Podcast: Retiring During COVID-19 with Karl Grubaugh

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Photo: Karl Grubaugh and one of his retirement gifts.

Join us on the podcast for a new episode of our Teachers in America series. Our guest today is Karl Grubaugh, a recently retired AP economics teacher and advanced journalism advisor at Granite Bay High School in California. You can follow him on Twitter @kgrubaugh.

A full transcript of the episode appears below; it has been edited for clarity.

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Lish Mitchell: Welcome to HMH Learning Moments, a production of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. I'm Lish Mitchell, and I work at HMH. Today's episode is a new installment of our Teachers in America series, hosted by HMH's Director of Community Engagement, Noelle Morris.

Karl Grubaugh is a former AP economics teacher and advanced journalism advisor at Granite Bay High School, part of the Roseville Joint Union High School District in California. In 2020, Karl retired after almost 40 years as an educator and over 30 years in the journalism business. The student newspaper that he advised, The Granite Bay Gazette, has been inducted into the high school journalism Hall of Fame and is the recipient of numerous awards, including The Pacemaker, Quill and Scroll, and Gold Crown.

An experienced reporter writer and editor, Karl was named the 2008 National High School Journalism Teacher of the Year by the Dow Jones News Fund and continues to mentor young educators today. Now, here's Noelle and Karl.

Noelle Morris: Hi, Mr. Grubaugh, how are you? I'm so glad that you're doing this podcast with us as you wrap up your career as a teacher in America. First of all, I need to tell all of our listeners that you are the teacher of one of my colleagues who's actually part of the production team of this podcast.

So, Karl, tell us a little bit about yourself.

Karl Grubaugh: Thanks, Noelle. I'm Karl Grubaugh. I've just finished up teaching almost 40 years on the K-12 and college levels. I've been doing journalism for about 20 years. I have a social science credential because I used to teach U.S history and world history, but I became an economics guy pretty early in my career. And I've been doing Advanced Placement economics for the last decade or so.

NM: What was it like to retire during a pandemic?

KG: It was unusual, of course. I don't know how many times you have used or heard the word "unprecedented" in the last three or four months, but it was unprecedented and it's not what I signed up for.

I mean, you have this vision of being recognized for almost four decades of work. I had spent my career in the classroom, and our school district does a nice job of recognizing teachers, but all that blew up. Of course, there were some Zoom gatherings with faculty members and that was lovely.

People sent me messages and my departmental colleagues showed up at my front door one morning in a session that was put together by my wife. They had a gift, a Japanese maple tree, that's now growing in my yard. That was wonderful and pretty emotional, but it was just weird. It was odd and not what I thought it was going to be, but I was way more upset for what happened to my students, for seniors in particular.

I teach mostly seniors—all seniors in economics, and about 70% seniors in my journalism class. You only get one high school graduation. You only get one chance to experience all of the things that happen in the spring of your senior year of high school. And all those things went away.

Senior Ball, spring sports, the excitement of finishing AP exams, graduation practice, senior breakfast, and graduation itself. We did our best to replace some of these events. We did a drive-through graduation, like lots of schools across the country, and I've been through 35, almost 40, high school graduations myself.

Missing one end-of-year for me was disappointing, and going into retirement that way was weird, but I felt way worse for high school seniors who only get one shot and it pretty dramatically changed.

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A recent spread from the Granite Bay Gazette.

NM: How did you move beyond your own disappointment to help the seniors figure out how they were still going to have that senior moment with a senior edition of the newspaper?

KG: That was an amazing little stretch. We have a budget; we produce a print version of the newspaper as well as an online version. We had planned to attend a national convention in New York City in March with 16 students and then New York City essentially shut down.

So the trip was canceled and we were out thousands of dollars, or waiting on potential refunds for thousands of dollars. Then we switched to distance learning and my journalism kids were publishing stories online, but we lost one print edition. My students really, really wanted to do a final print senior edition.

A senior edition is a tradition in our program. They have some stories that run, they do a map of where kids are headed in the future, and all kinds of things that are the norm for a print senior edition. I had to tell them, unfortunately, we don't have any money.

