Reflections on sitting in the principal’s office

January 30, 2013

Journalism advisers find themselves in a precarious position in high schools.  We teach our students to stand up for the truth, to speak for those who can’t, and to question authority.  We teach them the power of their own voices and encourage them to put those voices to work in meaningful ways.  We teach them that if they believe in something, they should stand firm, and we teach them that consequences just might be worth it.  And that means, inevitably, that those of us who are advisers will find ourselves sitting in the principal’s office at some point in our careers.

A good high-school journalism program doesn’t always make life easy for school administrators.  The journalism staff might question an administrator’s decisions and policies, ask questions that make teachers or parents uncomfortable, and worst of all, cause an administrator’s phone to ring.  There’s no shortage of journalism advisers in this country who have lost their jobs or been reassigned to teach non-Journalism classes for what their students have written.  For every act of administrative censorship, whether it be the removal of an article, the removal of the teacher, or the shuttering of a journalism program, something real and important is lost, both in the culture of the school and in the education of the student.

Before administrators make that decision to censor, they should remember that there are many reasons why they should want a strong journalism program in their schools.

Every administrator I’ve ever met believes in teaching students to be critical thinkers––journalism students do this on a daily basis as they make coverage decisions, edit stories, and craft editorials.

Every administrator I’ve ever met wants students to be effective writers––there’s no better way to teach students to write clearly and succinctly than to give them an authentic purpose and an authentic audience.

A journalism program teaches students grit and tenacity when they have to go back for the second or third interview, or retake the picture yet again, or revise the story for the sixth or seventh time.  Journalism students learn to follow a job through all the way to completion, and they learn that the reason for doing their best isn’t a grade on a transcript but a sense of personal pride.

Administrators at times censor stories because they’re concerned about the school’s image, but if they’d realize that when a journalism program is active and thriving, there’s no shortage of writers looking to cover all the amazing things happening in a school, and they’d also realize that the narrative those writers craft will no doubt make the school look good.

When students feel empowered to cover the important stories, they also learn a sense of the responsibility that goes with covering those stories, and they will cover them well.  And that story that they’re covering just might be the spark that ignites a life-long passion to write and an eventual career.

I’m fortunate that I have good administrators.  I teach in a private school, and my journalism students and I have even fewer rights than our counterparts in public schools, but the relationship we have with our administration is one of support and encouragement rather than an omnipresent threat of censorship.   I’ve spent more time in the principal’s office as a journalism adviser than I ever did as a student, but these visits have always been constructive and filled with meaningful dialogue.  My administrators have stood behind my students during some challenging stories that no doubt didn’t make their days easy––my administrators’ actions on those tough days is partially why our program thrives today.

Effective high-school journalism programs aren’t created overnight––it takes time for a culture and legacy to develop, and that’s why it’s so important that administrators do whatever they can to stand behind their student journalists, especially when those programs are still in the developing stages.

And, administrators, if you’re reading this, journalism students love it when you bring chocolate raised donuts with you when you stop in the journalism class for a visit.