By Gosia Wozniacka
At the start of my Journalism 101 class, a student’s mother committed suicide. The news arrived via two brief emails — one from a counselor at the college where I was teaching, another from the student.
I was stunned, devastated, unsure how to respond. The act of self-destruction, a chasm, jettisoned into my novice classroom. How would this student get over losing a mother and study simultaneously? How should I help? Was I equipped to do this?
A greenhorn teacher, I had just three months of adjunct teaching experience under my belt. I had spent the past 15 years working as a full-time journalist, a staff reporter for The Oregonian and then The Associated Press. I had in the past taught high school students in classrooms and workshops, but teaching college called for a different level of expertise. I had wanted to try it for a long time, and when a part-time position opened up at Clark College in Vancouver, Washington, I took it on.
Teaching college journalism, I thought, would consist of transmitting to students my real-life experience of a working journalist. I would inculcate in them the essentials of being a good listener and observer, asking open-ended questions, being skeptical, fact-checking and writing succinctly and with grace.
Yet I did not consider that these lessons would be just a scaffolding on which to thread a different kind of instruction; that the students would make me confront the tender flesh of being human and steer me to use my skills in ways I had not intended; that — though perhaps this is a truism, it’s one worth repeating — I would learn as much from them as they from me.
I liked to walk the college’s manicured, bird-filled campus. The cherry trees bloomed, weaving a carpet of pink under feet, and the chime tower — its bells hidden within an imposing red-brick fountain pen with a silver tip — punctuated the day.
I hurried with stacks of photocopies — “the art of interviewing”, “how to spot fake news”, etc. — to the basement classroom where I taught. As an adjunct, I didn’t have an office. I was paid only for the instructional hours, meaning that everything else I did was basically volunteering. And yet some of that unpaid time became most meaningful to me.
After missing a single class for his mom’s funeral, my student returned. He was visibly distraught but determined to continue. We stayed after class and talked in the hallway. He didn’t look at my face but told me details about his mother’s death. I listened. I encouraged him, as I did in a previous email, to attend counseling, to seek out friends and family, to talk to me whenever he wanted.
We would work out a schedule for his late work. He could take time off as needed. I stumbled, wondering if I was saying the right things. I admired his tenacity, his desire — bordering on desperation — to learn despite the circumstances. In the following weeks, he would sometimes stay after class and speak with me. At other times, he’d signal with his eyes, whisper an update (or not) and run for the door.
He wasn’t the only one who needed sympathetic ears. Several other students dealt with debilitating depression and other forms of mental illness.
One confessed he had recently changed medications and was struggling in his courses. He was easily distracted, he said, and his family life was in chaos — just like his writing, full of syntax and spelling errors. I often stayed after class to talk with him in the hallway. I shared contact information for the writing lab and the counseling center, and the link to a free online grammar spellchecker. I agreed to be his job reference. Though the news stories he wrote were tortuous to edit, he made a real effort and I appreciated it.
Another student had dropped out of high school and struggled with addiction, only to come back to college when he became a father. He said he had bigger dreams for his two-year-old daughter, whom he brought to class on several occasions when the babysitter fell through. She drew quietly while we discussed how to write a lead or structure a story. Her father, the student, asked a lot of questions. He planned to become a lawyer, and his work ethic, professional demeanor, and honesty were astounding.
I realized my students’ effort to connect, to show vulnerability, was the most important lesson I could learn and teach. Unscripted, raw conversations — moments no one paid me for, no one required of me, that had, on the surface, nothing to do with journalism – made this job relevant.
When a student confessed she had secured an important interview but was terrified to go through with it, we practiced. She was shy, a little socially awkward, she admitted, but I knew she had done impeccable research on her news story when she timidly slipped a list of detailed questions over my desk. Later, she told me she had nailed the interview.
On other days, daily life brought out the emotions. Another student who was a great writer once approached me before class. When I saw her ashen face, I led her into the hallway, where she immediately burst into tears. She explained her dog had just died and she needed to go home, but didn’t want to miss class. I gave her a hug, fetched her backpack, and told her that her absence would be excused.
