More Than One Kind of Work Ethic.

Dear Senator Sasse,

I am one of your constituents. I teach in a public high school in Nebraska. Last summer, I attended a town hall you held in Papillion, and I was impressed with your candor and demeanor. Even though I disagree with you politically, I want to hear what you have to say, and I usually keep my mouth shut.

But I take issue with the op-ed you wrote for the New York Times. Next week, I will begin my 17th year of teaching. I’ve taught in Utah, Nebraska, and as a grad assistant in Ohio while earning my master’s degree. I’ve taught a variety of subjects and thousands of students at this point, and here’s one of the many things I’ve learned: there is more than one kind of work ethic.

I’ll concede that I’ve had students who tested my patience because of their lack of will to work–though more often than not, those kids actually worked crazy hard in other classes or at their jobs. I’ve had kids who worked three jobs to help their parents pay the bills. I’ve had kids who took AP classes and did sports and did extracurricular activities and somehow still made time to hold down jobs. I teach mostly juniors and seniors in high school, and nearly every single one of them has a job. They do not lack work ethic.

I’ve been a newspaper adviser for six years now, and every editor-in-chief I’ve had has been a combination of the following: AP student. Honors student. Athlete. Dancer. Club member. Volunteer. And they all have also had jobs.

But I kind of expect that of my EICs. So let me tell you a little about the kids who aren’t the “top-tier” student.

The student who has the emotional work ethic to get out of bed every morning and go to school in a space he feels unsafe because he is Muslim. Because he is liberal. Because he is conservative. Because he is not athletic. Because his grades are failing. Because he is gay.

Or the student who has the emotional work ethic to get out of bed every morning and go to school in a space she feels unsafe because she is Catholic. Because she is overweight. Because she is skinny. Because her grandmother is undocumented. Because she is a woman. Because she is queer.

There is more than one kind of work ethic, and the kind you write about in your op-ed is valuable, to be sure. But to not acknowledge the emotional work ethic placed upon students today is short-sighted and, frankly, insulting.

My students work hard. They might not be working hard in my class on a given day, but in 17 years, I’ve learned to step back and learn about that kid–what else does he have going on in his life? Is he working hard someplace else?

To close, a quick story about two students I taught last year. Senior boys, who took my introductory journalistic writing class. This is a class comprised mostly of freshmen and sophomores who want to be on newspaper or yearbook staff. These boys were graduating, and therefore, would not be on staff. I had no idea why they were my students, and initially, I was suspicious of how long those two senior boys would last. Journalistic writing is not for the weak–we write and we talk to people we don’t know, and I make kids draft and draft and draft their stories.

Yet every day, those two boys showed up and learned. They wrote. They revised. They asked questions. They revised again. They had their work critiqued by the entire class.

They did not need my class to graduate, and could have taken a study hall. Their lives outside of school were not easy. But they stayed and successfully completed a class they did not need.

Work ethic? Yeah, they had it in spades.

I implore you, Senator, to spend some time during your recesses and talk to teachers and talk to students about their work. Go visit the good people at Nebraska Loves Public Schools and see how you can help their mission.

The students of Nebraska do have a work ethic. They might not all be detassling corn in the summers, but they are working physically, emotionally, and intellectually. Acknowledge them.

Sincerely,

Julie L. Rowse

Labels and Plans.

On a piece of scratch paper at my sister’s dining room table in Delaware, I wrote this list:

• Apple Distinguished Educator
• Google Certified Teacher
• Certified Journalism Educator
• Adobe Certified Associate
• Piano teacher
• Jazzercise instructor

“I can’t be all of this,” I told her. “I’m trying to, and it’s not good. But I’m not sure what I want to be, or what I should be. I don’t know what I want.”

This mini-meltdown was early in my 2017 summer road trip, and one of many things that occupied my mind as I drove for hours and hours. I eliminated Jazzercise instructor, for now, because while it would be fun, it definitely isn’t necessary. I currently only have two piano students, and I’m not quite ready to let them go. Two is manageable with my schedule, so that label stays, but I’ve also reached a point where when they decide they’ve had enough, so will I.

But the rest? I put my journalism skills to use as I considered each label. Why was it important to me? How would it affect my life, both long and short-term? When would I get all of the work done? Who would I be if I was able to amass each label? What would happen to me if I failed in each attempt to add letters at the end of my email signature?

This exercise proved helpful, as I realized my desire to be an Apple Distinguished Educator was driven by a desire to be part of a club I perceived as “cool.” That’s not a good enough reason to put in the work required for that particular moniker, so now I can cross that off the list.

Which leaves me with three pursuits—a much more manageable endeavor than six.

Luckily, working toward Google Certification and Adobe Certification are goals I can meet concurrently with my teaching load. I teach in a Google school. I teach a class that uses Adobe Creative Cloud exclusively. With the right planning, I can do both. It might take me longer than others, but I’m confident I will succeed.

Which leaves me with Certified (and eventually Master) Journalism Educator.

For 17 years now, all I’ve wanted to be is a newspaper adviser, and now I am. So it makes sense that I should want the backing of a larger organization to recognize not only my love for journalism, but also my capabilities. I’ve put off this particular label because it’s scary. I have to study, take a test—one that is only offered three times a year—and what happens if I fail? I feel like I’ve failed so much lately that taking another chance almost seems foolish.

