It's about opening doors

April 12, 2002

Lis Howell had a lot to learn when she went from a career in the media to lecturing in journalism, and her management experience did little to prepare her.

It was a closing door that brought it home to me. I had always flattered myself that I was an accessible manager. I was senior vice-president of a media company with 400 staff.

Two years later, as a visiting lecturer in broadcast journalism at City University, I had to rethink. One morning I was left with a cup of coffee running down my front and sheaves of paper all over the floor. About 30 undergraduates had just ploughed through the door ahead of me, and boom, the door hit me smack in the chest.

I was in shock. In all those years in management, someone had always opened the door for me because everyone knew who I was. Employees were always ready to open the door, hold the lift, find me a table. Not so in college. And why should they? Who did I think I was?

If you start teaching after a career in industry or the media, the hardest thing is re-evaluating yourself. In my case, 20 postgraduates were staring at me as if to say, "What right have you got to tell me anything?" Well, I was a senior vice-presidentI no, that won't do. I won an award for covering the Lockerbie bombingI when they were seven. OK, what about my time as a war correspondent in the GulfI but that's not Afghanistan, is it?

I felt nothing gave me credibility until I remembered that I knew Richard and Judy. I knew it was shabby, but I fell back on anecdotes about Anne Diamond and Nick Owen, GMTV and This Morning. This generation was brought up on TVam and The Time and The Place. Those shows reminded them of home and childhood. By the most spurious of means, I found respect.

Yes, I felt a little guilty - but hey, anything was better than not being able to justify being there. It took me a month to realise that I didn't have to impress them, I just had to teach. But that wasn't easy either.

However much you plan, you get the most basic things wrong. You find yourself getting worked up because these people of 22, who have never been in a TV studio, don't know what you mean when you yell: "Can't you see that's a jump cut, and what about your stand-up?" Of course they won't know if you don't tell them. Slowly you work out ways to explain things that have been obvious to you for 25 years.

And just when it starts to work, there is the next pitfall. Having got yourself through a huge learning curve, you start to treat your students like special colleagues. You forget that you are the teacher and they the pupils. You start to feel that the classroom is one of those ghastly team-building exercises out in the woods. You have this terrible need to bond with them, to confide that you are only one step ahead in the textbook. Don't do it. These are your pupils, not your pals. They don't want to know about your angst.

Teaching isn't management. It isn't task-oriented like management is. Teaching is about individual achievement, not team effort. We might make a programme or a film and succeed together. But it is worthless if everyone hasn't learnt roughly the same thing. Nothing could be more different from management, where every member of a department does something different, and it all adds up to a whole. Here, everyone must do the same thing, and if you haven't taught them all to be equally proficient, you've failed.

And then comes the moment when one of the students gets a job, pulls off a scoop or just catches on, and it has all been worthwhile, even having the door slammed in your face. Because the biggest achievement is realising that this time round, it is about opening doors for them, not having doors opened for you.

Lis Howell is visiting lecturer in broadcast journalism at City University, London.

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