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Start the year strong while
promoting students’ press rights

by Lindsay Coppens

The Harbinger Adviser, Algonquin Regional High School, Northborough, Mass.

Although we may want to jump right into the business of putting out the first print issue or filling the website with killer content, there are steps you as an adviser can take at the beginning of the year to help your publication’s staff start strong while fostering their independence. These steps all connect with communication and establishing good relationships.

• Have a meeting with your editors-in-chief and the school principal.

It’s always a shame and usually doesn’t bode well if the first interaction between editors and administration is a negative one. Start off the year with good communication and establish a good working relationship with your school’s administration. While you may act as a facilitator at the meeting (or hopefully  just sit back and listen to most of it), it would be best for the student editors, not the adviser,  to contact the administrator for this meeting. This emphasizes the principal and editors should be the ones directly communicating most of the time, not the adults.

A start of school meeting can build understanding and mutual respect. Share goals and objectives. Listen to concerns. Develop modes of scheduling interviews that are beneficial for both reporters and administrators. When there is an edgy topic covered in the publication, it’s usually the administrator who gets a lot of phone calls and emails. Help administration support your team while still understanding the need for and value of independent student press by being open to conversations and listening to concerns.

Have the editorial team review and revise the staff handbook.

One of the first activities of the year should be closely reviewing the staff handbook to refresh and possibly revisit your objectives and policies. Does the handbook’s content match the team’s goals? Do sections need to be added or updated? Do the published objectives and policies inform your procedures? In essence, is the handbook working and does it clearly establish and reinforce student press rights? If not, what needs to be done to make it a vital document for your publication’s staff?

The student editorial team needs to have ownership and agreement. Don’t have a staff handbook? Brainstorm what should be in one. Look at those of other scholastic publication staff.  Make a plan for drafting one this year.

• Require all staff members to read the handbook.

Have a handbook scavenger hunt or open-handbook quiz (Both with prizes!) at one of your first staff meetings. Help developing staff members understand the big picture, history, and objectives of the publication they’ve joined and are excited to contribute to. A good handbook strengthens a publication and will be an excellent resource for the students and adviser throughout the year.

• Work with Editors-in-Chief to plan mini coaching sessions for each staff meeting.

The editors are the coaches, not the adviser. The more students teach other students the better journalists they become and the more it is reinforced that this publication, and the growth of its members, is the students’ responsibility. Plan sessions on interviewing, writing leads, article organization, taking photos, editing photos, AP style, shooting video… there are endless possibilities.

From whole group sessions run by editors-in-chief to break out sessions with student specialists, use your teaching experience to help them develop as teacher coaches. Support the editors with resources and ideas. Provide guidance and feedback. But let them do the teaching.

• Regularly remind your editors that as an adviser you give advice.

Because you are the adult, even if it is a student-run publication the students may think they need to do what you say. It is worth repeating often that the editors and staff  are not required to take your advice. Let them know that you value their right and ability to make decisions. Also remind them that as decision makers they also will have the responsibility of dealing with the good and bad consequences of their decisions. You are there to help them figure it out and help them to learn as they go.

However, it should become the accepted norm for the students to carefully consider your advice and understand the adviser is able to see complicated situations from a different perspective, often with years of experience and a lens that may be able to see with a wider context. Often students will follow the advice. Sometimes they won’t and that will prove to be the right decision. Both students and the adviser should be proud when these moments happen! However, sometimes students won’t follow advice and it will prove to be the wrong decision. This isn’t an “I told you so moment,” but an opportunity for reflection and growth. We often become stronger and better (as individuals and a team) when we deal with and reflect on our mistakes.

• Make sure there is fun.

As an adviser you can be the one who brings the fun by organizing celebrations and setting a tone in the publications room that is welcoming and positive. But even more important is to remind your student leaders that it’s essential to take a break and have fun together. Sure, creating a publication has moments that are incredibly fun and rewarding, but a scavenger hunt, bowling party, or potluck dinner gives the chance to bond, laugh, and blow off some steam to keep connections strong and energy levels high. Plan for fun and schedule events from the start.

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