met. He was also one of my wrestlers, and I needed him to develop some more aggressive traits. When I put a camera in his hand, at first he did not want to step out and been seen, but when I took him to New York City in 1984 to the Olympic tickertape parade that all changed.
I told him to go on his own and find great “moments” to shoot. Once he left us, we did not see him for a couple hours. Then in the middle of the Olympic parade walking down Broadway beside Gymnast Mary Lou Retton, there he was waving as if he had just won a gold medal.
On the plane ride home he would not shut up, he told story after story about his day and about scaffolding that collapsed on top of the crowd. He climbed in an ambulance and took pictures of injured parade watchers until he was thrown out and threatened to be arrested. I had created a monster.
About five years ago one of my editors that went to Kansas State emailed and called me telling me we needed to talk, and fast. I considered a road trip to Manhattan, but with the holidays near he said it could wait until he got home.
When he came to the house and we finally talked, he was wringing his hands and sweat was forming on his brow, he finally said, “I’m changing my major.”
This guy wanted to be my first “real” journalist, a newspaper reporter for a big paper and make me proud. Of course I acted disappointed and had to play along. The next words out of his mouth are what made me know I made a difference in his life. He looked up at me with tears in his eyes and told me, “I want to be a journalism teacher, and I want to do for people what you have done for me.”
Rarely am I speechless, but this statement filled my heart with so much warmth and the fact I was choked up, I couldn’t respond. It was at that awkward moment of silence he realized that the career change was really OK. The only thing I could say after thank you was, “You will be a great teacher,”
And folks here are the words of wisdom I gave him. “But you know, you’re going to be poor.” Now wasn’t that inspirational? His comment was “But you’re not poor,” and I said, “I am married to a principal.”
He was so right though, I am not poor, the thousands of kids I have come in contact with and friendships made, I would never find in any other occupation. This doesn’t always happen for all teachers, those that race the kids to the parking lot at the end of the school day and never get to spend extra time outside a class period, are really missing out on the riches of our profession.
I am blessed, though we all have made a difference in their lives, my students have given back to me 10-fold and certainly made me a better teacher, adviser, husband, father, and person.
Joy J. Golliver once wrote, “The meaning of life is finding your gift; the purpose of life is giving it away.”
Thanks to all of you for sharing your gifts and this very special day in my life. I look forward to redeeming the coupons I have been promised for later tonight. Good luck and have a great year.