We were down to pennies left in our account. All of this money had gone out and it may or may not ever come back. A sophomore said, "Why don't we do a GoFundMe?" I told them to go for it. So she set it up and shared it with me. It had $5 in it.

Somebody made a $5 donation. I was going to share it on my own social media, Facebook and Twitter. I thought if I'm going to ask people to donate, then I need to make a donation. So I donated $100 to the fundraising effort to generate enough money to print this final edition of the paper.

Then I posted it on my Facebook and Twitter accounts. It took off! I spent the next two days alternately cheering and sobbing. I watched people from all of my different worlds—from my professional journalism world, teaching colleagues, retired colleagues, students, former students, parents of students, parents of former students—show up. We raised almost $5,000.

That was enough to put together the senior edition, print it, and mail it. We usually distribute the newspaper on campus. Well, nobody's on campus. So we had to have enough revenue to mail it out to every household. And we got enough money to do that and my students pulled the content together.

Usually, something is happening over a series of days in class. It's a process where it's happening in front of a computer, but we're doing it all together in front of computers in the same room. So it was in bedrooms and it was in living rooms and it was in my living room and back and forth messaging with different tools.

My kids had group going on, but it was incredible to see and experience the satisfaction that they got from the effort, even in the midst of a pandemic. They were able to pull it off. I took a tremendous amount of hope in that. Even in the midst of all of these curve balls coming our way, given the opportunity, and a little bit of inspiration, and a little bit of support in terms of finances from folks, these kids pulled it off.

It helped me go out the door feeling like, “Nobody signed up for this, but I think we're going to be okay.”

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The senior edition of the Granite Bay Gazette is included in the final issue of the year, and sports a map of where graduates plan to attend college.

NM: Having spent over 40 years in the journalism profession, how do you think the career of journalism has changed and how do you think it is going to keep changing?

KG: I think anybody who's a consumer of the media, and especially traditional legacy print media, has seen a tremendous shift in the last 10 or 15 years. The first glimpse came years ago when Craigslist shows up and starts taking away classified advertising from traditional print newspapers.

That was the beginning of the process. And then the whole online journalism world exploded. Legacy media has struggled to make sense of that. They used to do a ton of freelance work on the side for Sacramento Bee, which is a McClatchy paper, and then McClatchy declared bankruptcy and was purchased out of the bankruptcy process by a hedge fund.

We don't know yet what that's going to mean for McClatchy journalism, but it's going to be different. And much of journalism, print journalism, has changed. But I think what hasn't changed, and what I try to emphasize with students, is that you have to be more nimble. You have to have a broader skill set.

You can't just be a word guy. You can't just be a video person. You have to be able to do a little bit of everything. You have to be able to record interviews, throw together a podcast, put together a slideshow, be able to do a little bit of the backend on a website. You have to be able to write clearly and coherently.

You have to be able to speak clearly and coherently. A journalist used to be able to be a little bit more narrowly focused, and I think that's changed for people who still have some interest in going into journalism. You have to be more broadly based. The fact is that most of my students don't end up as journalists.

I've had a handful of students end up in the print world and a couple in the broadcast world, but not a huge number. They've got skills and those skills have broadened over the past 15 to 20 years. They get a little taste of journalism in high school and then they move on.

Lots of my students do go on to work for their college newspapers. I've got lots of students who've worked at UC Berkeley’s The Daily Californian, UCLA’s The Daily Bruin, and at other school newspapers around the country. They may not end up in journalism as a profession, but they've got a skill set that's going to serve them no matter what they do.

Most importantly, they're better citizens. They understand the role of the First Amendment. They understand media literacy. How do you check the facts? How do you check background? What's gone into the content that people are consuming? I think that's critical these days. There's lots of misinformation and lots of disinformation out there. While journalism has changed, the heartbeat of journalism is about truth—making sure what's true and what's not, whether you're a consumer of journalism or a producer of it.

