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So you think you can… be a teacher?

by John Burfitt
15 February 2019

There’s a comment I’m now used to hearing when journo friends have been made redundant / gotten fired / quit their regular gigs, and suddenly find themselves in the open market.

“I’m thinking of going into teaching, so I can share all my knowledge with the next generation,” they announce. Then they add a punchline which is actually more of a searching question: “I’m certain it can’t be that hard. Is it?”

My typical response is that nothing, but nothing, can prepare you for what teaching is really like. Despite whatever magic you have created in the newsroom or that you helped a couple of interns step up into writing roles, all that has little to do with teaching. The fact is, not everyone is equipped to be a teacher – neither temperamentally, emotionally or intellectually.

teacher books and an appleMy entrée to teaching a dozen years ago was by accident. An editor colleague was booked to deliver a uni lecture, but had a sick child that day, and so asked me to go in her place. I had never delivered an academic lecture, but two hours after her call, was standing before 150 students talking about media releases.

I knew the topic but as a lecturer, I had no idea what I was doing. What made the difference, however, was I knew instinctively to make the discussion interactive, getting the students to do the work in exploring the topic. I also stepped off the stage as I spoke, engaging directly with the students. Those years of watching Oprah and Phil Donahue came in handy.

It all went well – so well that I was invited to teach an entire subject. A lecture is one thing, but two three-hour workshops every week for a semester was a whole new world. A new journey took off, weaving its way over 12 years through five universities, two colleges, 12 subjects, about five hundred classes and almost 500 students. It’s also involved workplace training at a range of industry organisations.

For all the glory of working with brilliant young minds, and the thrill of seeing four former students win Walkley Awards, there are realities about teaching that need to be considered before thinking it is the way forward. Start by throwing all of your preconceived misconceptions out the window.

Develop a philosophy

“You teach best what you most need to learn,” said Richard Bach. That quote that became the foundation of my approach to teaching. There was so much I figured I still wanted to learn about journalism, so I was intrigued by what we could uncover as we explored the various courses together. Having a sense of exploration is critical.

Have a strong approach

The core of my approach was theory and practice had to work side by side. I also was determined to make it as interactive as possible, so I would throw the questions out there, and make the students go exploring. I also included a writing-to-deadline task every class, in an attempt to turn the classroom into a newsroom. You may know what makes a good story and how to write one, but can you actually explain that?

Find a role model

On many occasions, I stood before my students and would have no idea how to respond, what to say or what to do next. That’s when I would think, “What would Sidney Poitier do if this was the movie To Sir With Love?” I later expanded that question to include Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society and Michelle Pfeiffer in Dangerous Minds. I watched those movies over and over in my first years of teaching for ideas. It worked.

Have a qualification

Are you prepared to upskill in order to be a teacher? It might be on the cards. I had years of newsroom experience, but nothing academic as I had come through a journalism cadetship program. Within months of starting teaching, I was told I needed academic qualifications if I wanted to continue. So I returned to the classroom and earned a Masters degree as well as two teaching certificates. For all the workplace wisdom you may have, an academic qualification is now essential. If you want to go into schools, you will need a Diploma of Education.

The pay-off

If you want to be a teacher, be aware there’s far more to it than standing in the classroom. There‘s also many hours of preparation and marking. So while the initial rate can look good – at uni, it can be around $140 an hour – just know that also includes the hours, sometimes days, of creating class plans and presentation materials. Then there’s marking, which is paid at around $40 / hour, but you always end up working far longer than the paid time to complete it. In schools, casual teaching is paid between $330-410 a day.

Know how to deal with bad behaviour

Spitting competitions, punch-ups, screaming matches, tantrums and many, many tears – that’s some of the student behaviour I have witnessed. You can never forget the majority are teenagers and still learning how to be adults. Add in accusations that you’re unfair, biased, have favourites and ‘too old to understand’. Learning to let it all wash over and hold your ground came with time, and along with new levels of patience.

Develop a presenting style that engages

It takes a lot of work to hold the attention of the iPhone-generation, whose attention span is so easily distracted. You have to know how to engage the group, implementing enough stimuli to make it interesting and keep everything moving towards an outcome. My mantra as I walked into every workshop was, ‘It’s showtime’.

Be open to new ideas

As we all know, media is shifting at a rapid pace, so be prepared for an onslaught of ideas, concepts and revolutionary tactics that might challenge everything you believe from your own experiences. You must be flexible enough to see the issues from many angles and to understand the rapidly shifting playing field. Be prepared that challenging concepts is what teaching is all about.

Understand it won’t always work out

A wise professor once commented, “About 80 percent of your energy and time is spent on the students who are there to muck around, while only 20 percent is spent on the talented ones who you want to do everything to point in the right directions.” She was spot on. For all your grand intentions and best efforts, you can’t help all of them to become winners.

Hold onto the golden moments

Nothing, absolutely nothing, beats those moments when you see a student have a learning breakthrough and take their work to a whole new level. Their excitement as they experience a shift in their skills is the best. It also makes everything worthwhile and where the greatest reward is. The only thing that beats it is graduation day. And yes, it was a coincidence that at every graduation, I had grit fall into my eye. That was what I was wiping away. Honest.

Do you think you can be a teacher? Or are you teaching already as another income stream? We’d love to hear your story!

Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash
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John Burfitt

John Burfitt is a highly qualified media industry specialist with a finger in a number of pies - including freelance journalist, copywriter, content producer, journalism coach and corporate trainer.
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