Dead mentors leave clues as to when I feel like a real teacher

I knew my days in newspapers were almost over when I wrote the obituaries for Ken Fuson and Robert D. Woodward on the same day.

Ken was the best writer any of us at the Register have ever known. He may have been the best writer in the history of the Register.

He was a good, kind friend, whose faith rescued him from the evils of gambling addiction.

I think of Ken often, especially when I spill something on my shirt.

Ken always said he couldn’t get through a day without spilling food on his shirt. The same foible afflicts me.

I have lunch with Randy Evans, likely the best Iowa newsman anyone will ever know. I spilled some salad dressing on my shirt.

He saw it.

We both pointed to the sky.

“Kenny’s with us,” we said.

Woodward was the best teacher I ever had. He taught journalism at Drake University.

When he died, it hurt as bad as when my own father died, though I had not talked to Woodward for some time.

I called Lee Ann Colacioppo, one of Woodward’s students, like me, and one of my former editors.

We had both cried some that day.

She told me Woodward was the one person that she still actively tried to please with every decision she made as an editor.

That’s how good of a teacher Woodward was.

His lessons stayed in your head decades after you left his classroom.

I can’t tell you how many opening paragraphs I’ve re-written because of Woodward’s “it is” rule.

“There are 470,000 words in the English language,” Woodward said. “Surely you can find two that are better than ‘it’ and ‘is’ to begin a story.”

I wrote those obituaries in January 2020. I lost my job in May that year due to corporate cutbacks and the pandemic.

They tell you it isn’t personal. It sure feels that way.

My last two or three years in journalism stunk. The company had fallen in love with algorithms and metrics.

Stories that got clicks and shares were good, regardless of the topic. Stories that didn’t weren’t.

I tried to light up that metrics board. Sometimes I did. But I didn’t more often than I did, and it worked on my gut and my brain.

Only now do I realize that them cutting me loose was a blessing. I could finally lay down my notebook and pencil after 27 years. My fight was over.

I am a middle school teacher in Des Moines now.

I start work on Aug. 11.

I don’t know when I will feel like a real teacher.

I feel like an imposter at present. I had moments during student teaching in the western suburbs when I was close to being something that approximated a teacher if you squinted in the right light.

But soon I will have 150 sixth graders reading and writing.

I think the day I tell a student the number of words in the English language and how good an idea it is to use ones different than “it is” to begin a story, I will know Woodward is with me.

And I might just feel like a teacher then, too.

By the way, I’m not going anywhere.

I will still stack paragraphs on my blog.

I will still podcast with my buddy Memphis Paul.

I’ll still be doing some writing for the Marion County Express.

Fundraising will drop back to just once a year, to cover the expenses of the website.

You can kick the newsman out of the newsman, but you really can’t stop a writer from writing.

I will be a teacher.

I’m already a writer.

All that’s left is to keep moving forward.

Daniel P. Finney writes columns for the Marion County Express.

Daniel P. Finney wrote for newspapers for 27 years before being laid off in 2020. He teaches middle school English now. He writes columns and podcasts for ParagraphStacker.com, a free, reader-supported website. Please consider donating $10 a month to help him cover the expenses of this site.
Post: 1217 24th St., Apt. 36, Des Moines, 50311.
Zelle: newsmanone@gmail.com.
Venmo@newsmanone.
PayPalpaypal.me/paragraphstacker.

Bill to remove teacher test is an A+ idea

A bill that would remove testing as a requirement for teaching licenses is before the Iowa Senate. 

It passed the House unanimously. 

Dear Iowa Senate, please pass this bill and get it under Gov. Kim Reynolds pen at once. 

I rarely speak publicly about political issues anymore, but I confess my vested interest in this one. 

I’m student teaching this semester and if this bill doesn’t pass, I’ll have to file a blizzard of paperwork and pay $300 to a private testing company for evaluation. 

If I pass the evaluation, I’ve finally earned the right to pay the state $165 for a license to do a job so very few people want to do for wages that impress no one.

A $300 fee may sound small. If you took your car to the mechanic with a “rattle rattle, thump, bang bang” and walked out for less than $300, you’d be thrilled. 

But that’s not the whole picture. 

My tuition at Drake University this semester was more than $12,000.

Yes, I could have gone through a different school with lower tuition, this is a master’s program.

I’m 46 years old. I can’t afford to start over to the fresh-out-of-college salary scale. Most districts will start a new teacher with a master’s degree in a higher pay lane. 

Student loans funded every dollar of my last two years of school. I’ll be paying that until I die. 

So it goes. I’m pretty sure dying in debt is basically the same as dying rich. 

What’s another $300 on top of that?

It’s more principle than anything.

Presently, there are two kinds of tests you can take to earn a license. One is a pair of exams, one for general teaching and another specific to your discipline such as English or math.

The other is a complex collection of video recorded work with students, unit plans, and essays with 17 different rubrics.

Both tracks cost $300. 

You generally take them as you’re student teaching. 

Student teaching is the capstone of education school for both undergraduates and graduate students. 

You worked side-by-side with an experienced teacher for roughly four months, including leading classes for four to six weeks. 

Student teachers are not paid. 