But then I remember the most important label on that initial list of six: teacher. Educator. What message am I sending to my students if I put something off—something I want—because I’m afraid I’ll fail? And what’s the worst that could happen if I fail, anyway? How on earth can I expect my students to take any risks if I’m standing in front of them unwilling to take risks myself?

So I’ll make a plan and I’ll work hard, and eventually get those certifications and hope my students learn two valuable lessons: first, you don’t have to be everything. And second, fear of failing should never be an excuse not to do something.

Dream Job.

It was a rough week.

I really thought that last Sunday’s meltdown would be the worst of it, but I was wrong, and the hits just kept on comin’.

Saturday I spent six hours at school for the last newspaper deadline of the year. I started doing this a couple of years ago when we switched printers and no longer needed seven business days between layout and delivery. Kids come in on Saturdays and get the bulk of the work done. Since we started doing this, they aren’t at school as late or as often during the week, and therefore, neither am I.

During Saturday’s work session, an editor and I were chatting about how technology has made layout so much easier. I told him that when I was student teaching, layout was more difficult because of how we had to print and then physically paste up the pieces on broadsheet grid paper. Another student asked, “Did you enjoy your student teaching experience here?”

And I told him the story that I’m sure I’ve written about before–how disappointed I was when I got my student teaching assignment because once I decided on a career in teaching, I was all about literature. I only wanted to teach literature and writing and grammar and everything that made English wonderful. When I learned I’d only be teaching one English class and the rest of my assignment was journalism, I almost asked for a new assignment.

But I’m a rule follower and a make-lemons-out-of-lemonade kinds of person, so I stuck with it.

“It changed my life,” I told him.

“So how do you feel about teaching journalism now?” he asked.

“It’s my dream job,” I said.

I didn’t even have to think twice before I said it. Despite knowing I have to say goodbye to seniors who’ve changed our program dramatically, despite frustrations at nearly every turn this week, it’s still my dream job.

I’m glad he asked that question, because my answer reminded me that I’m still where I want to be, where I choose to be. And knowing I choose to be here makes it just a little bit easier to handle the rough patches.

Rejection.

Six years ago, I got everything I wanted.

Offer to teach at a Johns Hopkins University summer program? Yep.

A fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities to study at Amherst College? Yep.

Present at the National Council of Teachers of English conference? Yep.

All things I applied for, all things I got. I felt pretty invincible.

Lately, though, I’ve been on a string of rejections. My students’ journalism work is not recognized as quality by state organizations or local universities. I didn’t receive a small scholarship to help with the cost of graduate classes. I applied to be an Apple Distinguished Educator and was denied. I’m currently waiting to hear back from NCTE again to see if I will present at their fall conference, and waiting to hear about a program with the Journalism Education Association.

I don’t expect to get either opportunity.

So it appears I peaked at 38.

My students deal with rejection all the time: positions on teams that don’t fall their way, scholarship money denied, colleges who say “Thanks, but no thanks.” So I see my recent streak of rejection as a chance to teach them: here’s how you handle it.

Don’t throw a tantrum.

Don’t look to blame others.

Don’t give up.

Reflect honestly on why you wanted whatever it was.

Decide if you still want it.

If you do still want it, reflect honestly on what went wrong. This can be painful at first, but most growth is painful. Identify what needs to change. Then, change. This is also at times painful, but reaps the most benefits.

If you don’t still want it, move on. Find another passion, another achievement, another goal. Reflect honestly on why you want it, then reflect honestly on what it takes to get it.

Then work. Work hard. Put down the phone, turn off Netflix, and sometimes, tell your friends, “Not this weekend.”

Rejection is a hard teacher. In my 17-year career, I’ve been referred to as a “hard teacher”–a label I quite enjoy. Because I know from my own education that the hardest teachers taught me the most, but only when I was willing to listen.

What is rejection telling me now?

Be honest. And don’t quit.

 

Write Through It.

This week in my newspaper class, we’ve been refocusing a bit. Recently awarded the status of “All-American” by the National Scholastic Press Association, we celebrated Monday by reading through the judge’s comments and suggestions. We discussed how to make the paper better. Then Tuesday, we tackled our website. Wednesday and Thursday, we dug into a journalism writing book and talked about our writing and our story ideas and how we can improve them.

It’s been a delightful week with my staff, a week that I’ve been able to remember why, 17 years ago, I took a hard left with my career path and said, “I want to be a newspaper adviser.”

It’s also been a hard week, as I’m adapting to a new schedule, one I’ve never had before–I am teaching 4 different classes back to back and it is messing with my brain. I’m exhausted. By Wednesday I realized I needed to recalibrate my ambitious schedule for the week and allow myself some downtime (nap, clear out the TiVo, watch basketball) lest I suffer a meltdown at an inopportune time. Knowing a meltdown was imminent, I also knew writing would help.

I’ve opened a post here on my blog every day this week, and haven’t written a thing. Just stared at a blank space, checked Twitter, stared at a blank space, checked Facebook, stared at a blank space, checked Instagram…you get the idea.

During our discussion about writing, my newspaper staff wanted to know how I get over writer’s block.

“Write about the writer’s block,” I told them. “Just write nonsense until it starts making sense.”

Funny how I’m able to give advice so freely that I don’t take for myself.