The ease of consumption and the means of production have changed and skillsets are broadening, but the heartbeat of journalism is still what it's always been.

NM: Two months from now, you decide, “I appreciate retirement, but I've been asked by my district to be a mentor for someone new to teaching.” We know that not many teachers are staying in the profession for 40 years. The new trend is for teachers to remain three to five years and then they move on. If you were asked to mentor a new teacher, what advice would you have about how to build relationships with students?

KG: That's a heartbeat question in a lot of ways, because the relationships in classrooms are what make things happen. The magic that occurs in classrooms is because of the teacher and the teacher's ability to connect in a positive way with students.

It's not about content divorced from those relationships. I am a mentor with the Journalism Education Association (JEA), which represents journalism teachers. I've got two mentees at this point. The challenge is, how do you establish relationships on a screen? That's the short-term challenge for teachers across the country on top of all of the absolutely legitimate concern about the virus and health issues. Assuming that's not a problem, take that and set that on the shelf, how do you establish relationships with young people when they're an image on a screen and so are you?

I think that's the challenge. I think that's the hard part. I've seen teachers come up with creative ways to engage kids online using Kahoot! online quiz activities and icebreaker style questions to make sure the relationship piece isn't lost. I think the relationship piece is most important.

I try to treat young adults, young men and women, as young adults. They're still students, but they're figuring out their way. Give them responsibility, guide them, have conversations, coach them as needed, praise them publicly and give them constructive criticism privately. Make sure we all know what the goal is: go out and do good journalism.

And then let them go; let them run. Point them in the right direction as needed. Students respond positively to being treated like responsible young adults and being respected as responsible young adults.

That's what I would tell a young teacher. You make a mistake if you err on the side of content, as opposed to erring on the side of relationships. Those positive relationships allow you to get to the content, allow you to get to the curriculum. But if you focus strictly on the curriculum and you ignore the relationship side of it, I think you'll be less successful.

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One of Karl's own bylines from the Sacramento Bee.

NM: I think it's important for teachers to understand what their students may have faced during the pandemic, that they possibly had to work and support family members. Do you think that's important to advise teachers on the right way to be aware, but not pry?

KG: That's a delicate dance because digging too much into students' personal stories can make them uncomfortable. But if you don't acknowledge the trauma that some kids have experienced, and continue to experience as a result of the pandemic, that's a mistake on the other end of the spectrum.

Students should know that you understand that we all have a story. We all have some challenges that we're dealing with. They should know that you're willing and able to know who they are, but you're not going to unnecessarily pry. You're willing to listen and try to understand as we go forward in terms of the content, the curriculum.

The best teachers have this natural ability to guide that process in a way that brings most students along. And this latest challenge, the virus and how teachers are responding to it, the fact that a lot of teaching is happening on screen, is another example of how that delicate dance is going to occur.

NM: Part of our personality is just wanting to do the best, not necessarily be the best, but do our best because we really do want every student to succeed. We're in a new phase of education where we have to learn and sometimes make mistakes and keep getting better.

I'm sure you’ve had a student who may have been using a source that was biased or filled with misinformation. How have you worked your way through that conversation?

KG: Most of the stories that I had students write took on sensitive topics. We took on issues that affected students. They weren't always the kinds of issues that adults wanted in a high school newspaper. But with the basic reporting of stories, we rarely had that kind of an issue. We did occasionally have that kind of an issue with opinion pieces.

Three or four years ago, a student wrote an opinion piece and one of his primary pieces of evidence came from Breitbart. I had to have a little conversation with the student privately. My approach was, ‘Hey, let's talk about how reliable Breitbart is as a source.’ I got some resistance at first.

My method for working with students is to praise publicly, but let's keep constructive criticism conversations as private as we can. So, I pulled the kid aside and we had a conversation. I found a chart on the web about media reliability and showed that to them and said, “You may be perfectly content with Breitbart, but we're a general interest newspaper, and we need to cite sources that fall more into the middle of the media bias spectrum, and Breitbart's not there. Find another source that supports the position you're trying to take. But we're going to look for more generally centrist, if you will, more reliable, less-biased sources.”

