In the classroom, reporting skills come in handy

I stand before 20 teenagers, many of them reading their first William Shakespeare play in my English class. After the first page of Othello, they complain that the words are too difficult.

I ask if they can guess what the most popular word was among teens 16 years ago, when I was their age. They try, but don't guess it. "It was 'fresh" I say. They laugh, and use the word awkwardly.

If word usage changes so often that "fresh" is out of style after 16 years, doesn't it make sense that Othello might seem outdated after 400 years? They nod. I've made a connection. We can work with this.

I am still in the early stages of my career. But five years ago, I made a risky job switch from newspaper columnist to high school English teacher.

I wanted to inspire young people, and felt this kind of work might be worth the loss in prestige and income that came with leaving the newsroom for the classroom. So I resigned from my position as columnist for the Staten Island (N.Y.) Advance, and entered teaching through an alternative-certification program coordinated by the Massachusetts Department of Education.

After five years, I have found teaching to be every bit as fulfilling as I'd hoped it would be. It's the most difficult work I've ever done, but it's satisfying and rewarding.

So what is it that's working for me? I'm a trained journalist, and yet here I am walking into the classroom with a skip in my step. I think about the reporting skills that professors instilled in me at the University of North Carolina, skills that are well-suited for teaching.

Skill No. 1: Know your material. As a reporter, you can't explain an issue with clarity and depth unless you've taken the time to learn all you can about that issue.

Skill No. 2: Organize yourself. Reporters cannot do their job effectively if they lose control over their schedules, interview notes, and story outlines. Teachers, in the same manner, are rendered ineffective without unit plans and lessons.

Skill No. 3: Think fast and improvise as needed. A reporter needs to be ready with follow-up questions when the subject gives an unexpected answer. Teachers, in the same way, must think on their feet.

Skill No. 4: Care about your audience. The stories aren't going to resonate if you lack a human touch. In teaching, the importance of caring for your students cannot be understated. Students are more willing to learn if they know that their teachers care.

Skill No. 5: Be tenacious. In reporting, you must be persistent to succeed. In teaching, there are at least five events each day that make you wonder why you do this for a living. But if you're focused on that thing that made you love this career, then you can make it past the obstacles.

Skill No. 6: Develop a strong lead. And so we arrive back to Othello and my students' laughter over the evolution of language. In journalism school, I was taught that the lead to my story had better be good if I wanted anyone to read it. I have found teaching to be exactly the same - a strong hook pulls kids into the subject matter.

When I've taken the time to craft a strong lead to my lesson, and when I've worked hard to know my material, improvise as needed, care deeply, and never give up, I find myself still standing at the end of the day.

The kids won't call me "fresh." But they might tell me I'm "mad cool." And for now, that's enough to make this underpaid and exhausting profession feel worthwhile.

Warren Hynes teaches English and journalism at New Mission High School, a pilot school in the Roxbury section of Boston.

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