2005 Yearbook Adviser of the Year Akers inspires students to aim for excellence
Written by Elizabeth Braden, CJE
“Don’t settle for less than your best.”
Martha Akers gives her students that advice and lives it herself as an example to them. That role model is one of the many reasons Akers was selected as the 2005 JEA Yearbook Adviser of the Year.
“We want to challenge ourselves to do the best for our school,” Akers said.
Akers has spent all of her 26 years of teaching as yearbook adviser at Loudoun Valley High School in Purcellville, Va. When you count her eight years on yearbook staff in high school and college, which included stints as editor, Akers has spent a lot of years reaching for excellence and guiding her students to do the same.
It was not always like that. Twenty-six years ago, the principal at Loudoun Valley needed a yearbook adviser – again – as the position had seen some job turnover. Then, in his mail arrived a resume with a cover letter from Akers saying she wanted to teach photojournalism. A grateful principal hired her.
When Akers began, yearbook at Loudoun Valley had been a supervised study hall with no credit. It stayed that way for 20 years, even when the Saga started receiving state and national awards in the mid-1980s. Akers worked nights and weekends with students to help them produce the book.
Then in 1999-2000, Loudoun Valley offered its first photojournalism class for credit, and those students would produce the yearbook. About 75 students signed up. Akers said the principal then, Ken Culbert, asked her to tell 50 students they could not be in the class. Tactfully, she said no, that if he thought students should be cut, then he should be the one to tell them. But she also asked him to think about something.
“You would never have asked the teachers to cut students from band, art, drama or chorus. If this is going to be a fine arts elective, why would you limit it?”
The three photojournalism classes that year have blossomed into the current five, with about 127 students enrolled this year.
“What he came to acknowledge (was that) it was a program in which students who couldn’t act or sing found a home to learn something that was valuable later,” Akers said.
Along the way, Akers received the NSPA Pioneer Award and was inducted into the National Scholastic Journalism Hall of Fame at the University of Oklahoma. Her students and their yearbooks have won CSPA Silver and Gold Crowns, NSPA Pacemakers, and two coveted state awards: consecutive Virginia High School League Trophies for more than 20 years and three Col. Charles E. Savedge Awards for Sustained Excellence in Scholastic Journalism in the yearbook category.
“Those local bragging rights are important,” Akers said. No other Virginia high school has received three Savedge Awards, which are bestowed after five consecutive VHSL trophies are earned.
The Savedge Awards also are special because they are named after her most influential mentor, Charles Savedge, the headmaster at Augusta Military Academy in Fort Defiance, Va., who she met at a yearbook workshop when she was in the eighth grade. She attended his workshops through high school, and paid the fee to attend as a college student. The friendship lasted for years.
“From my first year as an adviser, he encouraged me,” she said.
Like Savedge, Akers spends part of her summers mentoring and teaching students and advisers from other schools.
“I love interaction with the kids from across the country,” she said. “I love working with journalism kids, seeing if I can make a difference in the limited time frame.”
Meeting with other students enables her to help them and to bring back to her Loudoun Valley students a new way of looking at yearbook. Sometimes she follows up with the staffs that she meets during a summer workshop by meeting with them at venues such as JEA conventions.
Much of what Akers does each summer is to spend time with other advisers, many of whom have become her friends. Doing adviser workshops is her “professional growth each year.”
“I like having the opportunity to see if I can make a difference with advisers,” she said, adding that she wants to keep people in the profession.
Students own the program
Akers said advisers around the country ask her how she maintains a high-quality program. She tells them it is the kids who set the bar.
“We have learned over the years to compete with ourselves and not other people,” she said. “They (the students) are the people who keep us there. If there’s a misstep, it’s because they are willing to take chances.”
She said that attitude among staff each year has meant the school produces yearbooks that do not look alike.
“Twenty-six years ago I was trying to convince them to write captions. Then I was trying to teach them how to write a good caption. Now they automatically produce that, so they are going on ahead of themselves,” Akers said.
Staff members can love the current book and, even if they worked on it, they can explain where it could be improved. Akers said it would be so easy for her staffs to keep doing the same thing because it works, but they do not.
“The only thing I have to remind them is to keep thinking and not settle.”
And they do keep thinking.
“I’m sending students (out) who have great critical-thinking skills, who can see the big picture as well as the little picture.”
Akers said she enjoys the entire yearbook process, but the most exciting part is the initial conceptual stage. She said her staff starts with what they want to improve in the next book, and begin by poring over results of their annual end-of-year poll.
For example, in 1999, the staff wanted photos of more people in the book. So they discussed the rule about captions with every photo and when to apply that journalistic standard, thinking, this is a rule, this is how we are going to break it.
“This is what keeps it fresh (for me),” Akers said. “Every group of students is different and every group is as special as the one before.
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