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Local Journalism Teacher Awarded National Pioneer Award Along With Three Others

Local Journalism Teacher Awarded National Pioneer Award Along With Three Others

Just before Thomas Jefferson High School for Science & Technology journalism teacher Erinn Harris turned off her computer and email on November 2nd, she checked it one last time. And she was glad she did.

An email from National Scholastic Press Association Executive Director Laura Widmer sat in her inbox indicating that Harris had been nominated and selected as a 2020 Pioneer Award recipient along with three other teachers: Kristi Rathbun (Highlands Ranch, CO), Ray Westbrook (Dallas, TX), and Chris Waugaman (Prince George, VA).

(Left to Right) Erinn Harris, Kristi Rathbun, Chris Waugaman and Ray Westbrook.

The Pioneer award is given to journalism educators that make an outstanding impact in their field. This is the highest honor that a journalism educator can receive through the NSPA. Harris teaches broadcast, journalism, and photojournalism at TJHSS&T in Alexandria, Virginia, and advises TJ Media.

“I had no idea, at all, that I had even been nominated. It was a really great surprise on a weeknight,” Harris said.

Although she teaches multiple different journalism courses, there is one similarity that Harris enjoys.

“I love working with students to create an authentic product,” Erinn Harris said. “It is always fun to work with them to brainstorm ideas and to come up with new stories and different ways to tell the stories. I love it because every day is different and that keeps it exciting.”

Harris wants her students to remember some key lessons after departing her media classroom. 

“I hope that [the students] leave my classes, no matter which of the publications they were in, with an understanding that even if they don’t want to go into journalism, all of the skills that they have been practicing and I have taught them are transferable,” Harris said. “I also want them to leave with the importance of media literacy, verifying sources, and making sure that you are actually doing the reading and taking into consideration various sources before you make your own informed decision. I think now more than ever that the media literacy component is something that I really want students to leave with. Just the idea that you shouldn’t believe every clickbait headline you see on the internet.”

Closer to home, Prince George High School journalism teacher Chris Waugaman advises, the broadcast PGTV NEWS, the high schools literary magazine Etcetera, the yearbook Peerage, and the newspaper Royal News. 

“There is something very special about working with journalism students,” Waugaman said. “No other group values the ideals of truth, accountability and empathy like journalism students. It may be labeled as a class where you are required to give grades for work, but honestly I think that is the last thing on the minds of a majority of my students. It is an honor to bear the responsibility of being their advise.”

Once he got a job at Prince George, he decided to create the Royal News newspaper. This came from his college experience.

“In college, I first witnessed how a student newspaper could create a sense of community by telling the stories of its members,” Waugaman said. “I got a real sense of how important local reporting is to a campus. When I began teaching, I knew a student produced newspaper could have a strong impact on a school like Prince George HS.” 

Waugaman also has a hope for the students that go through his classes. 

“I hope [my students] understand that everyone has a unique story to tell and that sometimes the most important thing you can do is to just listen,” Waugaman said.

All four recipients will be honored at a future NSPA/JEA National Journalism Convention. This past fall the scheduled convention held in Orlando moved online to be hosted virtually. The hope is that the Pioneer winners will be celebrated either in November 2021 in Philadelphia, PA, or in April 2022 in Los Angeles, CA.

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