Real talk: Now what?

How am I going to use all the stuff I learned at JEA’s Adviser Institute?


Sam Hedenberg

It has been almost two months since my week of fun at the annual JEA Adviser’s Conference in Las Vegas. And while I’d be lying if I said that I have spent every day of that time mulling over the information I learned, I think it was really useful to let all that information marinate for a bit.

You see, one of the shortcomings of conferences is the sheer density of information that inundates you each day. For three days in the desert, I was pounded with all things student journalism: leadership, concept, coverage, editing, ethics, photos, design…the list goes on and on. By day three of the conference, my brain was full.

The problem (albeit certainly a good problem) with learning about journalism from the top advisers in the country is that every session I attended yielded at least a dozen great ideas and pages of notes. I left each class having drunk the presenter’s Kool-Aid, eager to implement their ideas into my own program.

I don’t have to tell you, after drinking so much Kool-Aid, you feel a little woozy.

So now that I have stowed my Bermudas for another year and pulled out my sensible school-year khakis, I forced myself to sit down and parse through my copious notes from the conference and get down to business.

Real talk, Sam, what are you actually going to implement this year?

I started thinking about how last year went, and what I wanted to see improve. Part of my staff’s final exam is a Google survey asking for feedback about what worked and what didn’t, so I went through those as well.

One of the things I saw for the first time this past year is how close my students got to each other. When asked what their favorite part of yearbook class was, one of my students wrote this:

“I didn’t come into yearbook thinking I was going to have fun, but I left with 10 new best friends. At the beginning of the year, we were all very different people and didn’t really know each other very well, but we came together in a way that I didn’t expect. We left as a family.”

Cringeworthy family cliche aside, that statement struck me as very powerful. It excited me that the same students who rolled their eyes at the idea of a “yerd” in September were owning the moniker by May. And despite losing nine of my 13 students to graduation this year, I was also invigorated by the fact that I am fielding a staff of 24 — the largest staff in recent school history.

I decided I want to keep that feeling going. I want to improve my recruitment and, more importantly, my retention. I want to provide a place for students where they can have fun, accomplish some real world learning and also forge friendships that will last a lifetime.

But how do I do that?

Lo and behold, my prayers were answered by a presentation from Patrick Johnson, an adviser at Antioch HS just outside of Chicago.

In his JEAai presentation, entitled “It’s all Greek to me,” Johnson stressed the importance of family and relationship building within publication staffs, using the Greek fraternity/sorority structure to encourage, as he said, “a strong staff culture that brings in newbies and keeps the old ones coming back year after year.”

What Johnson did that blew my mind is that he took the framework of a fraternal organization and applied it to his staff. He used four tenants — fellowship, scholarship, leadership and service — to set guidelines and expectations. For his staff, class is not just about making a publication; it’s about becoming an effective, well-rounded person that will take the skills he learns and applies them to the rest of his life. And really, isn’t that our ultimate goal?

Antioch HS's Patrick Johnson presented reasons why his program structure is based on his Greek life experience.
Antioch HS’s Patrick Johnson presented reasons why his program structure is based on his Greek life experience.

Johnson said his new structure increased his student recruitment by 550 percent in two years. That’s not a typo. From 12 to over 60.

Now, Johnson presented some things that are totally out of my reach this year, namely the way he organizes his staff and creates leadership positions. He showed us a tree outlining his chain of command that made my eyes bulge. His staff also has more frat swag than a sixth-year UVA senior.

But I think as with any conference presentation, you can’t let yourself get overwhelmed with trying to implement every single point of a plan. You need to dissect it and take the pieces that will work for you, tailoring it to your staff and school’s needs.

Keeping all of that in mind (and managing my expectations), I have decided to implement something similar this year. Our staff t-shirts feature Greek letters. I am also appointing a social chair and increasing social activities to include staff potluck dinners and other fun, non-work events.

Antioch HS's Patrick Johnson uses Greek letters on all his publication's swag to encourage a Greek-based family culture.
Antioch HS’s Patrick Johnson uses Greek letters on all his publication’s swag to encourage a Greek-based family culture.
Based on Patrick Johnson's Greek program structure, the MVHS Yearbook staff designed shirts with Greek letters
Based on Patrick Johnson’s Greek program structure, the MVHS Yearbook staff designed shirts with Greek letters

My newspaper co-adviser and I have also decided to revive the Quill and Scroll Honor Society at our school, which had been dormant for over a decade. Through Q&S, we will have a philanthropy initiative and maintain standards of scholarship and leadership that are part of the four tenants.

No, there will be no Animal House parties at Mount Vernon High School this year — it’s not a REAL frat, after all — but I think this new way of realigning my program’s culture is a great start to encouraging the family atmosphere I desire in my program and help to grow the popularity of the program.

Maybe you’re reading this and are saying you don’t have a problem with recruitment or retention. Maybe your staff members are already BFFLs. That’s okay. But you should still be spending time right now setting a couple of new goals for the year and trying something new. I haven’t been an adviser for that long, but I think that goal-setting process is something that every good adviser should do at the beginning of each year, regardless of how long you’ve been in the game.

So if you haven’t already, I highly recommend grabbing yourself a cup of coffee, shutting the door to your classroom or office, and getting real with yourself. What is going to make your program killer this year?