September 2, 2003 / Fall 2003 / Staff Management

Always Plan for the Unplannable

Written by Michael K. Frazier

Veteran advisers look back at their first year or two and wish someone had warned them about what can go wrong. Here are some of the more common issues that advisers face, and tips for avoiding or resolving them. We tried to come up with a list of the Top Ten Pitfalls to Avoid, but we can’t count, so here Mike Frazier’s article with help from advisers Renae Goldie, Amy Morgan and Danielle Bradley, and yearbook representative Karen Ray.

Get Organized
The first few weeks of a new school year may be the most challenging for the yearbook adviser. The amount of detail can be overwhelming. Organizing does take time, but it is time well spent. It is the backbone for meeting deadlines, making good choices and giving students a positive yearbook experience. If the backbone is weak, however, the entire body may collapse. Do not be afraid to take time to organize. Once the essentials are in place, everyone can get down to business in a confident and comfortable manner.

Share Your Expectations and Goals
Even the most experienced staff members need and want guidance. They need to know what you expect of them. What are the minimum standards allowed? Where should they go for help? Who or what are the best resources to use? What happens if an event or activity is canceled? By addressing these issues early, staff members will understand that you have considered some inevitable pitfalls and have a plan for handling them. If the staff is motivated to enter competitions, be sure to include judging guidelines and previous critiques as part of the staff training program.

Select the Staff Carefully
Although some editing positions may have been determined by the end of the previous year, adjustments may be necessary. Just as a coach tries to find the best people for specific roles, so should the adviser. Take time to know every staff member. When possible, allow students to gravitate toward an area of production that suits them well. If your workflow allows students to specialize in layout, writing or photography, let them focus on those areas with minimal overlap.

If your workflow requires a major overlap of these three areas, take time to develop job descriptions so there are no surprises or misunderstandings as to who is responsible for what work. Or the staff may be able to create the job descriptions. Let them. Give them ownership and they are more likely to be responsible for their work. You may need to assist them in tweaking the descriptions to suit your staff’s needs, but as long as you have some experienced staff members, they should be able to develop these without much problem. Also, you can contact your state press association for sample job descriptions. If they don’t have them, they can help you find a staff that is willing to share theirs.

Advisers Advise, Editors Edit
New advisers often bring fresh enthusiasm to the staff. However, yearbook belongs to the students, not the adviser. Good advisers take care of training their staffs properly, including how to make good editorial choices. Barring potential legal problems, though, these should be student choices. Certainly, you can explain the pros and cons of whatever they do.

Feel free to contribute in any brainstorming the staff may do, however, once the staff is trained, let them do their work. This builds trust and confidence. If you tend to rewrite copy, choose new photos, or change layouts to suit yourself, students miss out on a valuable learning experience. Your choices may be better, but let them explain their position. It may be a matter of looking at subject from a different perspective or it may reveal a need for additional training. Besides, once they know you will just change their work anyway, they have little reason to give you their best effort. Who should work harder — the adviser or staffer?

Train the Staff Thoroughly
Some new advisers want their staffs to jump right in and start page production. A well-trained, seasoned staff may be able to do that, but in the real world, most staffs need some training before production can (or should) begin. Jumping the gun on page production can be counterproductive. Making changes later can waste more time than you have as a deadline approaches.

Start by training everyone who will take photos since the staff needs to begin recording the year immediately. Next, train the writers. They should accompany photographers to the events and specialize in interviewing and identifying the important information. Finally, train the layout people. Whether using basic templates or creating custom designs, everyone who is responsible for the layout and design needs to know the guidelines or format required for each section. Certainly, experienced staff members should assist in the training process whenever possible. Good training resources are available from Walsworth Publishing Company, software publishers and the various state and national press associations. Pay particular attention to the publishing company guidelines as these may form other suggested procedures.

Carve Deadlines in Stone
Perhaps the adviser’s most frustrating aspect of yearbook production is making sure all staff members meet their deadlines. There are probably as many ways to do this as there are yearbook staffs, but regardless of the method, the end result must be that staffers, especially rookies, understand why this is important.

Make sure every staff member understands the rewards of meeting a deadline and then be sure they are appropriately rewarded. Good grades are enough for some, but a little food or trinket can motivate students more than you might think. In turn, make sure every staff member understands the consequences of missing a deadline and follow through on penalties. Be sure consequences include requiring extra time to complete the work so the staffer is not trapped into a continuous cycle of late work. Whenever possible, do NOT allow students to adjust other deadlines in order to complete the work.

