*Preceptor, a fancy word for teacher.
An open letter to Lyn Millner, Florida Gulf Coast University associate professor of journalism.
I had no idea what I agreed to about this time last year when I stood in a Dunedin Starbucks about to unpack my creaky MacBook laptop when my cell phone rang.
It was you. You needed somebody to fill in as a preceptor for a News Literacy recitation, which is a fancy word for class. You asked if I could do it. I was flattered beyond description and immediately accepted.
I didn’t know what I was getting into. How could I? I’ve never taught anything anywhere to anybody at any level.
Now I’m wrapping up my second semester at FGCU.
I couldn’t have predicted that students would tell you they love me. I couldn’t have predicted a student would shout out my name from across campus and want to talk to me. I couldn’t have predicted the extraordinary email I received from a student in the spring thanking me for being his preceptor.
Or that a student would ask me to be her mentor and that another would ask me to write a letter of recommendation. I couldn’t have foreseen that some day I would sit in a classroom and have a student tell me she is scared about mass shootings and hopes to be a mother someday but worries about her yet-to-be born children. Will they be safe? Will school shootings ever end? What can be done? I didn’t have answers for her that day and still don’t.
But I listened. That was the main thing.
No, I could not have foreseen any of this.
I will never be able to thank you enough for this opportunity to meet and work with your students, grade their papers and praise them and even scold them for subpar efforts.
I’m still reeling from a note you sent me and gave me permission to share here. You told me about something that happened in one of your lectures when a woman raised her hand.
“She had never spoken in lecture. I don’t know who she is.
“’This is sort of off-topic,’ she said, apologetically. ‘But Glenn Miller.’
“What about Glenn Miller?”
“’We love him. He is great.’
“The friend sitting next to her nodded.
“It was a very sweet moment.
“The women didn’t go into detail about why you are great, but I have some clues. My teacher radar me they have learned a lot from you and that you make them feel valued.”
Reading this again brings tears to my eyes. Thanks for sharing.
I don’t know what I did to earn such a stunning compliment but it might have something to do with listening. I don’t have a grand theory of education. Heck, I don’t even have a banal theory of education.
I’m just an old ink-stained newspaper wretch with more than 40 years experience writing about this and that and just about everything, from baseball to football to politics to theater and history and the weather and. …
I’ve had decades of experience interviewing people, by now easily thousands of people. An important part of interviewing is listening.
I listen to students. As I said in a blog post after my first semester I made it a point to not talk down to the students or even to the students. I tried talking with students. That is a big distinction.
Maybe that’s why the first week of this semester a student from the spring named McKenzie shouted out “Mr. Miller!” as I walked across campus. She was driving a golf cart.
When I turned around and stared into a bright, blistering August haze of shimmering heat I couldn’t make out who it was.
“It’s McKenzie!” the student shouted.
I felt bad I didn’t recognize her through the sunny glare. But I walked over to the golf cart and she gave me a ride across campus and filled me in on her life since the spring.
I often spoke with McKenzie before classes in the spring and I think she appreciated that I listened. That I remembered her hometown and her boyfriend’s name and that she has a big family vacation coming up.
Following the spring semester I received an unexpected and touching email from another student. I’ve saved and treasured it ever since.
From his email: “But you should know I am proud to have had you as my fill-in preceptor. You may not have come prepared for teaching all of us hooligans, but you did it wonderfully, full of laughs and providing a level of connection few of my teachers prior have been able to reach. … Your attention to my life meant so much to me.”
A word on “hooligans:” The student who used that word was being facetious. I have yet to encounter a hooligan on campus.
Lyn, if not for your invitation, which may have been an act of desperation to find a fill-in preceptor, I would not have had these experiences and met these young people. I can never thank you enough for reaching out and trusting me to work with students.
In the spring, I had one recitation with 10 students. This fall you trusted me with 40 students and two recitations that met Friday afternoons in Merwin Hall 120. Three students soon dropped the course, which left me with 37 students as well as two interns who were my classrooms assistants.
My student load essentially increased fourfold. I had four times as many names and faces to match and four times as many papers to grade.
But Lyn, as I know I you know, I treasure every moment I have on campus as an FGCU employee and every interaction I have with students.
