The Accidental Adviser

January 18, 2013

I never intended to be a journalism adviser.  I took my first teaching job in a rural school in the middle of South Dakota, and, like many others who advise high-school publications, I was handed the newspaper advising responsibilities along with my first English classes.

At that school I taught students who know very little about writing, but every week, we’d work our way through the production process, and every Friday, we’d use the school copy machine to crank out our little school newspaper on 11×17 paper, with the students folding and collating the sheets together before the end of the day.  After handing the paper out to the student body before they left for the weekend, the editors took stacks to local stores where community residents could pick up copies.  Even though there were only 120 students in the entire school, we’d print 600 copies each week, and we’d always run out.  I learned the importance of having authentic writing experiences for students on that job, and my two years teaching English and journalism in rural South Dakota shaped my philosophies as a teacher and journalism adviser more than my education classes ever did.

I moved through several other teaching jobs before landing at Benilde-St. Margaret’s School in St. Louis Park in 2001.  Upon accepting that job, I had the newspaper advising responsibilities handed to me there much the same way.  These writers, though, were by no means the struggling students I worked with previously. Benilde-St. Margaret’s is a school with a strong English department, and the Knight Errant had a history of attracting the top students in the school who loved to write.  Advising these students and this publication quickly became one of the best parts of my day.

In 2008, my student editors convinced the school’s administration to let us put the Knight Errant online.  A couple of weeks later, I was on a bus trip to a beer festival in New Ulm, MN, with my long-time friend Tom Hutchinson and I asked him if he knew anything about setting up websites.  In my mind, I’ve made his response one of those overly-dramatic-heavens-opening moments with him slowly looking off into the distance and gesturing dramatically with his hands as he said just one word: “WordPress.”  In reality, he probably said something like “We could use WordPress to do something like that. Pass me another beer.”

After the two of us put together our first WordPress site for the Knight Errant a couple weeks later, I started tinkering with the code of the first theme we used, and my inner geek that did Basic programming on a Commodore 64 and Apple II back in the 80s found a new life (I even had the cassette recorder for the Commodore).  I became a regular visitor to the WordPress Codex and understanding how WordPress works became my obsession. Several months later, I asked Tom if he’d be interested in starting a business that helped other school newspapers go online.  He said, “Yeah, pass me another beer,” and soon thereafter, the very-obviously-named School Newspapers Online was founded.

That first website for the Knight Errant was the start of two transformations in my life.  The first is that the business has evolved over the last four years from a hobby and pastime into a full-time job for both Tom and me.  The other is that my world as a journalism adviser has changed completely with online publishing –– how I set up and organize my staff, how I manage deadlines, assign grades, and motivate students, how I allow technology and new tools to open possibilities, and most importantly, how I view my role as the adviser.

I find myself today more passionate than ever before about this role I accidentally fell into almost two decades ago.  My upcoming blog entries will explore these worlds I live in –– teaching, advising online and print publications, running a business, and coding for WordPress.