The following is the speech given by Beth Fitts, Dow Jones Newspaper Fund Newspaper Teacher of the Year for 2003, on March 18, 2004. Fitts delivered her speech at CSPA's 80th anniversary Scholastic Convention, during a special Advisers Luncheon in the Faculty Room of Columbia's Low Memorial Library.
What we do is so important to the lives of thousands of young people.
Let me read you a note from a high school newspaper editor:
"I remember when I was just starting out in journalism. I still make myself laugh. The last thing I cared about was turning things in on time. I just like seeing my name in print, but now being able to stand in front of the staff each day and tell them how good they are or what they need to be doing is amazing.
"When I see the newspaper each month, it is not about seeing my name in print. It is about seeing how the work we did all month turned out.
"It is about being able to walk into the cafeteria to distribute papers and seeing the whole school grab for one. It is about feeling as if I made a difference and knowing that I did not just waste a whole month of my life."
I want you to know today how essential your job, my job, is to so many.
First, we need courage to raise the bar.
When I was a child, I used to play on my swing set in the yard. One of my favorite things to do- especially when the sun made the slide too hot -I live in the Deep South, you know-was to skin the cat on the cross bar at the end of the swing set.
Years later in a moment of nostalgia, I went back and tried to flip over that bar again, but my legs were too long and the clear space between the ground and my head was too small. The answer seemed simple. Raise the bar.
That's where we are with scholastic journalism in America. With a more visual, issue-savvy young audience, we can't just provide the "club car wash" type of coverage some used to have. We have "skinned that cat" too many times already, and our needs have grown far beyond
that level of reporting.
But it takes courage on our part to get there. If we can give our kids a taste of the difference-making journalism, we will see that they will developed an unique unquenchable thirst for real news.
Recently, I was attending a SIPA convention and heard a journalism teacher talking about her staff's report on a Hall of Fame coach who, it was discovered, paid his high school players to play.
I enjoy finding out about these topics that touch the heart of journalism, and we need to push our students to find more of the topics that are real.
We are working on a news article on hazing, which has been shoved under the rug in many areas. We recently printed an article on minors being admitted into bars in our area-an undercover story that took guts.
Then there was the domestic violence article. Students in our schools cope with horrors like this one, but we don't talk about them.
The reporter described it this way:
"She had gone to sleep with her mother, but soon woke up to see her dad (drunk) dragging her mother by the hair out of bed. She tired to stop her dad, but seeing that she could not do anything, she ran upstairs, got her brother, ran into the bathroom and locked the door.
"After beating her mother, her dad ran upstairs and banged on the bathroom door. She and her brother huddled in the bathtub, crying, as they clung to each other for comfort."
It happens. It's real.
There are other topics. They will be different for your school, but they are there.
Let me be honest here. We all know some students on our staffs will settle to cover the club car wash, and that type of assignment is all they want. That's fine, but there are those others-the ones you know will make a difference, the ones who have that special spark and zeal. Those are the ones you'll mold the most. We must start by teaching them to see reality and report it with truth.
But let me go a step beyond that. We can mold the car washers too. By pulling them in, we can jump-start their thinking, their ambition and their character.
It also takes courage to let our students be decision-makers. I think once a staff truly realizes that they themselves are the decision-makers and that the adviser trusts them to make responsible, ethical decisions for all concerned, they will take that responsibility seriously.
It is this type of a trust-and-truth relationship that will lead this generation of students to set new, higher standards for professional journalism in the future. Editors need to lead the staff in discussing, debating, and analyzing issues they want to print.
We must encourage our staffs to discuss potential results or problems that may stem from articles on controversial topics.
This discussion is in no way a deterrent to printing the article in question. It just lets the staff be prepared for the full scope of events that may surround its publication.
We don't want to be like the owner of the parrot I recently read about.
One day a young man received a parrot as a gift, but the bird had a bad attitude and an even worse vocabulary. Every word out of the bird's mouth was rude, obnoxious and laced with profanity. The man tired everything to get he bird to clean up his act; he yelled, coaxed and shook the parrot, but the bird just got even ruder. Finally, in desperation, the man grabbed the bird and put him in the freezer. For a few minutes the bird squawked and kicked and screamed, then there was total silence.
The man opened the door and the parrot calmly stepped out and said, "I believe I may have offended you with my rude language and actions. I'm sincerely remorseful for my inappropriate transgressions, and I fully intend to do everything I can to correct my rude and unforgivable behavior."
The bird paused and then continued, "May I ask what the turkey did?"
Threats don't promote wise decisions. Trust does.
I have found that students often confront and advise each other as they gain more experience in decision-making. Of course, staff discussions about any past mistakes can have lasting results that will lead to better decisions in similar situations in the future.
Skill. We have skills in psychotherapy, dating services, tutoring, nursing and computer technology. We are the masters of multi-tasking. We are the ones sitting in the dentist's office critiquing the trapped white space in the appointment card.
We speak a number of different languages unknown to the outside world: the language of bleeding, doglegging, and tombstoning. Widows and orphans are not people to us, and we measure our children's growth in picas.