Do the ladder as early as possible. Once the ladder has been established, it is possible to set the deadlines for shipping pages to the publisher. Look to see when one-time events occur and when the various sports seasons end and assign a shipping deadline for every spread in the book. Try to divide the number of pages as evenly as possible for each deadline.

One method that has proven successful is to allow students to set the rough and final deadlines for their own work. This should be done for each aspect of production: photos/captions, copy and layout. Generally speaking, a student should not have more than one rough or final due on the same day. This also allows students to plan work schedules and athletic practices around their yearbook responsibilities. The editors should make a chart or calendar showing what is due each day of a deadline period. A copy should be given to each staffer and posted in the classroom. The adviser can easily follow the workflow and not have all the pages dumped on the desk on one final day.

Staffs with books distributed in the spring need to watch out for the January deadline. It comes after the vacation and around finals. Try to get the December deadline done early so there is time to start on the January deadline.

Everything In Its Place
It is amazing how often students show up without their materials. Yearbook staffers have little excuse, however, if there is a designated area in the room where they can store their work. Computers help eliminate some storage problems for layouts, but there are photos and reporter notes to consider as well. A filing cabinet works well for this, especially if it is designed for legal-sized documents. Creating file folders for each spread in the book is an effective means for staffers to stay organized. Staffers should have ready access to the files, but should not be allowed to remove materials without permission.

The relatively small cost of the cabinet and folders, if not already available from your school or donated by a local business, is truly one of the most worthwhile investments your staff can make. It frees the adviser’s desk of extra clutter and provides a secure place from prying eyes, nosey noses and “sticky” fingers that wander through the room in other hours of the day.

Confirm Appointments
While students will demand most of your attention, you will (thankfully) need to interact with adults on occasion. If you are responsible for arranging school pictures and group photos, contact the photographer as far in advance as possible to set the dates. This allows plenty of time for the photographer to send brochures and ordering information to the school. About a week or two before the shooting dates, call the photographer to confirm the schedule. Although normally reliable, professional photographers are subject to the same human foibles as anyone else. Schedules get lost, computer files disappear, employees change, equipment breaks, people forget. Hmm, sound familiar?

Also, make sure everyone in your building or district knows when photo dates are scheduled. Sending schedules at least a week ahead of the date serves as a great reminder. Be sure to consult athletic directors for the best times for group photos. Depending on how other group photos are shot, be sure to confirm the time and place with the group sponsor.

Yearbook representatives can confirm their visits with you, so just ask if you need them to do so. Sometimes things come up and you may have to postpone.

Technology — If It Can Go Wrong, It Will
Inventory the computers, hardware, software and accessories so you know what you own. Determine if you need it and if it is up-do-date. Get into the habit of backing up files daily. When students lose stuff, it is heartbreaking for them and stressful for you.

Have a plan to organize digital images. Designate a staff member to be the digital manager. It will not take long for digital images to pile up, with some taking up unnecessary space. Management of these files, with clear file names, will keep them from getting lost.

Know the Financial Status
Be totally aware of the financial situation of the yearbook. Review past records, and start record-keeping for this year. List income and expenses. Put a business manager in charge of ad and book sales and record-keeping.

Work Some Public Relations Magic
Publicize the good things your staff is doing by using the daily announcements, the school newspaper or posters outside the yearbook room. Many times, other teachers do not understand how your staff needs to operate to do its job. Good publicity will spread good will and help establish a positive rapport when you and your staff need to work with teachers and others in the school.

Think About Yourself
Do not isolate yourself. Develop a network of people you can call for questions and advice. Use your yearbook representative and customer service representative, network with other advisers at workshops, and use other teachers within your school and local professionals. All can offer something to at least one aspect of yearbook production.

It’s a Learning Experience
Remember, someone will always complain, so do not get caught in the trap that it is all your fault. You cannot prevent everything. It is ultimately a learning experience for everyone involved.

Michael K. Frazier

Michael Frazier is a retired former yearbook and newspaper adviser from Hanover Central High School in Cedar Lake, Indiana. Frazier spent 30 years at Hanover Central, where his staffs and yearbooks earned national honors. He was chosen as a Distinguished Adviser by JEA in 1997.