And then I had a broad teaching moment with all the students. I tried to be careful not to throw this kid under the bus, but still get my message across in a quick little mini lesson on media bias. The message: Don't go out there on the extremes. Bring it back to the middle, as in the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal. Leans a little left, leans a little right, but not on the extremes. That's where we need to be.

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A wall of awards in the journalism classroom.

NM: I heard you say, ‘Praise publicly. Provide

constructive feedback privately.’ Transition that into a teachable

moment for the class, but allow students to speak about how they will

take that instruction and move it into their practice.

Did I get that teaching cycle straight? Because I really liked that.

KG: That's kind of how I tried to roll it. You made it sound awfully professional. I think we should publish this.

NM: It's how my brain rolls, Karl. There are teachable hooks that, in the right order and place, are the steps to making teaching effortless.

Do you mind sharing your school newspaper name and did you help decide that, or was that already in place when you became a teacher?

KG: I came to Granite Bay High School, in the suburban Sacramento area, in the fall of 1998. It was a nearly brand new high school. The newspaper had only been around for half the year. It was just getting started. And it was originally called the Grizzly Gazette.

And I came in and I went to the students and I said, “Hey, I'm just going to throw this out there. What do you guys think? How about we tighten up the name? I want us to be seen a bit more seriously than the Grizzly Gazette would necessarily generate. How about if we're just The Gazette and we'll go with a broad sheet format?” They'd been a tabloid format, and I just pitched it and didn't mandate it.

I just threw it out there and they agreed. They said, “Okay, let's do that. We'll be The Gazette. The Granite Bay Gazette." We have lots of renditions of a web presence over the years, but about seven or eight years ago, a colleague of mine who was teaching intro journalism took the lead on this. We bought the web domain granitebaytoday.org.

And granitebaytoday.org became our umbrella website for all things journalism produced by students at Granite Bay. There's video content that's supervised by the broadcast teacher. There's some yearbook content photography that's supervised by the yearbook teacher. Tons of print content, stories, photos, et cetera, that I'm supervising and advising students on.

And all of that ends up under one big umbrella: granitebaytoday.org. So, it's The Granite Bay Gazette and granitebaytoday.org.

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The quad at Granite Bay High School, along with a row of classrooms.

NM: Thinking of the moments in the classroom, how did you coach students to make their own decisions, versus you stepping in and saying, “This is how it's going to be.”

KG: The youngest writers, the rookies, I work with them more. But as they get further along and gain more experience, I back off. Then they're working with other students, editors are working with students.

Some of that can be replicated in a socially-distant classroom scenario in which kids are sitting in their bedrooms. They can use tools to replicate that. I haven't done it enough, nobody's done it enough, to figure out all of the challenges that's going to generate.

And there will certainly be some. But again, I think that it’s important to give kids some experience, give kids some tools, teach them some basics, and then walk away, and let them practice and let them lead. Let them guide the show. They used to do a lot of what I called "managing by walking around" and I just wander around and look over shoulders. And sometimes, I’ll say, "Hey, here's a thought about this design." And "Oh gosh. What about that picture? Maybe we can crop that a little differently."

And I'd look at a lead of a story and kids would ask me, "Hey, have you got an idea for a headline?" And I'd toss an idea. So I did a lot of that managing by walking around. Now, I would have to figure out how do I manage by walking around electronically? How do I dip into documents and dip into Google docs? How do kids seek input when they're ready for it? I don't have all the answers by any stretch of the imagination, but I have a ton of journalism teacher friends across the country and they're some of the brightest, most talented people I've ever met. And I can tell you, they will figure it out.

NM: I agree. I think teachers are going to figure it out. Innovative teachers learning from their students—that is really going to propel our profession forward. We just have to figure out our own new teaching moves.

So, when it comes to being a rookie or a young writer, describe to me what you have learned about your students understanding the value of their voice.

KG: The byline is an amazingly significant psychological incentive for students. I sometimes forget that because I've been a freelance writer and I've got hundreds of bylines. I forget about what the first one felt like.

