Reporter’s Notebook: My Journalism Teacher, Her Journey and Mine
CAMBRIDGE -- Have you ever met someone in your life that made a profound influence on you? Maybe it was a friend or family member? For me, it was my high school journalism teacher, Mrs. Mary Grundhoefer. I can count maybe five outstanding teachers that I've had the privilege to sit in their classroom (including college) and Grundhoefer is no doubt the best of the best.
I can honestly say I would not be sitting here writing this story today if it wasn't for her dedication to my education. Nearly ten years ago, I walked into room 147 at Cambridge-Isanti High School to get my first-ever lesson in journalistic writing. The lessons I learned in the class I carry with me every day as a professional journalist. At the time I didn't realize the class would have such an impact on me.
Grundhoefer helped me write part of my own life's story so it's only fair that I help return the favor. She will be retiring after 17 years of teaching next month and I decided I couldn't let this teacher, who is beloved by many, go into her retirement years without sharing part of her legacy. I went back to my old stomping grounds to do the interview and as I walked to Grundhoefer's classroom I felt so tall, accomplished and genuinely happy with where I am in my life. CIHS no longer felt like such an intimidating place but rather a sanctuary depicting my past.
As I sat down at a nearby desk, I pulled my recorder out of my bag and realized it wasn't many moons ago that I sat in the very room and learned my first lesson in journalism, give a voice to those who are not being heard. And that's exactly what I was about to do, not often do we hear stories of how an inspirational teacher became an inspirational teacher.
Grundhoefer went to college right out of high school. She went to the University of Minnesota and got her bachelor's degree in English. After graduating she worked at a national radio representative firm in the Twin Cities. She later got married and started a family. About four years after her son was born her husband died of cancer. This seemed to be a turning point in her life. Grundhoefer says she decided to take a new direction with her career, she decided to go into teaching.
"After he passed away, a year later I wanted to go back into the workforce. I wanted to be a teacher because I volunteered at my son's school. I loved the energy of the school, I just loved it and I thought this is what I should be doing. So I went back and got my teaching license from Augsburg (University)."
Grundhoefer started off working at the Alternative Learning Center in the Cambridge-Isanti School District and eventually moved to the high school to work in the English department. Some of her notable classes from year's past include Journalistic Writing, Academic Writing and Media Studies. I was a student of all of the above.
Over her nearly two-decade-long career, Grundhoefer says not much has changed. Technology would be the most significant change, which she says has posed challenges. Passing notes in class have turned into texting on a cell phone and it's been harder for students to stay focused in class. She says overall though kids haven't changed, they still have the same needs.
"When you're a teacher and you see something positive in a student and you say it, you nurture it, it goes really well. Kids respond to that, they have the same kinds of needs I think. They just need someone to care about them, believe in them and teach them something. When all of that goes well it's really wonderful."
Other than technology, some challenges will always be around if you work in a very public job. In the last ten years, Grundhoefer has lost nine loved ones and throughout each loss, she says she's tried her best to remain positive for her students.
"A brother, a sister, a father, a mother, a mother-in-law, a nephew, a brother-in-law, a friend, (and husband). Grief is hard, it's exhausting work."
To be able to move through those hurdles, Grundhoefer says she is always looking at her mom for guidance, even though she has passed.
"My mother taught me to keep moving and try to keep being as positive as possible, as much as possible. Sometimes it's really harder than others honestly but she was a really good role model."
As a former student, this ray of positivity shined on her curriculum. It made it different to sit in her class. I compare Grundhoefer's classes to a meeting I sit in every morning at WJON, our news team meeting. Instead of Grundhoefer lecturing a robotic lesson from a book, she sought our opinions and encouraged discussion. Which is what one should expect in a productive team meeting in a workplace.
Without knowing it at the time, she taught me how to engage and share my ideas as a group. This concept seems easy but in a high school setting where you constantly feel the pressures of being a teen, it wasn't a simple task. To be able to have a discussion there had to be something to discuss. Many times, Grundhoefer would put a poem, quote or song lyric on the whiteboard and this would become that discussion topic.
The most memorable lyric discussion I remember was one from her Media Studies course. Grundhoefer wrote the lyrics to "Imagine" by John Lennon on the board. I never thought much about the song, at the time I had heard before but I wouldn't say it was on any of my favorite burned CDs. As many know it's a song intending to depict world peace, something its author was widely known for. Grundhoefer says she used these moments to get students to think about an idea that they otherwise wouldn't think about. Throughout the discussion opinions of the song ranged from positive to negative.
Using music in her classes was a common teaching technique Grundhoefer used and sometimes she just liked to share "new" music with students, such as Beast of Burden by the Rolling Stones.
"It was a song that I played in college when I was in my dorm room. So I would have my windows open in the spring and I would play Beast of Burden really loud. I would play it over and over again, I'm sure I drove people crazy because I played it all the time but I just loved it. I think it captures the freedom and just a fun feeling of spring for me."
In my life, Beast of Burden continues to be an anthem about journalism. Although the song, in my opinion, has nothing to do with the subject. Of course, I had first heard the song in Grundhoefer's class and from then on anytime I had heard the song on the radio I thought of Media Studies and how much I loved the class.
Fast forward to about six years after taking the class, I was arranging my desk on the first day, of my first journalism job out of college. As I'm organizing a song comes over the airwaves, it's Beast of Burden. To me, it was a sign and I thought to myself "Mrs. G would be so proud."
I'm not alone when it comes to former students she's inspired to go after their dreams. Grundhoefer says a couple former students have become journalists, some have become teachers and others writers. She says regardless of where a student lands in their career, she's grateful she was able to play a role.
"I'm really happy when I see people find their way and figure out what they want to do. If I had something to do with that, it makes me feel really happy."
As Grundhoefer switches her focus from students to her retirement years she does have some big plans on the horizon.
"When school is starting here, I will be going to Germany and Paris with my son and his fiance for a ten-day trip, so that's really exciting. Then starting in October, I'll still be working at a school but it's almost like a paid volunteer. I'm going to be working with second graders reading one-on-one, just one at a time."
Grundhoefer will be working at a school closer to the Twin Cities, to be near family and friends.
I'm glad to hear Grundhoefer will still be in a classroom and will be working one-on-one to help students with their reading skills. As a child, I struggled with reading out loud and maybe if more people volunteered, that struggle wouldn't have followed me for so long.
The only sadness I feel is for the students who will never be able to take one of her classes. I can't imagine where I would be if I had chosen a different path.
Mary, no words that I write can ever convey my gratitude or share how much of an impact you've made in my life. I will end it on this note, from the student who once struggled, thank you and enjoy your retirement!