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The best job I could ever ask for

If I had had a jumpshot or a classroom, my life might have ended up a lot differently

The+McCallum+delegation+at+the+Columbia+Scholastic+Press+Association+pose+for+a+pic+after+the+adviser+award%27s+luncheon+in+the+Low+Library+rotunda.+Photo+by+Mark+Murray.
The McCallum delegation at the Columbia Scholastic Press Association pose for a pic after the adviser award's luncheon in the Low Library rotunda. Photo by Mark Murray.

The McCallum delegation at the Columbia Scholastic Press Association pose for a pic after the adviser award's luncheon in the Low Library rotunda. Photo by Mark Murray.

The McCallum delegation at the Columbia Scholastic Press Association pose for a pic after the adviser award's luncheon in the Low Library rotunda. Photo by Mark Murray.

Dave Winter, MacJournalism adviser

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Being a journalism teacher and a publications adviser has allowed my professional life to reflect the person that I’ve always been. When I was a kid, I loved playing sports, but I was never the star athlete in the neighborhood; instead, I was that star athlete’s best friend. I wasn’t the kid whose team would win the sandlot sports league; I was the kid who organized that league, made the teams and then wrote the newsletter to share the stories of unrivaled athletic prowess with whoever cared to read them.

I was never the star athlete in the neighborhood; instead, I was that star athlete’s best friend.”

The most gifted of my athletic friends used to spot me 20 points in a basketball game to 21, play with his opposite hand and let me start with the ball. I won those games only about half the time. Perhaps it’s not surprising for me to tell you that my high school basketball career was pretty short. After playing on the sophomore basketball team for a few games, I learned that I was much better at writing about a made jumpshot than I was at actually making them myself. With that discovery, a sportswriter was born.

That high school sportswriter joined the newspaper staff and eventually became a newspaper editor, thanks in large part to the encouraging journalism teachers I had. They let me create, explore, experiment and learn from my mistakes. After taking a year off from journalism my freshman year at the University of Texas, I was drawn back to it as a sophomore. The basement of Texas Student Publications became my true home in college, the place where I spent the most time and worked the hardest. I worked on every section of The Daily Texan newspaper at some point in my extended undergraduate experience. What I remember most strongly about that experience was the feeling that I was part of something bigger than myself, something incredibly important and that I had to do my best because the most talented, dedicated group of people I had ever met were doing the same … and I did not want to let them down.

I had to do my best at the Daily Texan because the most talented, dedicated group of people I had ever met were doing the same. ”

Many of those Daily Texan peers went on to great careers as professional journalists. Two at least have won Pulitzers. Others have gone on to be editors, columnists or reporters at the most prestigious publications in the nation. When I faced the decision about where to take my professional life, I thought about trying the same path they did, but ultimately I chose to become a teacher. Just like I did in college, I took some time away from journalism at the start of my teaching career, but after two years teaching as a floater, one at Mayfair High School in California and one at Wheeler High School in Georgia, I was asked this question: “How would you like your own classroom?” I said I would like that very much. “All you have to do,” I was told, “is sponsor the yearbook.”

How hard could that be, I thought? I accepted immediately. I found out through a tough first year where I made every rookie mistake a yearbook adviser could make. We put the wrong calendar year on the title page because we completed the title page in the fall, and we lamely used a black-and-white image of the cover as the background for our divider pages because, well, that was how it had always been done at our school. Over time, we started to do yearbooks a different way, a way that was nurtured by the scholastic journalism professionals who became my mentors, many of them connected with Jostens, our yearbook publisher.

At some point, the teacher in the room next to me became the newspaper adviser at Wheeler, and I was slowly drawn into the work that they were doing next door. My colleague and I hashed out a plan that we would co-advise the publications and our editors would form a editorial board overseeing both. The idea was that the yearbook would benefit from the writing skill of the newspaper kids, and the newspaper would benefit from the design skills of the yearbook kids. In hindsight, the newspaper benefited the most. We turned it into a news magazine, and let the kids from the yearbook side design it like a magazine. At the time (the late 1990s) it was an innovative approach that was catching on. After four years of advising the news magazine and the yearbook (and the literary magazine for a time), I was exhausted. That might have been because my last yearbook in 2000 had the theme, “2,000 Stories,” and we somehow actually told 2,000 stories in a 300-page yearbook. I remember my editor calling a parent to get the story of one of the last kids at the school we had not profiled. The student wasn’t available, the parent said, because she had run away from home. Without hesitation, my editor said, “I am really sorry, but can you tell me a little bit about her?” She was going to finish that theme and tell that 2,000th story because she was all in. And her being all in made me go all in because I simply could not let her down.

She was going to finish that theme and tell that 2,000th story because she was all in. And her being all in made me go all in because I simply could not let her down.”

It is in those moments when being a publications adviser has been the best job I could ever ask for. That phrase “all in” became something of a mantra for the editors at the next school I worked at: Henry Grady High School in midtown Atlanta. When the journalism job there became available, I applied because Grady had the best publications program in Georgia, and I wanted to see if I could get the job and continue to build upon their great tradition. When I interviewed for the job, the students on the interview panel asked me if I was going to turn their beloved newspaper into a news magazine (they had seen the Wheeler news magazine and were scared I would make them change their look). I answered the question: “Not if you don’t want to.” They didn’t, and we didn’t.