This post is closing in on 1,000 words. I still have so much more to say about the students I was fortunate enough to meet this semester. I didn’t get permission from students to use their names in this post so I will use aliases here.
There was Ms. Cookman. On the class roster her first name was listed as something I couldn’t pronounce. But she gave me another name, perhaps her middle name. I couldn’t pronounce that either.
Although I address all the other students by their first names I always addressed her as “Ms. Cookman.”
She is very intelligent and soon realized what was going on and said something like, “You can’t pronounce my name can you?”
I had to admit that was the case.
Ms. Cookman also had a question early in the semester. She wanted to know how to address me. I’m not a professor and don’t feel comfortable being addressed as such. I said she could address me by my first name or as Mr. Miller.
She tittered at the idea of addressing a teacher by his first name. I believe she is a freshman and is now only a few months out of high school.
I could go on and on and on in this post, Lyn.
If I turned this in to you as a student you might mark me down for being too verbose. Do you give out F-minus grades?
I may be entering F-Land now.
Anyhow, bear with me. …
These little interactions mean so much to me and I want to share.
As you know I had an hour on Friday between my recitations. I often walked over to the library and read the print editions of the Fort Myers News-Press and New York Times.
As I sat there one Friday a student I will call “Kelly” from News Literacy saw me and stopped and we chatted for a while. I sat in an easy chair and she stood. We talked about her classes and writing and I mentioned again the importance of reading for anybody who wishes to write.
That might have been the day “Kelly” asked me to be her mentor. I didn’t know what to say to that then and I still don’t.
Over my two semesters I’ve now dealt with about 50 students. Most of the students do fine work but early on this semester I realized there was one young woman who was a cut above as a writer.
In a recent note to “Mary” I said that her copy is clean, clear and crisp. She is a natural storyteller.
After class one Friday we stood outside Merwin Hall and discussed her writing potential. I shared an aphorism you likely know. “One can learn to write but one can’t be taught to write.”
As I said that I tapped myself on the chest meaning it has to come from the heart.
This student immediately understood what I meant. I look forward to hearing about her progress.
As you also know Mike Walcher asked me to speak to a couple of his news writing classes. He wanted his 37 students to interview me and then write a story about me.
I joked with a couple of my News Literacy students the following week that having to write about me was the worst assignment in journalism history.
Of the 37 in Mike’s two classes, the student I pegged as the most natural writer I’ve encountered earned the highest grade. Mike sent me one and only one story written about me. It was from “Mary” who knows one can learn to write but can’t be taught to write.
I printed out her story and treasure it as much as I do the email from the young man in the spring.
There is so much more I want to say and many more thanks I want to send your way.
I recall walking into Griffin Hall on the day when we had a guest speaker. I noticed two young men from my 2:30 p.m. recitation sitting near the door and chatted with them for a couple of minutes. I walked across the lobby and spotted another student sitting by herself. I know her major and simply asked, “What’s new in marine biology?”
She brightened up. I think it meant something to her that I remembered her major.
I recall giving three individual book recommendations to students over the course of the semester.
I printed out the Amazon descriptions of the books and bought them to campus. One black woman had posted a news story about a racist incident in Florida. I don’t recall the details now but it reminded me of Gilbert King’s “Devil in The Grove, “The Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America.”
In the hall one day before class I had handed her the pages from Amazon about Gilbert King’s book. She read the book description and reviews and handed the pages back to me.
I told her the printout was for her and that it might be a book she could read over Christmas break. She seemed pleased that I thought of her and made a book recommendation.
Well, we’re nearly to Christmas and the semester’s end. It’s been nearly a year now since I stood in that Dunedin Starbucks and answered my cell phone with the unfamiliar number showing.
It was you. I’m glad I answered.
This teaching experience has been one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done. It’s been profound at times and at times vexing. It’s been fun and hard work.
Maybe the 43 years since I wrote my first newspaper story about a football game at Boca Ciega High School for the now-defunct St. Petersburg Evening Independent has all been preparation for precepting.
I can’t thank you enough for asking me to do this.
Merry Christmas to you and Jesse and “our” students, every one of them.