Keeping the World Safe for Democracy.

Growing up, I never understood what my dad’s job entailed. His security clearances required he not share a whole lot about the specifics, but he would often tell me his job involved “keeping the world safe for democracy.”

The older I got, I tended to laugh a little when he would say that phrase; it seemed a little tongue-in-cheek, a nod to the fact that he couldn’t tell me just how dangerous his job was. A veteran of the Cold War, his job entailed managing parts of the U.S. nuclear arsenal and being an expert at deterrence theory. He literally kept the world safe.

In my own public service career, I have made similar passing comments about my work, often when talking to my peers. What do I do? I change lives. I’m a champion for children. I’m helping the future. All idealistic catch phrases I’ve said over the past 17 years, sometimes sarcastically, sometimes not.

Ernest Hooper, a columnist with the Tampa Bay Times wrote a piece this week about his experience at the Journalism Education Association’s Fall Convention. It’s fantastic. You should read it.

I’ve taught media literacy in some capacity my entire career, but I’m not sure how I would’ve answered if people asked me on a regular basis why I feel so strongly about teaching media literacy. I’d probably fall back on those catch phrases.

But Hooper’s column gives me the real answer: “Protecting [democracy] begins with educating a new generation that you can’t have freedom without a free press.”

With public education under attack locally through LB 295 and at the national level with the House’s tax reform bill (the Senate’s bill is a bit more supportive of education), I get discouraged about my job and wonder how much longer I’ll be able to do it. Especially since I teach journalism, and if you haven’t heard, the current leader of the free world doesn’t take too kindly to journalists.

My current job feels a bit precarious.

But tonight, I have a renewed sense of purpose, thanks to Hooper. I might be changing lives and teaching the future and whatever teaching cliché you want to throw at me.

But really, I’m keeping the world safe for democracy.

I’m a Rowse. It’s what we do.

 

Refocus.

I stood next to a table, watching my colleague, my friend, my writing compatriot laugh and rap along with a room full of kids. I soaked in that moment and reminded myself, “This. This is why you show up every day.”

I can get all kinds of ruffled up with righteous indignation about any number of injustices I am privy to on a daily basis. Sometimes, those injustices make me wonder if I wouldn’t be better off, happier, someplace else. Or, as I asked my Pop Culture class last week, “Have you ever had a day that made you question every single life choice?” Most of them smiled and nodded. I sighed, then had them each write me an essay on whether sampling in the music industry is creativity or theft.

If I looked hard enough, every day I could bombard myself with reasons to stop teaching. Honestly, I probably wouldn’t even have to look hard at all. But no matter what career I chose, I imagine I would reach a point where injustices and my inability to do anything about them would threaten to take over my mindset.

As I watched a room full of kids–student journalists–laugh and rap and stuff their faces full of unhealthy food, I felt lighter. It reminded me to refocus on the things I can control, like teaching proper comma use or how to make ethical decisions–because I’ve taught all of those kids those things. And knowing how to use commas and make ethical decisions just might make them better people.

It’s so easy to lose sight of the “why.” For me, when I get to that point, I need to remember to take a breath, spend some time looking at what my students have accomplished, and acknowledge that those accomplishments don’t always produce external recognition. Sometimes the accomplishment is the kid who finally makes deadline, or the kid who finally takes a perfect photo, or the kid who finally writes a sentence without a helping verb.

Small victories, but victories nonetheless; victories that deserve my acknowledgement, especially at those times when the injustices blind me to the reason I keep showing up: the kids.

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.