I often shared with students something personal about myself: that despite being a successful reporter, I, too, was a rather shy and calm person. But this shyness didn’t prevent me from doing my work. It was, in fact, a weapon, a negative-turned-asset that helped with my reporting and writing.
I remembered what one student had written in her self-reflection, the first class assignment: “I am taking this journalism class to help me with my communication skills and social anxiety. I came from a poor home and neither of my parents went to college. I came to Clark to prove my worth and make a difference in my family…”
Only a handful of my students had said they wanted to become reporters — they aspired to be pilots, musicians, fiction writers, librarians, nurses, lawyers, business owners and teachers — but they all saw a benefit in learning about journalism. Some struggled financially, working full time to pay for college tuition and missing out on a social life.
Some were high school students — Clark College has a special program for those who want to get an early start on post-secondary education. Others hailed from very small towns — Vancouver, Washington represented a big city move for them. They were the first in their family to attend college, or one of ten or seven siblings. A few came to the U.S. from another country or had immigrant parents.
Though both of my parents were well educated (they were the first generation to attend college in their families), we were immigrants to this country. I had learned English as a teenager and knew about not fitting in. So while I felt happy when my outspoken students engaged in smart rhetoric, it was a million bucks day when a more reserved student volunteered an answer or when a working student or student with significant life problems continued showing up.
I asked them — no matter their challenges — to go a little beyond their comfort zones. But also to use their own personalities, interests and even challenges in the act of journalism.
I tried to treat them as reporters capable of doing real, impactful work. And though giving them feedback on multiple story drafts was extremely time-consuming, as was the copy editing, seeing their stories edited and published was rewarding.
Except sometimes it wasn’t.
When I failed my first student, I wrote him an email, profusely apologizing and explaining I was left with no other choice. He was one of my best writers but did not turn in the final project, a feature story.
To my dismay, there would be others. Some stopped showing up mid-way through the term. Others never finished reporting or writing their news stories. A few attended every single class but didn’t do any work. They didn’t respond to emails. I spent days wondering why they didn’t show up or submit an assignment — or why they had shown up but submitted nothing. Those whom I failed didn’t lack talent — they just stopped communicating about whatever it was that stopped them from completing their class work.
These disappearing acts were hard to accept. But a former professor and journalist helped me see them differently. It’s OK to fail, he told me; we all must learn how to do it. Sometimes, he explained, students needed to screw up. They needed to just sit through the class, even if they didn’t pass it. Some would take the class again and do well, others wouldn’t. Or they’d realize they needed extra help or a different approach to college.
Teaching, then, wasn’t so much about transferring knowledge as about helping students see their own selves and figure out how they functioned. It was about nudging them to become comfortable in a complicated world, even if that world wouldn’t include journalism.
On my last day of classes, I meandered into the campus green. Groups of students milled around the red-brick chime tower — I now knew some of them. I felt a sadness about the finish line, despite being utterly exhausted. As a part-time adjunct professor with two classes to teach, I had worked longer hours than I had for most of my journalism career.
I often stayed up past midnight preparing lesson plans and grading student stories. Yet, despite the negligible pay, the lack of health insurance and unemployment benefits, the experience was worth it. I’m thankful to my students for being open with me and for sharing their vulnerabilities. It was the most important lesson they could teach me about being a teacher.
Photographs: Gosia Wozniacka
Gosia Wozniacka is a freelance journalist and photographer. She was previously a staff reporter for The Associated Press and The Oregonian. Gosia was born in Poland and often travels to her native country. She taught journalism and digital reporting at Clark College from January to June 2017.
Editor’s note: I’ve known Gosia for about 10 years, dating back to when she was a student at UC Berkeley’s graduate journalism school. This piece tells you all you need to know about the personal qualities and reporting and writing skills that prompted me to recruit Gosia to The Oregonian. In the past year, we’ve met from time to time to share our teaching experiences and strategies. Who would have guessed we’d wind up teaching a few miles apart in the same city? She at Clark College and me at WSU Vancouver.
Tomorrow: Mary Pimentel, Monster