Creating a legacy of student leadership

February 6, 2013

We teachers sometimes mistake our own hard work and busyness for good teaching.  Years ago, I used to be proud of myself for spending hours critiquing drafts of journalism stories on the nights before deadlines.  We had a shared Google Doc with a list that students added their names to when they were ready for me to critique their stories.  I would work my way through that list, and as fast as I could cross the names off the top, the list would continue growing as writers would resubmit their stories for additional critiques.  I regularly read 50 to 60 drafts in a night, and I’d usually give up and go to bed in exhaustion before I was able to completely finish.  It took me a while to realize that I was the person in the class who was working the hardest.

This year, in contrast, on the nights before deadlines, I’m not even reading stories at all.  I now wait to read a story until the editors tell me it’s ready to be published.  I’ve got 14 section editors, a managing editor, and two editors-in-chief who are doing the work that I used to do.  And they’re doing it so well, in fact, that sometimes I feel that I could stop showing up for class and our publications would run just fine.  I still remember the day last year when my editors told me to go sit in the hall because I was distracting them from their work––it was a proud moment for me because it meant that the Knight Errant had truly become a publication that they owned.

There’s a paradox to teaching high-school journalism––the less we as advisers do in the hands-on creation of the publications, the better those publications become.  When we give up that burden of responsibility to our students and trust them, the more empowered our students become and the more they’ll find success.  Of course they still need our advice and our guiding hands, especially when it comes to figuring out things like Text Wrap in InDesign, but if we can find ways to let go and hand over responsibility, then by all means we should, even if it feels like we’re not working as hard as we used to.

It all starts with getting your editors to love their jobs, getting them to obsess about their publications, and getting them to lead their classmates.  When editors know that their decisions count, when they get to decide what’s covered and what isn’t, when they get to approve a story for publication, that’s when real learning happens.  I love it when I hear editors say that a story or a photo isn’t good enough yet, and I love it even more when I watch them come up with a solution for making it better.

But just because I’m no longer the chief reader doesn’t mean I’m not working. Rather than reading drafts, I’m teaching my editors how to lead and how to be teachers themselves, and I visit with them regularly about the strategies they’ll need to use with writers to help those writers create stronger stories and stronger voices.  I spend my class time going from editor to editor and asking what they need help or advice on.  In these conversations, I sometimes challenge my editors on their decisions, and there’s nothing I love better when they can justify those decisions and stand behind them.  When a writer is struggling and an editor’s not sure how to help, that’s when I step in.  I model for the editor how they could approach the writer on a story and the type of advice they could give.  But I let the editor be the one to give the advice, and then my job is to follow up with the writer to make sure they understand what to do.  

I know that when the year is over and I say good-bye to another group of editors, I won’t really be starting from scratch the next fall.  My graduating editors, through their painstaking work with their writers all of this year, will have passed on a legacy of quality, of standards, of leadership, a legacy that next year’s writers will no doubt continue when they become my editors.