They are working full time. They are not getting paid. 

You are actively discouraged from having a part-time job, though some of my classmates do. 

How they handle it is beyond me. Student teaching is the most taxing thing I’ve ever done. The level of executive function — the sheer amount of stuff you have to keep straight — is staggering. 

I come home from days and collapse into bed by 7 p.m. 

As a student teacher, I’m evaluated twice a week by a mentor teacher — usually a retired teacher interested in passing along good pedagogy to a new generation. 

I’m observed nearly every minute by my classroom teacher. 

I talk regularly about progress with both teachers and my professors at Drake. Our class has weekly seminar meetings — also a class I have to pay for. 

In the end, I need three letters of recommendation from people who have seen me teach. 

If I haven’t impressed my classroom teacher or my supervising teacher, I’m in trouble. 

My point is this: How many tests are enough?

I’ve taken pedagogy. I’ve taken subject classes. I lived the journalism. 

I’m constantly observed and have excelled at an accredited university that sets its standards in line with both the state and the latest ideas on teaching teachers. 

The thing is, the test isn’t a measure of potential in a future teacher.

It isn’t even a measure of how good they are at taking tests or writing rubrics. 

It’s a grift. 

Private testing companies shakedown education majors for a few hundred bucks after they’ve already stacked up thousands in debt to take a job that faces historic shortages. 

I’ve only been in a classroom since January. Already I am a changed person. I had no idea what I didn’t know about this job. 

It is hard work. It might be the hardest civilian non-first responder or peace officer job there is. 

Sometimes I think I’ve permanently scrambled my egg to think I could do this. 

But I’m getting better everyday. And I think I love even on the days I’m cursing into my pillow at night. 

So, yes, please Iowa lawmakers and Gov. Reynolds, remove one expensive hurdle for me and the thousands of students working hard to become the teachers our state so desperately needs. 

Former journalist Daniel P. Finney writes columns for the Marion County Gazette. Reach him at newsmanone@gmail.com.


Daniel P. Finney wrote for newspapers for 27 years before being laid off in 2020. He teaches middle school English now. He writes columns and podcasts for ParagraphStacker.com, a free, reader-supported website. Please consider donating $10 a month to help him cover the expenses of this site.
Post: 1217 24th St., Apt. 36, Des Moines, 50311.
Zelle: newsmanone@gmail.com.
Venmo@newsmanone.
PayPalpaypal.me/paragraphstacker.

The fear 4 hours before doctor appointment

My appointment with the specialist doctor is at 9 a.m.

It’s currently 4 a.m.

I’m scared.

I know that to get better, I need to see this doctor.

But I’m afraid.

I’ve never had surgery before. I don’t even know if I need surgery. But I’m scared of it.

I think about all the Drake women’s basketball players I wrote about who had knee injuries or other issues who had surgery.

To me, their condition was news — facts people should know about their favorite team.

I didn’t think about the pain.

I didn’t consider they might be afraid.

Maybe they weren’t.

Those Drake women’s basketball players I covered back in the mid- to late-1990s were tougher than I’ll ever be.

I remember one player, she got cut. She declined a pain killer because that meant shouldn’t go back into the game.

Me? I would have asked for maximum pain relief, my blankie, and my stuffed Pink Panther.

Someone I love was trying to help me yesterday.

This is her way. She takes charge. She leads.

She started to list all the changes I needed to make to get better.

Lose weight.

Listen to my doctors.

Exercise more.

She hit an especially tender spot. She asked if I thought I could walk to my classes at Drake even without my present knee problems.

Her question was legitimate. All my grad school work so far has been online because of the pandemic.

This fall, we’re back to buildings and classrooms.

Can I walk a few blocks to my classes even without a knee injury?

The answer is no.

But.

But I would have found a way. I would have paid for a parking sticker for the lots closest to the building I took my classes in.

If I couldn’t make it, I would use an assistive device — a crutch, a walker, whatever.

I was going to make it.

But her question comes with an unintentional punch.

It reminds me how much I hate myself — my physical body, how repulsed I am by the sight of me.

I know I am disgustingly fat by both medical and aesthetic standards. I know every extra pound shortens my lifespan.

I worry about it all the time.

The latest knee injury terrifies me on a scale I struggle to describe.

I worry that it can’t be fixed or will be easily reinjured. Thus, getting to class will become impossible and I won’t finish graduate school, won’t become a teacher and end up with a pile of student loans and no job to pay them with. I’ll be living down at the YMCA housing or in a hospice.

How’s that for maudlin thinking?

This is what goes on in a brain stricken with depression and anxiety.

That’s why I abruptly ended the call with my loved one.

I was rude.

But I had therapy soon. And I was hurting, both physically and emotionally.

I didn’t want to fight.

I just wanted someone to tell me everything was going to be OK.

Daniel P. Finney writes columns for ParagraphStacker.com, a free, reader-supported website. Please consider donating to help me cover personal expenses as I continue writing while I pursue my master’s degree and teacher certification. 
Post: 1217 24th St., Apt. 36, Des Moines, 50311. 
Zelle: newsmanone@gmail.com. 
Venmo@newsmanone
PayPalpaypal.me/paragraphstacker.