After the most complex, unpredictable, nerve-wracking quandary of a school year, most advisers have enjoyed several weeks in June and July to unplug, unwind, recharge and spend time away from school and with family, friends and catching up on relationships that went by the wayside over the last 18 months.
Many advisers will be firing up their engines within the next couple of weeks, deciphering the best way to attack the unpredictability of the 2021-2022 school year. With ever-changing student leadership at the top, new responsibilities and requirements for your student media program and more, it can be a daunting task to pull up a Google Doc and begin creating your back to school “to-do” list for your journalism and media courses.
It’s not JUST about curricular needs when thinking about next year. New connections and relationships must be formed early on between advisers and student leaders, student leaders to new staffers and new staffers to adviser.
One way to kick your scholastic year off the right way is to consider hosting or planning a staff retreat with your publication team(s). Even if you haven’t utilized local journalism camps and workshops in your region, you can still head into your first day of school with a game plan and “process” in place to build these important relationships and skills with your staff. Short on time? Low on advertising dollars and revenue to have a great retreat? Scared on how to build overall interest, excitement and investment in your program this year?
Start your fall publication season with a successful, energizing and well-planned back to school publications retreat!
Logistics and Details of the Retreat
Initially, you must first decide where your staff needs to grow as a team. Do you need to teach valuable leadership skills to your editors to start off on the right foot? Is your team full of new sophomores and juniors who don’t know one another? Is the “culture” of your program not there due to being hybrid or full remote at some point last year? Write down three focus areas (culture, leadership and writing skills for example) that you would like to hone in on at your staff retreat. Selecting too many areas to address at a summer/back-to-school retreat may come off as intimidating for your staff, so select wisely!
Next, define your venue, schedule and time. Getting the right “vibe” can be very dependent on location! For you yearbook staff, we had a tradition while I advised the Royal Purple at Kansas State of a 3-4 hour retreat at Herff Jones in Kansas City to discuss theme, coverage, cover ideas and to visit the operations plant. For newsmag or online staff, consider renting or asking for a meeting room at your local newspaper to create a “news like” atmosphere where part of your training may include working with an opinion editor or a feature writer in your community. For broadcasting and video teams, make sure that some of your retreat training includes a fun b-roll activity, incorporate some drone training or create an engaging video challenge somewhere in the schedule.
Having your student leaders involved in the staff retreat planning process is highly advised as well. The idea here is to retreat AWAY from the classroom where you can loosen up a bit and ask your students about how their summer went, what they are looking forward to with being on staff and educate WHILE getting them around their peers to have some staff fun!
The Training and Skillbuilding Side of the Retreat
Having an honest conversation over coffee/lunch with your lead editors a couple weeks before your staff retreat is a great time to reflect on the trials and tribulations from last year, overall feedback on the incoming staff and what skills and learning may need to happen prior to the first day of school at your retreat. This conversation can not only help with the specific skills that need to be hit on at the retreat, but HOW your group can balance the “fun” of the event vs. the learning.
While at Kansas State, the Royal Purple yearbook editor would always take over planning and even set an agenda shared between Herff Jones, the yearbook team and adviser. The editors did a fantastic job of a balancing several full team discussions (overall goals and strategy) along with a lunch schedule, breakout sessions for specialized positions and strong conclusion/wrap-up meetings where we actually left the plant in Kansas City with a strategy, basic concept and even portions of the theme/name of the book ready for the next year.
This editor-created mock schedule for the yearbook retreat can be found here:
Maybe you have an excellent leadership system in place with upperclassmen where you can almost entirely give the reins to your leaders to plan your retreat. For MANY new advisers and even veteran advisers who are unsure about where their staff is from a skill perspective after a COVID-19 publication year (count me as part of this group) you may simply have to be more involved with the schedule, planning of the breakout sessions and be strategic with the kind of instruction and learning that happens in a very short time frame at your retreat. Make sure to tackle just a few specific skillbuilding areas on your retreat and do not overwhelm your staff (brain and focus is still partially on summer mode) with information; this will be the first time you have seen many of your students in several weeks and possibly the first “school” tasks they have really dug into since school ended!
The Team Building and Activity Side of the Retreat
It can be crucial towards building culture, the “team” mentality and keeping focus during your retreat with a strong set of interactive, engaging, fun and movement-fueled activities mixed into your schedule. Infuse activities, ideas and food that make sense with the time of year and weather you can expect while having your retreat.
Consider using a SurveyMonkey or class evaluation tool to get an idea of what your team views as a “fun” activity, as this will change year to year and with different dynamics and people on your team. What you as an adviser “thought” was enjoyable 5 to 10 years ago may not be the case anymore! For scheduling purposes, I’ve always liked to avoid Sundays because of church and family obligations along with Friday evenings. From my experience, Thursday evenings and Saturdays in the 12:00 to 4:00 p.m. range have been ideal time slots for these retreats and gatherings.
Whether it be a partner water balloon event to test accuracy and partner trust, straight-forward kickball game with new staffers vs. experienced staffers or even taking your entire team for a lunch and game of pickleball after the learning portion of your retreat, it’s crucial to ensure your students have fun with one another and their personalities begin to come out prior to the first day of school. Selecting activities based on the interests of your students on staff (the larger the staff, the more this will vary) can also be helpful.
If selecting an entertainment venue in your community (trampoline park, pickleball, amusement park) just ensure there are many different TYPES of activities for the different interests of your students. Consider using your budget dollars to pay entry/participation fees for your student while asking them to bring their own money for food and beverages.
It’s also important to “let your hair down” as an adviser and get dirty, competitive and let loose with your staff while these activities are happening. Some of the best conversations I’ve had getting to know students have been at these retreats and end of the year celebrations. It’s often an atmosphere that produces no expectations from a curriculum or deadline standpoint, allowing you as the adviser to ask them about their siblings, their summer vacation plans, where they are working or any basic small talk that will show your students you care about their life OUTSIDE of their role on your publications team. In order to get your teenage audience excited about a retreat for an elective course, the adviser must get really excited about the retreat in advance and talk about it for weeks up until the actual event!
Through the JEA.org Curriculum Initiative, there is a specific section on “Planning a Staff Retreat or Boot Camp” that would be incredibly useful towards planning your next retreat as well.
Conclusion-Building Culture Before the Chaos
An engaging, lively, high-energy and collaborative staff retreat in July or August prior to the first day of school can essentially jumpstart your team environment, creativity, routines and procedures to start your 2021-2022 school year.
These fun retreats, team get-togethers, end-of-the-year banquets and extra meetings will take time in you and your student leaders schedules, but the payoff a few months later is totally worth a couple hours of your summer break.
Begin building a culture of dedication, relationship building, communication and team-first mentality by considering a staff retreat before your first day of school this coming school year.