'My Role Is To Figure Out What The Modern Student-Teacher Relationship Sounds Like'

Apr 28, 2014

Will Michaels talks with a class at Riverside High School in Durham
Credit Muhammad Abdur-Rauf

A North Carolina Public Radio producer, Will Michaels, is traveling the state for a project called "My Teacher." He's helping students interview a special teacher. The students come up with the questions and conduct the interview. Will records the interviews and edits them into short audio segments. Many of the interviews are airing on NC Public Radio/WUNC.

Riverside High School senior Cameron McNeill and math teacher/school paper adviser Steven Unruhe
Credit Deirdre Logan

Many of the conversations are extraordinary. Like this one: Cameron McNeill is a senior at Riverside High School in Durham, where Steven Unruhe teaches and advises students who write for the school paper.

Cameron and his three siblings have all taken calculus with Mr. Unruhe and they have all been managing editors for the newspaper.  Cameron will be the last of the McNeill children to leave Mr. Unruhe's class, and he talked with his teacher about what it's like to live up to his siblings' legacies.

Northern High School sophomore Christina Dixon and Erica Walker-Joines

Or this one: Northern High School sophomore Christina Dixon entered Erica Walker-Joynes' exceptional children's class last year because she was deemed to be at risk for dropping out when she got to high school.

But Christina found her niche in slam poetry club with Ms. Walker-Joynes. Christina had a chance to say to her teacher, "I met you and everything changed. I don't have to be bad all the time and get in trouble with the police. I can actually do something with my life."

Will MIchaels presents to a journalism class at Riverside High School in Durham, NC. January 2014
Credit Muhammad Abdur-Rauf

When Will Michaels visited Chapel Hill High School, student reporter Frances Reuland asked Will to reflect on the project thus far. Here's what he said:

What are your goals for the project?

'I think my role is to bring those discussions down to the classroom level and figure out what the modern student-teacher relationship feels and sounds like.' - Will Michaels

The Teacher Project includes education policy discussions on the air and multimedia presentations online, which is a broad look at education in the state. I think my role is to bring those discussions down to the classroom level and figure out what the modern student-teacher relationship feels and sounds like.

In every interview I record, I'm always thinking, 'What defines the connection between these two? How does the teacher keep the student's attention in class? Why are the experiences that they've had together the ones that they remember best?'

To be honest, this is the first time I've tackled something like this, where I'm not in total control of the interview. That made me uncomfortable at first. I help out with questions sometimes and encourage the student and the teacher to expand on some topics, but for the most part, I sit back, hold the recorder and listen to what they're saying to each other. The great thing about it has been that it has forced me to go back to the basics of journalism - how to interview someone, what to listen for during an interview, how to break that down into a clear and concise story - and condense that into a crash course for high school students.

So I'd say my main goals are to show North Carolina what defines an effective or ineffective relationship between students and teachers and let listeners hear students find out something new about their teachers. The last one that has evolved as I've done this is to teach high school students a least a little bit about how to talk to a newsmaker about something that matters to all of us. That's the heart of journalism.
What do you hope listeners will gain through listening to the teacher stories on the radio?

I hope they will hear students learn something new about their teachers. I hope they will be surprised about how close some of them are with each other. By the end of each segment, I hope they're reminded about teachers of their own that stand out to them. I think it's important for them to hear that even though the way teachers are connecting with students has changed over the years, teachers are still changing students' lives.

What do you hope teachers and students will gain through sharing their stories?

I've already seen how much a quick conversation means to teachers and students. Every teacher has said the greatest reward has been to see how much their students have grown. It means even more to them when a student is aware of that change and credits it to them. The students and teachers have also been delighted and surprised to learn more about each other, so the fulfillment goes to an even higher step when both of them find out that they've changed each other in ways they'd never thought of before.

'Every time I record an interview, vivid memories come back of great teachers I've had all way from kindergarten to senior year.' - Will Michaels

I've also gained a lot. Every time I record an interview, vivid memories come back of great teachers I've had all way from kindergarten to senior year. Before this project is over, I've decided I need to go see them or at least give them a call. I have a new appreciation for not just the subjects they taught me, but the life skills they gave me, like standing up for myself or realizing that doing what I love is more important than making a ton of money. I mentioned before that I'm not really in control of the interview, which is uncomfortable as a journalist, but I get to experience every connection vicariously - and they're all absolutely different - which is amazing.

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My Teacher is part of the station's North Carolina Teacher Project, which is a yearlong look at what it's like to be a teacher in North Carolina right now.