Tonawanda News

October 3, 2013

KEPPELER: Learning on the 'job'

The Tonawanda News

Tonawanda News — I’m a fan of education.

I suppose that’s a given. After all, is anyone really a fan of ignorance? (Wait. Don’t answer that.) But I’ve always enjoyed the process of education itself. I loved elementary and (to a lesser extent) high school. I’d be the perpetual college student if that was possible, happily taking class after class in language, literature, history — just about anything, really. Heck, just let me take various non-college classes in the arts, etc., and I’ll be a happy woman. I hope to someday have the time for that.

I learned a lot in the classroom, both in my earlier years (I recently stunned my 5-year-old by singing him a song I’d learned in kindergarten) and college (St. Bonaventure, ‘97). It would be a betrayal of the dozens of excellent teachers from whom I’ve learned over the years to deny that. And I don’t want to downplay their role.

But when I look back, the places where I learned the most, the places that prepared me the best for what it would really be like to walk out the classroom door and into a working newsroom, weren’t classrooms. They were my college newspaper and the internship I served during that time.

In college, we actually did Associated Press style drills, quizzes designed to impress those basic rules of journalism into our writing and make them second nature. But in the old BV newsroom on the bottom floor of the Reilly Center, I learned to read copy (and write copy) with an eye for those rules while distracted, exhausted and all-too-cognizant of looming deadlines.

Now that? That makes an impression.

I wrote stories for class. But those stories were due by such-and-such a date, or maybe the next class if things were tight. At the paper, I had evenings where I’d go flying out the door hours before deadline with a notepad and pen in hand because the freshman slated to write the week’s centerpiece had been too under the weather to finish the story. 

I learned how to deal with people would didn’t like the paper, and extended that dislike to me. I learned how to pretend I wasn’t shy, and talk to just about anyone. I learned how to fill a section (lifestyles, in my case) from the work of a motley group of volunteers. I learned to find ideas just about anywhere. I learned how to take criticism when all that (purely volunteer) work still resulted in harsh words at the weekly critique session after the paper hit the stands.

I learned to love coffee. Oh, how I learned to love coffee.

In other words, I learned about what I’d actually need to walk away from college graduation and into a newsroom not long after, and be able to hit the ground running.

I’ve written before that I’d like to see more practical training opportunities in our education system, and more support for the ones we already have. And this is why.

That doesn’t mean we skimp on the classroom learning. (Heaven knows you still need all the background.) But if students had a chance to have this sort of experience at an earlier level, how much more prepared would they be to hit college or the workforce? And just maybe they’d know for sure that they wanted to get into a certain field before ponying up the obscene amounts of money that go into a college degree these days.

It’s happening now. At North Tonawanda High School last week, I spoke to students of the Academy of Engineering and Architecture who just completed summer internships at a local company, getting a feel for what their future holds and what it’s like to turn what they’re learning now into a living.

Some of them came away from the experience positive they were choosing the right path. Some decided it wasn’t for them. But now, after all, is the time to make that decision. 

I didn’t get that up-close look until college, but at least I got it. They’re getting it now.

In this day and age of testing and statistics and more testing, this is something that actually makes sense.

Jill Keppeler is a writer for the Tonawanda News. She can be reached at

Jill Keppeler is a writer for the Tonawanda News. She can be reached at