January 6, 2008

Teaching trouble

An interview with…

Ken Swart
journalism teacher

Atlantic High School

In the ’80s, Ken Swart covered Palm Beach County schools for the
Sun-Sentinel. In the ’90s, he helped create the Sun-Sentinel’s teen page and later ran the Palm Beach County version of it.

“I worked with more than 40 students from at least 15 different high schools, helping them produce news and feature packages,” he recalls. “Looking back, I think it probably furthered my thinking that I might actually want to teach for a living.”

In 2005, that’s exactly what he did. Swart now advises the student newspaper and teaches English, creative writing, and journalism at Atlantic High School in Delray Beach.

If journalists don’t get much respect from the public, Swart says journalism teachers don’t get much respect from journalists.
“Professional journalists might like to know that good high school journalism teachers really do try to teach the basics to their students,” he says. “It would also be nice if professional journalists, like people in general, had more respect for teachers.”

Read the following, and you’ll probably give Swart and his peers that respect…

Are high school journalists today any better or worse than when you were a kid?

Probably better. They understand more of the world around them. They’re more interested and more capable of researching a topic, especially on the Internet. They’re more excited about the idea of communicating their ideas to their classmates.

What do the kids think journalism is?

Unfortunately, many of my journalism students – like many young journalists fresh out of college and working on daily newspapers –see it as a way of elevating themselves, of interviewing celebs, of getting their own names in the paper. Too few of them want to tell somebody’s story. Most of them want to use it as a vehicle for something personal.

Advice for a journalist thinking of becoming a teacher?

Check your ego at the door.

Don’t go into it thinking you’re going to mold budding teen journalists into Pulitzer prize winners. Go into it because you genuinely like kids and want to help them grow and learn.
Remember: It’s not about you. It’s never about you. It’s about them.

Also, keep in mind that only a handful of teachers in the state do nothing but teach journalism. Most of them teach English, with a class or two of journalism or newspaper/yearbook production on the side.

Biggest difference between working at the Sun-Sentinel and Atlantic High?

When my students act like children, they have a good excuse. Because they are.

Is censorship an issue?

Here’s my best example...

After my students wrote an article critical of the person who runs the Media Center, the assistant principal, without my knowledge, called the student journalists and their student sources into his office and proceeded to chastise them for what they had done. He also required them to write letters of apology to the Media Center director.

The kids were so upset, they didn’t tell me about what had happened until a day or two later. As soon as I found out, I met with the assistant principal and told him, in no uncertain terms, that he had a perfect right to summon any student he wanted to his office. But he sure as hell better not even think of doing again what he did without giving me the professional courtesy of letting me know about it beforehand, so I could sit in on the meeting.

My incident with the assistant principal – who’s in charge of the International Baccalaureate program – probably has cost me any hope of ever teaching an IB class at Atlantic. But I won’t tolerate unprofessional behavior like that.

So how do you deal with your administration now?

Partly as a result of that incident, I run any potentially controversial stories by the assistant principal for curriculum (whom I report to) or the principal herself. I always submit it to them this way:

“Here’s a story we plan to run in the next issue. Let me know if you have any concerns. I don’t want to tell my students, ‘You can’t run it.’ I want to tell my students, ‘Here’s what we need to change so it can run.’”

In 2 1/2 years, I’ve run a half-dozen stories through the administration, and not once have they pulled a story. They’ve made good suggestions, and we’ve incorporated them. Frankly, they have fulfilled their roles as “publishers” in an effective and efficient manner. I really have nothing to complain about.

No matter what, I always make sure that my editors know what I’m doing. Often, I leave it to the editors to submit the stories themselves, so they are part of the review process, from beginning to end.

One big problem you didn’t anticipate?

Schools in general operate under such tight budgets that they never have the right equipment, or enough of it, to really do a very good job.

In the publications-production room, where the kids work on the newspaper and yearbook simultaneously, we’ve only got seven computers. And they’re loaded with all kinds of conflicting programs, including three different versions of Quark, two different versions of InDesign, and an outdate version of PhotoShop.
One program won’t “talk” to the other, and one program won’t “convert” a file to another program. Putting out the paper has gradually become a logistical and technological nightmare.

And, of course, there’s very little money to buy new versions. In addition, the tech people at the school are inundated with requests and problems from other sources, and they end up putting our needs far down on their priority list.

Most frustrating part of your job?

It isn’t the pay (which pretty much sucks), the kids’ behavior (which can be disrespectful), or the school district’s massive bureaucracy (which is often impenetrable). It’s the paperwork – and for that, we can thank any parent who ever brought a lawsuit against a school district anywhere in the country. Parents are supposed to parent. Schools are supposed to teach. If parents did their job, then teachers would be able to do theirs.

An example of the paperwork?

If I went by the book, I’d have to document – on separate, daily log sheets – every time a student goes to the bathroom, every time I talk to a student about his or her behavior, and every time I call a parent, even if it’s a call to offer a compliment instead of share a concern.

I’d have to document every time a student misses a class, every time I show a video clip that connects to a lesson in the textbook, every time I hand out copies of information not in the textbook.

I’m also required to keep journal logs, homework logs, and make-up work logs for each student. And I am required to submit written lesson plans, with back-up material, on a monthly basis. In addition, as the newspaper adviser, I’m responsible for submitting daily announcements, and logging “activities conducted” and “monies collected.”

Damn! How does a teacher deal with all that?

I think any new teacher quickly comes to the conclusion that you can either keep up with the paperwork, or you can teach your kids. I choose the latter.