And the really great thing about it all is we can't get enough. We want to keep learning to get better and be able to do more. That's one reason we are here.
With all this skills often comes more than a little stress.
One of my favorite authors, Max Lucado, tells a story about Chippie the parakeet that applies to our lives.
One day, Chippie's hurried bird owner was cleaning his cage with a vacuum cleaner. When the phone rang and she reached to answer it -SWOOP-she sucked Chippie down the vacuum hose.
Realizing what she had done, the bird owner opened the vacuum, grabbed the stunned and lint-covered bird and ran to the sink when she sprayed Chippie with blasts of cold water. Now her pet was shivering, so she did what any compassionate bird owner would do; she grabbed the hair dryer and blasted her pet with hot air.
Several days later, a friend asked the owner how Chippie was doing.
"Well,Chippie doesn't sing much any more," she said. Lucado said of the owner's plight: "It's enough to take the song out of even the stoutest bird."
We understand. Sucked up, blasted and blown over. It's enough to take away our song, but we won't let it. We adjust and readjust, and take nerve pills and go on. Just kidding. No pills, but we do have nerves of steel to do what we do every day.
I was recently talking to an English teacher friend who was complaining about the huge workload of grading and editing essays. I identified with her pain, of course, but I could not resist adding: "Now take those essays and publish them to a thousand or so people and experience what we do every day."
She swallowed hard.
Priorities are important. If our priority is pleasing everyone, we'd better hang it up. Making everyone happy is just not going to happen. It's a good goal, but we must free ourselves from that myth before we become discouraged. So it's that's not one of our priorities, what are they?
First, my priority is God-pleasing Him and striving to be more like the Lord. I have found that for me if I keep that priority straight, the others I'll mention will fall in place more easily.
Number two is family and friends. We need a support group. That's one thing I like about CSPA. It's a time for us to get together, get better and get an under girding that will last us awhile. That encouragement comes because we understand.
But there is another need we must meet. There are many, many teachers all over the nation who started as I did: 15 expectant students, an old typewriter in the corner, and absolutely no clue what to do.
God took me on a long path to master's in journalism and lots of helpers in the educational and professional world to help me get a jump on beating the kids to the punch, so I can identify with those just starting out and want to help. I know how they feel. At one point of time or another in my career I have advised the yearbook, the newspaper, the literary magazine, the newsmagazine, the broadcast news team and have taught photography.
I hope to encourage those teachers who feel stranded and need someone to understand and someone with whom to share ideas.
Let me stop to say I'm grateful for each of you. I have learned so Much from you at conferences like this, through articles, though publication exchanges and more.
You are truly good at what you do and I appreciate you. And I appreciate organizations like Dow Jones Newspaper Fund and scholastic press associations that strive to recognize and encourage quality journalism.
Next on our priority list would be our students. We are more than 50-minute instruction givers. We are like parents. I feel God has given me the opportunity to make a difference.
We encourage, correct and prod our students on. We provide a home. Sometimes we are the only positive influence in a child's life. We must not waste the opportunity.
Just this week I met one of my former students. She was holding a first-issue magazine in her hand for me, and she was bubbling over.
"Look, Mrs. Fitts, dreams really do come true. Two others and I have started our own magazine. We already have 30,000 subscribers. Go back and tell your students it can happen. And it started with you."
It does start with us, friends. Teaching is the profession that jump-starts every profession in the world.
Recently, one of my students walked into the journalism room and was standing quietly looking around. She looked up and said, "You know, Mrs. Fitts, I just realized I feel as at home here as I do in my own living room."
Touching our community is a must. It does not matter if we work in huge cities or in small communities, if we have a staff of five or 40. We need to reach out to our local worlds and involve them in what we do. We must get out to our extended communities. Yes, the school is the largest and the most important part of our community, but we should seek involvement from other parts of our world.
The local newspapers: Maybe your students can write for local papers and receive by-line credit. Maybe they have professionals who will come speak or teach or train. The professionals will be your biggest advocates in a freedom of press issue, but we must get them on board early.
The middle school: Perhaps some of you are from middle school settings. If not, get your papers in their halls. Those students are the crop you will someday harvest, so get them interested early.
The community leadership: Rotary Club, Pilot Club and others are big supporters of education, and they would love to have you and a student or two come speak and show what you do everyday. I think they would be amazed at the skill these 16-years-olds have attained: reporting, editing, advertising, design, desktop publishing, and getting publications to the printer camera-ready or even" PDF'ing 'em" there. Wow. Many of these clubs also are looking for educational projects they could sponsor. We would be glad to take some money, wouldn't we?
So be visible. We must publicize our successes and ask for assistance when we need it. When other people help, they become more involved in what we do. When they have joint ownership, then we have a team.
So then, why do we do what we do? We teach to mold the hearts and minds of students to have a focus on life they never had before. Now they can have a vocation or an avocation in one of the most interesting, challenging and rewarding jobs in the world.
Our mission is to mold students' minds, chisel their characters, and inspire their spirits. I can't think of a better way to do that that to be a journalism teacher.
Beth Fitts advises the literary magazine and the newspaper at Oxford High School in Oxford, Miss.