The key to team building in the newsroom

2014-08-08 18.11.09

In our last #jerdchat, a call for upcoming topics brought out the idea of team building and culture building. The topic suggestion is perfect for the beginning of the year and took me back to my first year of teaching, of advising publications, only eight years ago.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.

After deciding to teach near the end of my four-year degree that took six years (hey, I was a 40-something wife and mom of three young boys), I secured my alternative teaching license and then my dream job: teaching journalism and advising the newspaper and yearbook at the school from which I’d graduated 25 years earlier.

Then I walked into my classroom – My Classroom. This classroom had recently been vacated by an adviser of one year who followed an adviser of 19 years. That 19-year veteran had built a strong, award-winning program, and then moved on to assistant principal. That one-year adviser had nearly destroyed the whole she-bang. The newspaper had gone from staffs of 15-25 to four when I got my new roster. I had to build a team. I had to build a culture.

First we had to build a newspaper. All the ad and page templates had been deleted. Draw your own conclusions.

Only one staff member had experience. He became a great editor in chief. Through hard work, dedication and probably some pizza and extra hours, ads were sold and built, page templates were made (thanks to our local newspaper’s editor/composition supervisor coming by and helping us out) and content was created. We put out a September issue, and, right on the schedule we had determined in those first couple weeks, continued to publish eight more issues. We adhered to deadlines. The paper is always published. In the spring, we won Sweepstakes at our state-level convention.

How did we do that? The key was guiding the staff to create a culture of ownership of the paper, of learning and teaching, of improving through failure, of having each other’s back, of having fun. There were spontaneous sing-a-longs. I believe I heard Queen a time or two that year. (This summer as yearbook finished up, it was anything from Pitch Perfect)

Putting my instincts into words

In February of that first year, I applied to ASNE’s Reynold’s Institute, a perfectly awesome experience for journalism advisers to gain some knowledge and skills and widen their personal learning network. There was no shortage of material, either. Back then it was a huge binder that nearly didn’t fit in my suitcase. These days, it’s a flash drive. In applying, I was required to write an essay. The topic of my piece was, well, building a culture in the newsroom. Here’s a piece of it:

The emphasis on writing, especially with its rounds of the editing process reduces the occurrences of errors in news writing as well as in students’ core class writing assignments. Better writing scores build self-confidence. Confidence is also built in the journalism classroom where students can learn interactively, try out skills in a safe environment and have real-world experiences with real-world impact. In the culture of the journalism classroom, the adviser supports students, and the students support each other. And one of the best confidence builders of all is that first byline or photo credit.

Even in the worst of times – and there are some – there’s nothing like the culture of a journalism classroom, because we learn from the experiences.

How does one develop this culture? I believe most of it comes down to ownership of the publication. I tell the kids that I advise, but it’s their paper/book. And I do advise. I fear I’m sometimes misunderstood by my administration. I am not hands-off. We play “what if?” all the time. I play Devil’s Advocate all the time. But in the end, I let them make the choices 99.9 percent of the time. And they make the right ones. In having that sort of responsibility, they naturally consult with each other, especially since their adviser suggests that they do so. Collaboration becomes a big part of their culture. “Hey, guys, what do you think of …”

Get to know you activities

In order to facilitate healthy collaboration, they have to know and understand each other. One thing I absolutely love about my staffs is that they are always made of an extremely diverse bunch of students. These are kids who might never have spoken to each other at all except for these classes. So in the beginning, we do games and activities that help them get to know each other, not just interests and outside activities, but how they each prefer to handle assignments.

One of my favorites is pretty simple, one I picked up at a yearbook workshop years ago. Have students stand on an imaginary line, one end of which represents “Yes, I agree with this statement,” and the other end of which represents, “No, that’s not like me at all.” For those who are somewhere in the middle, they simple occupy space somewhere on that continuum. Develop a set of statements along the lines of “I like to finish my work as soon as it’s assigned so I don’t have to worry about it.” You’ll get giggles, and you’ll see an absolute split of students. Those who agree with this statement will see who they are up against on the procrastinator end. Include statements that have to do with being able to say what they think, worrying about hurting others’ feelings, being able to ask for help, being able to work in chaos or needing quiet, being an idea maker or implementer. It’s a pretty eye-opening activity. I project the 14 or so statements, one at a time, so they can read as well as listen.

Different workshops I’ve attended over the years have provided several activities that spark this sort of get-to-know-who-you’re-working-with activity, but one of my favorite resources was a little book I ordered through JEA, Play that Works, by Laura Moore.

I know the culture we’ve created in my journalism classroom is legitimate because on end of the year reflections, I’m told over and over things like, “this is the only class I really work in.” On senior skip day, I have seniors come in and say, “I’m not here. Count me absent.” Mine is the only class they come to. They have work to do, and it’s work they want to do because they are part of a team; they are part of something real. I have kids stay after school chatting about home, about parents or grandparents, about what to do about college. They feel safe in that room.

I’m still connected to my students who graduated years ago. Last Christmas, a few of them got together on Facebook and decided they needed a reunion in the newsroom. My art editor, class of 2012, planned the whole thing. Alumni from 2010 through a few current students with connections to those grads came. She had planned fun games, we had food, and when the party was over, it wasn’t over. Some had to go, but some lingered – for hours. I texted home and said I’d be a while yet. My family is used to it.

These students, former students, they know now what they knew then: I’m interested in what they do. I’m invested in their lives and their futures, and I’ll always have the back door open for them. That’s the culture of my journalism classroom.


About teachjournalism
I am a high school teacher of journalism, technology and reading. I advise the school's newspaper and yearbook, both student-led publications. Documenting and sharing my experiences is a way of reflecting to improve my own work and and inviting commentary so that we might all benefit. I believe, as I tell my students each year, that we all learn from each other.

One Response to The key to team building in the newsroom

  1. Pingback: ASNE's Youth Journalism Initiative : Team-building exercises are keys to success of student publications

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