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What I wish they told me before my first year as a journalism adviser

SURVIVE, AND THEN THRIVE

When you’re a first year teacher, everyone has advice. They’ll forward you Rita Pierson TED Talks and inspirational quotes and coupons for Teacher Heaven. You’ll get all of your keys and curricula and maybe even a district-logo tote bag and a copy of whatever book is trending in the education world. (In 2002, my first year, that was Harry Wong’s “The First Days of School”). 

But no one really tells you what’s about to happen, or how to navigate the next year.

I was a 10-year veteran and had just been hired when my principal called me three days before school started to tell me that, in addition to teaching five preps of English, I would also be teaching 38 students in a stacked Yearbook and Newspaper class. Without access to a computer lab. And with two working cameras. 

I thought I knew how to handle it, because I had been a teacher for a long time and I knew how to teach. I did not, it turns out, know how to handle it. Because I had not been an adviser. And that first year, I had to survive before I could thrive.

If you’re a new adviser, here’s my little corner of the internet where I offer you advice I wish I had heard in those first 10 months of what has become the second decade of my career.

COMPARISON IS THE THIEF OF JOY.

When I went to my first summer adviser development workshop, I saw slideshow after slideshow of beautifully crafted books, filled with layouts and photography that rivaled the pros. And I went back to my hotel room and thought, “our books don’t look like these, and I don’t have the skills to teach them to get there.” And I was jealous, and a little defeated. I wanted desperately for my students to attend national conventions and win scholarships for their work. 

I told a trusted colleague about it, and she said this to me:

“You can’t compare your beginning to someone else’s middle.”

And it really struck me. I was seeing the product of decades of work and sacrifice and program building in those slideshows, and I learned in that moment to give myself and my kids some grace as we made our own path.

TAKE CARE OF YOURSELF 

I don’t mean the cliche phrases about pouring from empty cups or awards not being given for staying late. I mean actually leaving as much of work at work as possible, and delegating tasks to your student editors/leaders and remembering that the school will still be standing if you don’t go to that volleyball game and take photos. Create a space in your classroom for yourself. Bring your Keurig to make some coffee, keep comfy slippers stashed under your desk, stock your cabinet with snacks to get through the hangries. 

GET INVOLVED

Join your state journalism organizations. Local reps can help you connect with other advisers if you are the only one in your district. They offer so many opportunities for formal professional development in conferences and conventions and workshops, but also they can be a shoulder to cry on, a listening ear, a rallying force when you face adversity. So much can be learned just from sitting around at a happy hour or brunch table listening to others tell stories and laughing.

If you like social media, join an adviser Facebook group. Plug into the JEA listserv and seek out the advice, wisdom, experiences and stories of other advisers and staffs. 

LET THEM SPEAK

Most of the time when parents email you a 5-paragraph essay complaint, they just want to be heard. So let them speak – on the phone. An email power struggle can easily turn defensive and accusatory. So reply to their five paragraphs with two sentences, “I’ve received your email, and I’d be happy to discuss via phone. Please give me a number I can call so we can discuss your concern.”

And then if they take the call, let them speak (that does not mean yell or curse – that’s the end of that conversation and refer to an admin).

Restate what you heard them say, ask for clarification if needed and then ask them how they’d envision resolving the issue, and have an idea in mind to offer as a solution. 

EMPOWER THE KIDS

It is their book. Yes, your name is on it too. But if it’s really a classroom laboratory experience, a small business, a hands-on learning environment, then we have to step back and let them step up. Give the students the space to lead, to try, and to fail.

We talk about “failing forward” in our staff meetings – meaning learning from our failures and doing better next time. Some of the kids have never experienced this atmosphere, or worked with a team, or been relied upon to produce an actual product. It’s a learning curve for them, but if you build a community with team building, bonding, games and traditions, and give them the space to be creative, they will do amazing things.

CHANGE A FEW THINGS AT A TIME

When you’re the “new guy,” it’s hard for students to grow trust in you and your vision for their staff and the goals of the program if you come in and change everything they’ve ever known. Ask them what they liked and treasured about the year before, and ask them what they want to change and why.

Keep what works, and introduce new ways to do things that can make the staff more effective, and always explain why you’re changing something. The kids are invested in the program, and that investment means they have some say-so in the way it operates, within reason.

SEEK CRITICISM AND USE IT TO YOUR ADVANTAGE

I was absolutely terrified to submit our book to critique services or contests. I knew what I’d seen in workshops and examples of award winners, and I didn’t realize that they got to where they were by seeking criticism, and then using it to improve.

The first critique we got was hard to read, to have errors pointed out and attention drawn to our weaknesses, but we took that critique and chose three areas to improve the next year, and submitted again, and the next year, we chose three more areas to improve.

Over time, the staff looked forward to critique because they gave us direct feedback and offered solutions and ideas to help them grow.

ALL IN THIS TOGETHER

All of this being said, I didn’t really listen to my own advice for probably three more years. I thought that being a veteran teacher meant I knew what to do, and in a lot of ways, I did, when it came to writing lesson plans and standing at bus duty. I still don’t have a handle on grading, or a clear understanding of what is happening during a soccer game, but hopefully these tidbits help you, whether it’s your first year, or your tenth, or your twentieth. We’re truly, as my girls love to write as their basketball headlines, all in this together.