by Randy Swikle
Retired Student Newspaper Adviser
Johnsburg High School, Johnsburg, Ill.
In 2002, my principal at Johnsburg High School, Chuck Dill, was JEA’s Administrator of the Year. He was an exemplary facilitator who involved local stakeholders of scholastic journalism in a partnership that guarded student autonomy, that balanced student press rights with ethics and pedagogical responsibilities and that nurtured First Amendment education, appreciation and application.
Students were empowered but not emancipated; educators were authoritative but not authoritarian; and the school culture was collaborative and not autocratic. It was an ideal balance of responsibilities that cultivated democratic learning and inspired engaged citizenship.
One Labor Day weekend, our principal was arrested and charged with operating a motorboat while under the influence. He put the school mission above his personal vulnerability and supported the right of student reporters to cover the story on Page 1 of their Johnsburg Weekly News publication. The principal contested the charge, and a judge later exonerated him. That story was covered on Page 1, too.
In the 25 years I advised the JWN, no administrator ever threatened censorship or required prior review of the paper. Controversy was a staple, as it is in any authentic American newspaper. Rather than fear contention, the Johnsburg school community embraced diverse perspectives as an innate feature of a free society. And when journalistic mistakes were made, stakeholders did not point fingers but rather joined hands to problem-solve and inspire remedies.
Principal Dill was a proponent of partnership. I once asked him to list his expectations for the partner who advises the newspaper staff — me! His response serves as a model for nurturing scholastic journalism and the school mission:
No. 10: Understand the peripheral aspects of your job. It is more than teaching journalism. It’s also being an advocate, a problem-solver, a diplomat, a counselor, a personal mentor, a friend, a businessman, a facilitator, a spokesman and a hundred other things.
No. 9: Communicate effectively and ethically. Use strategies of dissemination and persuasion to make a profound difference on the side of what’s right. Focus on issues and maintain the courage to prioritize principle above personal vulnerability.
No. 8: Promote teamwork. Foster cooperation toward achieving the central mission of school—enlightenment. Each “team” in a school community has its particular goals, and sometimes one set of goals may seem to conflict with the goals of another group. Teamwork is achieved when the school community recognizes the diversity that exists within, accepts differences, compromises and works cooperatively toward the larger mission of the school.
No. 7: Model how to accept criticism without feeling malice toward those who gave it. The adviser is especially vulnerable to the emotional reactions of readers who may feel offended, injured or diminished by the content of certain stories and editorials. The ideal adviser answers even the most offensive reactions with civility and empathy
No. 6: Encourage intrinsic motivation. The adviser should help students appreciate the power and value of intrinsic motivation as opposed to the more superficial rewards of extrinsic motivation.
No. 5: Stir students to abandon apathy and engage in discovery. The adviser should rouse students to pursue controversy along the route of discovery and to engage in rather than avoid contentious issues in safe, honorable ways.
No. 4: Defend the right of students to apply First Amendment freedoms in school. The adviser is expected to teach the substance and spirit of the First Amendment and to defend the right of students, teachers and others to apply its protection within the parameters of scholastic press law.
No. 3: Know journalism and the strategies of instruction. The adviser is expected to participate in professional organizations, to keep aware of current issues and innovations and to implement strategies that best prepare students for their career choice and for democratic citizenship.
No. 2: Teach that the “right” to say something doesn’t make it “right” to say it. It’s all about ethics. The adviser should encourage students to balance rights with responsibilities and respect.
No. 1: Help students light a candle and not get burned by the flame. As student journalists work to enlighten news consumers, they must take care to minimize harm and safeguard the integrity of their news medium. Allow enlightenment to make waves, but not tsunamis. The adviser should remind reporters to look beyond the likely impacts of a story, keeping alert to identify any undesirable consequences a story may hold in the shadows.
Journalism advisers need to be proactive. Consider giving your administrators a copy of principal Dill’s expectations and asking them to create a list of their own expectations for student news media advisers. Involve a cross-section of all scholastic journalism stakeholders to reflect their own expectations for student news media that serve the school community.
Prompt dialogue. Strive for consensus. Involve other stakeholders, too.