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Guest Opinion

June reflections on the joys of teaching young journalists


A few days after the end of the spring semester at Bucks County Community College, I was in the newsroom where I teach journalism and where the student newspaper, The Centurion, is produced. One of the paper’s editors, journalism student Christian Grosso, and I were busy tossing out old copies of the paper. The Centurion is one of a declining number of student papers nationwide that are still actually printed, and the stacks of old issues were starting to take over the room.

Taking a break from our work, Christian told me a story. A few years back, in his first semester at Bucks, he took a composition course with my old colleague Christopher Bursk, an English professor at the college. “He was great. He really made the class interesting,” Christian told me. “He’s the one who really got me interested in writing.” Pausing for a moment, he added, “He’s the one who brought me to you.” A few weeks after that class ended, Chris Bursk died following a long illness.

It’s that melancholy time of the year at colleges nationwide when summer beckons and professors say goodbye to the students we’ve come to know, often over the course of several years. I’m especially privileged in this regard; as a professor but also the faculty advisor to the paper, I get to know my charges not just as students working toward a grade but as aspiring journalists getting their very first work experience in editing a real publication. My students and I are as much colleagues as anything else, and by the time they leave, often to transfer to four-year journalism programs, the emptiness I feel is still palpable and surprising, even after more than two decades on the job.

For this is the real secret of being a teacher: Our students in the years to come may recall us fondly as mentors and instructors — or less fondly as stern taskmasters — but for myself, the bond goes both ways, at the very least. The old cliché about teachers learning from their students is certainly true, but it’s more than that. The respect, admiration and affection I have for so many students, even from many years ago, remains as clear and true now as ever.

The respect comes from the hardships many of my students have endured just to go to college. Almost all of the students I’ve taught have worked outside school, often full-time. I’ve also had students who faced a variety of other challenges too numerous to list. But far from being the supposed snowflakes commentators these days accuse them of being, almost all of the students I’ve known met their challenges head-on, often with grace and even humor. A good example would be the blind student I had years ago who insisted, for the paper’s April Fool’s issue, on doing a story about her guide dog attacking and mauling her journalism professor. I willingly lay on the ground and posed for the fake news photograph that went with her hilarious story.

My students work so hard, and this year was no different. The Centurion, led by crackerjack editor-in-chief Raeanne Raccagno, tackled challenging stories about the abrupt resignation of the college’s president and the environmental cleanup of aging campus buildings. The result was a record 22 awards at the Keystones, the annual statewide college journalism contest.

Christian, who’s transferring to Temple University in the fall to major in journalism, told me that Professor Bursk, even in the final class he would ever teach, never let on that he was sick or suffering. I think I know why. What Chris Bursk knew was that he got as least as much from his students as they did from him, and that the joy of teaching isn’t just about imparting information.

For me, it’s about the feeling a late-middle-aged man gets from spending time with the optimistic, energetic and open-minded people, both young and not-so-young, who come into my classroom. Semester after semester, year after year, I convey to them a little knowledge and a handful of skills. They, in turn, give me hope. I’ll take that deal any day.

Tony Rogers is a professor of journalism at Bucks County Community College and faculty advisor to The Centurion.

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