But every time we do a newspaper at the beginning of the school year, I see the anticipation that students have to see their name in print, to see their byline in a printed newspaper for the very first time. They are so excited. I've literally seen kids shaking with anticipation when they walk into my classroom.

They see these stacks of 2,000 copies of the newspaper that we're about to distribute on campus and they go running over and pull one out. And the first thing they do is open it and find their story. And every time I see that at the beginning of the school year, I'm reminded that kids have a voice and they want a chance to express it. They want a chance to show that they have something to say. They have something to contribute. The journalism program, for me, was about helping kids have that wider voice.

A high school is an interesting community because the high school students, many of them are doing lots of things. They're athletes, and they're in the band, and they're in speech and debate, and they're on the newspaper staff. But there are some kids who only have one thing, and almost all kids have something that's their main thing. But I would get a batch of kids in journalism, where journalism was their main thing or their only thing.

And the journalism classroom and the students in there became their tribe. It became the group they connected with. Students need to have that connection. They need to be able to find their tribe to really allow that high school experience to be all that it can be. And over and over again, students talked about that in their thank-you notes. That is one of the joys of my life, reading thank-you notes from kids at the end of the school year.

And lots of students referenced that they've felt like journalism was home. They felt like my classroom, 514 at Granite Bay High School, was the place that they could come to find their people, their tribe. I love that. I love that I was able to be a host for people who found their home, if you will, for a term or a year or a couple of years or longer. It was a joy to be a part of that process.

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Welcome to Room 514.

NM: So room 514 is where you learned that you have a wider voice. Karl, I ask all teachers I meet and become friends with, “What's your walkup song?” If I were listening to music as you're walking down the hallway about to go into your classroom, what song do I do hear playing?

KG: The first day of schools is a really exciting day. Nothing's happened yet, but there's lots of anticipation. Kids are excited. They're also kind of trying to read the tea leaves. What's this going to be like? Who's this going to be? It's page one of the novel. And they don't know what's coming. And so one of the things I used to do is I would stand up and I would give them a simple, super goofy, little dance step, like shake your left hand, shake your right.

And then I would put this song on that they didn't know was coming. We would do this little first-day-of-school dance to the Pointer Sisters’ "I'm So Excited." I would put that on because I'm so excited because it's the first day of school. It was totally goofy.

They all did it, because it's the first day of school. Teachers can get students to do almost anything on the first day of school. Here comes the Pointer Sisters’ “I'm So Excited.” Grubaugh leads them through this little dance routine, and that launched the school year. So I'm going to make “I’m So Excited” my walkup song.

NM: I'm so excited that you had a response and did not even have to pause! What I'm taking away from my conversation with you, Karl, is I would have loved to have had you as a teacher. You might have been coaching and teaching on the sideline, but you were definitely not on the sideline. You knew when to run into the center of the classroom.

And I am so glad that I had this conversation with you and I'm learning. And I know our listeners have learned a lot. Most importantly, I hope you have an amazing retirement. And that gets to be whatever you want it to be. Thank you for your time and education and the students that you helped raise to be citizens today and who are contributing to the world. Thank you so much.

KG: Thanks.

NM: Thanks for listening to this episode. You don't stay in teaching for 40 years unless you love it. The moment you decide to retire, knowing you're going to miss it, and it's a pandemic, so you don't get all the celebration that you wanted or expected. But what I liked about what Karl did is he went back to his notes and the thank-you letters that his former students wrote him. Those letters and those notes meant something to him.

The power of a letter is a gift that keeps on giving. I encourage all of us to think about a letter that you want to write. Go back into your teacher box of why you teach. Find a previous message from one of your students to propel you forward and be an essential part of your heart for the rest of the school year. Until the next episode, your friend, Noelle.

Lish: If you’d like to be a guest on the Learning Moments: Teachers in America podcast, please email us at shaped@hmhco.com. Be the first to hear new episodes of Learning Moments by subscribing on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen to your podcasts.

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