The Obsolete Teacher

It’s the start of the academic year, and I’m nervous.

I’ve spent most of my summer learning Web design, green-screen photography and video production, all to teach budding journalists the most up-to-date, relevant skills for The Falconer—the student news site of Palmer Trinity, where I teach in Miami, Fl.

I have hard news reporting experience—including a brief stint covering small towns for the Boston Globe’s Metro West section—but I worry that I’m biting off more than I can chew.

I learn a great deal from my brother Jeff, who serves as Head of Digital Strategy at Team Epic, which helps companies flourish by making effective use of new media.

But by the start of school, I still can’t properly render videos for HD-uploading, or resize content from embedded codes. I bite my nails, worried that my students will think less of me. You can’t teach what you don’t know, and I feel inadequate. I have no excuse, other than that it’s difficult to keep-up with the ever-changing culture of journalism.

I go online, trying to find advice from fellow journalism teachers. There is no shortage of voices, eager to speak about the challenges of staying relevant in a digital age:

Howard Finberg, a former Chicago Tribune and New York Times reporter who serves as Poynter’s Director of Partnerships and Alliances, perfectly captures my own frustrations:

“The future of journalism education is linked to the future of journalism itself. Each is caught within the other’s vortex, both spinning within today’s turmoil of change,” writes Finberg in a June 15 post, “Journalism education cannot teach its way to the future.”

I find another story, “Journalism education reform: How far should it go?” by Eric Newton, senior advisor to the President at Knight Foundation, which aims to help journalists produce quality work in the 21st century:

“The digital age is the most profound development since movable metal type brought the age of mass communication,” Newton writes. “It is changing everything–who a journalist is, what a story is, which media should be used for which news, and how we engage with communities, the people formerly known as the audience.”

I recently reconnected my Prof. Michael J. Socolow, my former journalism professor at Brandeis University—and among the most influential teachers I ever had. Socolow now teaches at the University of Maine, and in a recent e-mail exchange, he gives me his take:

“I also think the field of journalism has gotten so squeezed that if you want to write, and be creative, you very often have to show some entrepreneurial zeal,” Socolow writes. “Up here in Maine, we’ve changed our curriculum—I teach courses with titles like ‘Journalism Across Platforms’ that do some skills development, but also push kids to write and get their voices heard any way they can.”

Socolow gets me thinking. Perhaps I’m not failing my students, after all. My effort to stay up-to-date with all things journalism is providing them with requisite skills to realize their own “entrepreneurial zeal.” Often, I hear from kids who want to start their own business or Web site, utilizing what they have learned in my production classes.

This brings me solace, even as I question the traditional role of “teaching,” and the old sage-on-the-stage mentality. It will always be important to students to learn content, but with the Internet, open educational resources (OER) and massive open online courses (MOOCs), much of this can be done online. So what does this mean for educators?

“With OER and MOOCs and such, students are going to be doing more self-determined learning, and, as such, will need more advice as they traverse the contents,” Prof. Curtis J. Bonk, a leading distance-learning expert, wrote to me in a recent e-mail. “They will want someone to touch base with during this learning journey. Many high school and college instructors may take on part of this new role as the need for such support grows.”

My journalism students are always learning on their own, reviewing “how to” videos, and collaborating with various online resources. I’m certain that I have learned more from my students than they have from me.

I think back to my time as a student at Brimmer and May, an amazing independent school in Brookline, MA.

I would often hear Judy Guild, the associate head (she’s now the School’s new head) cite an important principle of the Coalition of Essential Schools, to which Brimmer and May has long belonged:

The governing practical metaphor of the school should be student-as-worker, rather than the more familiar metaphor of teacher-as-deliverer-of-instructional-services. Accordingly, a prominent pedagogy will be coaching, to provoke students to learn how to learn and thus to teach themselves.”

As far as my production courses are concerned, this is exactly what I am—a coach.

I covet this title, especially since the traditional idea of a “teacher” is becoming increasingly obsolete.

As a coach, history and journalism teacher at Brimmer and May, a wonderful independent school in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, I have the absolute best job in the world. I am thrilled to get up every morning to engage with interesting young people, and I'm equally fortunate to have such amazing colleagues and mentors. As the founder of Spin Education, I encourage you to check-in frequently and submit posts and lessons—all in an effort to better our practice as teachers.


  • Reply April 13, 2013

    Scott du Feu

    Does that mean math teachers are also going to be obsolete? I tell my students in they get stuck with a concept, to go on to Youtube since there is almost certainly a video showing them what to do. And more and more math web sites can be found where you type in a problem and the site shows you how to solve it, or one very similar. Are we (math teachers) just going to be coaches in the future? Strangely enough it is what my students call me now, because I tell them I am their math coach, not their teacher. I liken my math teaching to coaching them to run a marathon. I tell them I can given them all the workouts, and train them, but I cannot run the marathon for them. And me going out and running each day for them won’t help them to complete the marathon. In other words, I can show them how to tackle a concept, but they have to practice (complete homework, and learn the material) in order to be successful. I also rarely tell my students how to do something after I have initially explained the concept to them. I tell them to look in their notes (which I give them every day), and look at the examples. I encourage them to do this because I cannot be at home with them, so if they can’t do something, what are they to do? Look in their notes. Students today (at the younger ages) often struggle because we don’t give them the tools to stand on their own two feet. They often have no idea what to do if they get stuck. We need to teach students (at all levels) how to work through a problem, and how to find out how to solve a problem when they get stuck. I ask my students all the time, “What would you do if you were stuck on a desert island? How would you get off, if you don’t think?” The problem is we live in a ‘fast food’ world, which has now led to ‘fast food’ education as I call it. We live in a world where we have drive through everything – food, banking, dry cleaners, pharmacy, coffee shops, and even ‘real’ food (Farm Stores). You don’t even have to go into a fast food place any more and order individual items, you just order a “#1, #2, etc”. And so our students demand the same of their education. “Don’t give me the reason for the answer, just give me the answer.” “Don’t tell me what led up to what happened, or the reason why it happened, just tell me the outcome.” We do our students an injustice when we ‘spoon feed them’, and we don’t stretch their brain, or challenge them to think. We need to teach more from the idea of ‘how would you do this?’, rather than the, ‘this is how you do it’ approach. But all that might be a moot point when we are replaced by a video screen and eventually a computer that can simply solve the problem for you.

  • Reply April 29, 2013

    Jorge Arteta

    A key question: How do facilitators (teachers) help foster independent learners (students)? For online study to succeed, a learner needs to be motivated to learn: true? So, will online courses be the realm of self-motivated learners?

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