by Jess Young
Newspaper and yearbook adviser
Orange Glen High School, Escondido, Calif.
“Graduated” JEA mentee

Jess Young JEA/NSPA convention San Francisco

Jess Young presents a session at the JEA/NSPA convention in San Francisco. She assisted her JEA mentor, Konnie Krislock, with the Anaheim convention and is serving as co-chair of the San Diego convention.

A good teacher never takes the mouse.

That was the mantra instilled in my by my high school journalism teacher, Gwen Bartlett.

At the time, it was an annoying little chant that she called into our newspaper room, from her classroom, when she could tell our returning staff members were reaching the end of our patience with our cub reporters.

As a student, it never occurred to me that I might some day actually be a teacher, and need to lead by example, rather than just stamping my byline on everything.

When I was in high school, I wanted to be an ace news hound. I had my sights set on National Geographic.

My high school newspaper wasn’t award winning. We never went to a JEA/NSPA conference. The highlight of our year was Fall Press Day at Oregon State University and the Spring Publication Olympics. We didn’t win Pacemakers or enter national contests.

Yet, our adviser instilled a lesson in me that has guided my professional practice and defined my teaching style.

Now, I understand that Barlett’s approach was about balance — it was as much about teaching us to be leaders as it was about teaching our new students the skills they  needed to be successful.

A good teacher never takes the mouse.

Bartlett said that to me probably a dozen times a deadline cycle.

I say that to my kids just as often.

But I say that to myself more.

Jess Young and newspaper staff on World Press Freedom Day

Jess Young and her students at Orange Glen High School (Escondido, Calif.) sported the First Amendment on their T-shirts for World Press Freedom Day. Photo by Harvey Quintero

It’s a simple concept—if you want someone to learn how to do something, they need to do it for themselves. It’s an idea that translates easily into the journalism classroom. If I want my students to use good interviewing skills, they need to practice actual interviews. They won’t learn by me simply telling them “This is a good question… This is a bad question.” They need to see the questions at work, witness the responses and see how the conversation can change the course of the interview.

When it comes to teaching skills and concepts, keeping my hands off was easy. I told my students that they needed to learn by doing.

I refused to click through their InDesign documents and fix their tabs and sharpen their cutouts. Rather, I’d sit next to them and painstakingly walk them through each step. Sure, it took more time… But I only had to do it once, because then that student knew how to do it correctly.

Where I struggled in the classroom was with teaching my students how to be good leaders.

I often heard my editors groan, “I’m the only one who does anything around here,” or “Why doesn’t any one do their work right? Why don’t they take it seriously?” and my favorite, “Why doesn’t anyone care about (insert name of publication here) as much as I do?”

These were all thoughts I had had as a high school journalist myself, and again, in almost every leadership position I had ever held.

But what did I learn?

A good teacher never takes the mouse.

Jess Young at Quill and Scroll Board meeting

Jess Young stands outside the Adler Building, the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Iowa, following a Quill and Scroll board meeting.

I had learned by doing. I had learned how to instill leadership skills in my students through my own growth and experience as a leader. Once I stopped trying to dissect leadership and turn its components into a rubric, it became a much easier concept to grasp. Once I stopped clicking my students through the checklist of what makes a good leader and let them learn by actually leading, my classroom changed. I let go of the mouse and the students were finally able to fully operate their program on their own terms.

And it sounds scary, as a teacher, to relinquish control of your classroom to a bunch of squirrely teenager — and it can be, at times. But I trust my staff. They’ve learned by trying, by making mistakes and by observing.

Over the past six years, my students have watched as I have gotten increasingly more involved with the scholastic journalism community.

They came along for the ride as I, apprehensively, started traveling with students to conventions. They embraced and welcomed other leaders, such as our JEA mentor Konnie Krislock, into our classroom.

They watched me work with my colleagues, tackle new challenges, teach at conventions, facilitate at workshops, co-chair a national convention, and run for national office. They have seen me learn from, struggle through, cry over, celebrate, embrace, support and conquer so many experiences, and they have been a part of every one. I discuss my process with my students. I treat them as colleagues. In many respects, they understand my perspective more than most of my actual colleagues.

A good teacher never takes the mouse.

It’s become a mantra in my classroom, too. I hear the editors saying it to the new leadership on staff. I hear the editors decline an offered mouse when a newbie groans and says, “Just do it for me.” And I’ve watched my graduating seniors take a backseat, as new leadership rises to the top and starts learning by doing.

There are times, of course, when we all think, “This would be so much easier if I just did it myself,” but we know better. We know that a hands-on experience is going to be far more valuable than one spent on the sidelines, watching someone else push all the buttons.

Jessica Young, CJE, is co-chair of the JEA/NSPA convention in San Diego, April 2014, and is a member of the Quill and Scroll board of trustees. She was named a JEA Rising Star in 2012 and received the JEA Future Journalism Teacher Scholarship Award in 2010. She is a candidate for the West Regional Director position on the JEA Board.