I am a knowledge geek. I like smart people, I like having my intelligence challenged, and I love people who want to help me make sense of our complex world.
So, naturally, I gravitate toward things like the Poynter Institute’s Teachapalooza – you put 100 people who care about journalism education together and how could a knowledge geek not, well, geek out?
The first year that Poynter ran the event, I was there in the audience. I did a little show-and-share presentation during lunch and was happy. Not only did I learn a ridiculous amount, but I was able to show my teaching methodology and get some feedback. I got both smarter and better at helping others get smarter.
I was back in Year 2 and did a couple more short lunch presentations. Afterward, there were a lot of questions and comments. It was both validating and illuminating – I, again, got both smarter and better at helping others get smarter.
After that second year came a massive surprise – I was asked to become part of the team, to teach some of the main sessions the following year. I was floored, stunned – Poynter is the holy grail of journalism education.
Every year since, I’ve been there, teaching, coaching and helping (and will be again this June, shortening a family vacation because this is important to me). The faces in the room don’t so much change as evolve – there’s a core group of people I see every year and new brains to pick for more ideas.
The Multiplier Effect
The pressure, though … it’s a little overwhelming. While prepping whatever I’m teaching, I’m constantly aware that Al Tompkins is going to be in the corner, watching. That Katy Culver is going to be at the back of the room, tweeting what I say. That folks like Steve Fox, Bethany Swain, Bob Gould, Lisa Taylor and a slew of other professors I would have transferred schools to study under are in that space. That those 100 professors gave up their time (and, in many cases, money) to gather and grow.
You don’t bring your A game when you’re teaching educators, you bring the entire league.
It would be easy to let that rush – thrill, terror or both – take over. Maybe it could feed your inner fears, maybe it could feed your ego. For me, though, it’s a test.
A Passing Grade
My job is to help my students learn. It is not to teach, it is not to grade, it is not to stamp something in their academic grade book. A great semester is one where every kid gets an A – that means they learned well and, possibly, I taught well.
Before coming over to academia, I spent a dozen years as a photojournalist and director of photography. When I shifted direction and started my graduate program, Tony Golden, the head of the photo department at Syracuse University, said something very simple that has resonated for years: It is one thing to do something well; it is something else entirely to teach others to do it well.
And that’s the pressure of teaching teachers: the multiplier effect is awesome but terrifying. If you get it wrong, it’s not just 100 people who you’ve failed; it can be thousands.
But when you get it right … when, six months later, you get a message that a professor tried something and had a great result, that’s the reward. The thrill is the same as hearing from a former student who is doing well.
Too often we educators act alone. So few of us get active mentors, great teachers who will watch and coach us in the same way we work with our students. I’ve been very lucky to have great mentors to turn to over the years, they helped me become a better teacher.
Teaching teachers is my way of paying this forward.
Mark E. Johnson is the senior lecturer of photojournalism at the University of Georgia’s Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication, still shoots a photo every day and comments on visual journalism at VisualJournalism.info. Follow him @markejohnson.