For 14 years, I enjoyed the best experiences as a newspaper adviser, re-learning old skills and learning new ones because the students were (as they were fond of saying) “all in.” At some point we started a journalistic magazine and a companion website to the print newspaper. Both took a long time to figure out, and both of them taught me the importance of admitting to yourself and to your students that you don’t know everything. I wanted to call the magazine, Terminus, because that was the original name for the city of Atlanta, and I thought it sounded cool. I convinced 16 students to form the first staff, and then over the summer the school cancelled the class. Rather than give up on the idea, the students went off campus and worked on a mocked-up edition of the magazine on their own time. When they came back with it, they told me the name Terminus had to go. “Mr. Winter, a terminus is an ending. It’s not central. We want to be central to the campus. We want to be a Nexus.” Who could argue with that? The launching of that magazine, and its growth is among my proudest accomplishments as a teacher, and it’s largely because I got out of my students’ way.

When my family decided to move to Texas, I had to say goodbye to Grady and to the program that had been so instrumental to my professional success.”

The same could be said for our website. One student convinced my co-adviser and I that we needed an online publication during his job interview. He was so passionate about it that we offered him the job of managing editor even though we had two perfectly amazing editor candidates already. The website he launched floundered around a bit for about five years because most of the kids were wedded to print until one year when our editors came to us and said this second-class status for the website must change. I told them I agreed but did not know how to make that happen, and then I got out of their way. They learned how to make a better website, and they came up with a plan to adapt our process so that the website became central to the program. One of these editors was particularly fond of the phrase “all in,” and I remain indebted to his class for bringing the Grady program into the 21st century of scholastic journalism. Their efforts made possible some of the most powerful stories that I have ever been a part of, stories that reached far beyond our campus because the website increased our potential audience exponentially.

When my family decided to move to Texas, I had to say goodbye to Grady and to the program that had been so instrumental to my professional success. To be honest, I wasn’t sure I was going to continue teaching and advising publications, but when I found McCallum High School in Austin, with its proud journalistic tradition and its outstanding principal, it seemed like a perfect fit for the next chapter of my life (professionally as a teacher and personally as a parent of future high schoolers). In the three years that I have been at Mac, I have enjoyed some of my greatest moments as an adviser. I had not advised a high school yearbook in 16 years, but my first yearbook editor reminded me a lot of the last one I had worked with, my 2000 editor at Wheeler. Unflappable, hard-working, and totally committed to realizing her vision, I immediately found myself going “all in” just to try to help her succeed. It was the same feeling that motivated me when I was a collegiate journalist at Texas and the same feeling that always was central to my greatest moments teaching journalism in Georgia. When people on campus and beyond seemed to like that yearbook and when we drastically increased the sales total from the previous year, I was tremendously proud of her and of the entire staff.

The world of scholastic journalism has remained exciting to me because it is constantly changing and creating new opportunities for me to learn something new.”

My new newspaper staff has had a lot to celebrate in the past three years, too, but I have to admit that I have probably spent more time on our emerging social media platforms than anything else. In three years, I have learned a great deal about the integration of social media into a journalism program. I have learned from my students how best to utilize social media, and I have learned a lot simply by making mistakes and by being willing to work hard.

We have executed at least one post to our @macjournalism Instagram account every school day since I have been at the school. In five semesters, our account has grown from just over 100 followers to more than 2,100, and the account has become absolutely central to our program identity and to our service to the school community. We often find ourselves using it to look up information because we know that what we are looking for is there. Since we are still fully committed to our print products and to our website, a commitment to social media makes the job of journalism more difficult and more demanding, but I find that work incredibly gratifying and also consistent with what is happening in the world of professional journalism. I think the world of scholastic journalism has remained exciting to me because it is constantly changing and creating new opportunities for me to learn something new to stay relevant and in touch with the modern journalism world. It keeps me current and forever young.

What advice would I offer a new adviser?

If you think something positive about one of your best student journalists, say it out loud. Let them know you are grateful for what they do.”

  1. Don’t pretend that you know everything. My most profound successes have occurred when I stepped to the side and let my students innovate and lead and teach me what we should be doing and why. Most of my expertise actually came four years after I was taught something by my students. They learn it faster than I ever could. I pay attention. They graduate. Now, I am the expert. It worked with Aldus PageMaker back in the 1990s. It worked with WordPress in the 2000s. I certainly is working with Instragram now.
  2. If you work hard, your students will too. I have always believed that my willingness to put in the time and the work has led students to match and/or exceed the effort I was giving.
  3. Remember to tell your best students you appreciate them. Advisers (teachers by nature) are constantly fretting about how to get non-contributors to do their share and get on board. While that is important, it is equally important to acknowledge the work of your very best students. I had a reunion dinner with one of my very best managing editors when she was in her 30s and she told me that when she was in high school, she never felt like I appreciated her commitment and her contribution. I was stunned. How could that be I remember thinking? I appreciated her leadership and her commitment every day. I learned this lesson the hard way: if you think something positive about one of your best student journalists, say it out loud. Let them know you are grateful for what they do.
  4. If you think a student piece might win an award, enter it even if you aren’t 100 percent sure. I know this advice will come as no surprise to my colleagues at CSPA, but whenever I put a contest entry submission together, I am always left staring at one last submission, thinking that it is the weakest entry going in the box and that I should just leave it out. That entry wins an award more times than it doesn’t. As I always tell me students, you lose 100 percent of the contests you don’t enter.
  5. Emulate and innovate but don’t imitate. I have found that the best way to produce an award-winning publication is to try and do something different rather than trying to produce a publication that embodies all of the criteria in a press association evaluation booklet. Evaluators (like everyone else) appreciate a publication that takes risks and tries something new. Maybe not every evaluator will appreciate your innovative vision, but if the first evaluator doesn’t get what your staff was trying to do, send it out for a second opinion.

 

1 Comment

One Response to “The best job I could ever ask for”

  1. Anissa Ryland on April 2nd, 2018 8:07 am

    Mr. Winter is amazing! The school and the students are so lucky to have him at McCallum.

    [Reply]

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