While every high school student learns reading comprehension, how to solve a geometry problem and that the mitochondria is the powerhouse of the cell, students also have the opportunity to widen their horizons and take courses which fit their interests.
And for those who take one of Tom White’s digital media courses at Morgan County High School, the students turn those interests into skills useful for a profession.
White’s efforts paid off when he received the 2019 Trade and Industrial Educators of Georgia Teacher of the Year Award. He applied for it after he was nominated by his coworkers.
“It’s always special when it’s people you know who put you in that position and vote for you,” White said.
Although he’s found a love for teaching, it is not what White intended to do. After studying medicine in High Point, North Carolina, he began his career in radio, primarily in online content and marketing for Clear Channel Radio -- now known as iHeart Radio -- in Atlanta.
After spending time in radio, White needed a way out. He grew up in Covington and said he’d never go back after he left for the first time; however, he moved back in 2011 and began his teaching career at Rockdale Career Academy in Conyers.
“I fell in love with it,” White said. “I get to do, on a daily basis, what some people dream about. I sit around all day and make videos with kids; I mean, how bad can it be?”
After teaching his students how to edit, design and produce during the first three months of a course, White said he goes from “teacher to coach” during the last month of his courses. By the final month, his expectation is that students know what they’re doing and mostly run the course with little instruction needed.
But as every teacher knows, the rewarding aspect of the job also comes with its challenges.
White teaches courses for students at different levels in digital media, video and animation, where one course typically builds off of the previous one. For him, he said the hardest part of teaching is balancing his expectations with his students’ expectations.
“My class is professional, for lack of a better word,” White said. “Some kids’ expectations are that on day one they’re going to have the best camera, and they’re going to make the next Marvel feature. They learn very quickly that that’s not how it goes.”
White expects a lot from his students, but the rigorous expectations pay off. His program won “2019 Best New Program” from the National Federation of State High School Associations Network for the program’s success during their first year. The program also received a “Highlight of the Year” from the NFHS Network.
“When it comes to education, often in these courses, mediocrity is accepted. That bugs me, and I don’t do mediocrity well,” White said. “My class is a little tougher, and I want them to be on a different level than their peers in the surrounding counties or really on the national level.”
White partners with the University of Georgia’s Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication Sports Media Certificate program, allowing college students to practice their skills and high school students to learn alongside college students. The college students “provide play-by-play in color,” a sideline reporter, producers and two professors every game.
The partnership helps students at both the high school and college levels create an “overall production you’d expect from a major production, but at a high school level” in Morgan County.
At the end of the day, White said the best part of teaching is the relationships he builds, where he’s able to see the success of his students after they graduate.