Photo by: Byron Belcher

Empowering yearbook students to become future leaders

Written by Tiffany Cavicchia, NBCT

“A young girl was walking along a beach upon which thousands of starfish had been washed up during a terrible storm. When she came to each starfish, she would pick it up, and throw it back into the ocean. People watched her with amusement. She had been doing this for some time when a man approached her and said, ‘Little girl, why are you doing this? Look at this beach! You can’t save all these starfish. You can’t begin to make a difference!’ The girl seemed crushed, suddenly deflated. But after a few moments, she bent down, picked up another starfish, and hurled it as far as she could into the ocean. Then she looked up at the man and replied, ‘Well, I made a difference to that one!’”

— Adapted from The Star Thrower by Loren C. Eiseley

I gave this poem and starfish pins to my class to remind them how important their job is as yearbook staffers. They are the starfish collectors of the school who have the extraordinary opportunity to find students to showcase in the book to make them feel special. People are willing to open up when they feel valued and heard  —  those are the stories we want to feature.

Yearbook is a unique situation as the only student-run “business” in the school. Sure, other groups have boosters run by parents, but yearbook is managed by one adviser and is successful because of the students within it. As with any company, those employees want to feel like they matter and their opinion counts.

According to, empower is a verb meaning to give (someone) the authority or power to do something or make (someone) stronger and more confident. When students feel empowered, they feel ownership in the product, courage to think creatively and a desire to meet expectations.

I try to do the same for my students; I believe if they feel supported, encouraged and pushed, they will surprise themselves as to what heights they can reach.

I never want my students to feel that any idea is trivial or insignificant because then they will never want to suggest anything. Now, don’t get me wrong; I have an incredibly vocal opinion and have high expectations, but I have found that once they feel they have my honest support, they will rise to any challenge.

Here are some ways to empower your staff:

1. Shout-outs

We have a morale chair who is in charge of collecting three shout-outs per person per week. And yes, they receive a grade for completing the shout-outs. Not only does it give the morale chair a leadership role, but the students find positive things to highlight about each other each week. Whether it was a design score, brilliant copy, clever picture or a simple thank-you for helping that week, every staffer writes a few. We open our shout-out envelopes at deadline parties. I also recommend the morale chair checks the envelopes each week to ensure everyone is getting something. If not, the chair is to write one for them. It works best when you, the adviser, try to write two per week, too.

2. Individual contests

These events through local media organizations, NSPA, CSPA and others provide individual recognition. It is usually $5 per entry for local and national contests. I let the class nominate their favorite spreads, copy and pictures, and then the graduating seniors choose the top 10-20 to submit. The contest awards recognize the students individually, giving them ownership over our enterprise.

3. Names on pages they design

On our staff, the designers also write the copy, so our folios include the designer’s name to give them ownership over the spread. They are more particular when their name is on the page for all the readers to see. Try copy and photo credits too — anything to showcase their work.

4. Nominations and résumé builders

Quill and Scroll, NSPA Journalism Honor Roll, National English Honor Society — nominate students for honor roll and honor societies. NSPA’s honor roll is free if you are a member. Not only can they add this to their résumés, but they will also receive award certificates to boost their self-esteem.

5. Final spread critique

We have folders for each spread that include the very first draft and final spread submitted. Once the page has been finalized, all students have to complete a spread critique where they are to acknowledge and comment on the changes to their spread (such as what they learned; what text, graphic and photo changes were made; note on the overall progression of their idea). They also have to reflect on what they could do differently from the start, which helps them appreciate the creative process and explain why certain changes made the final spread look cleaner. Allowing them to see the evolution of their spread encourages them to take more ownership over the next spread.

6. “Punny” thank-you treats for teachers and staff

Teaching our students to be appreciative of the teachers who are patient with their interruptions builds a respectable program. At the beginning of every school year, students get in groups of two to three and are assigned one month’s worth of goodies. We spend two periods designing and printing the labels and assembling the treats with a silly pun playing off the holiday for the month. For example: “Thank you for your extra patience with us” (with Extra gum) or “You deserve an extra payday for your hard work during exam week” (with PayDay candy bars). The yearbook staff delivers these once a month to every faculty and staff member.

7. Thank-you notes

Every deadline, each staff member writes one thank-you card to an adult in the school who helped him or her that deadline. It could be to a teacher for letting them out of class, a custodian for taking out the trash after a deadline party or a coach for letting them on the field to take pictures. Tip: We ordered our thank-you postcards through Walsworth, where they personalized them and printed on cardstock for us.

8. JEA/NSPA conferences

Packed with student empowerment, the JEA/NSPA conference every November and April offers an insane number of classes for students. Attend these conferences and encourage your students to try two to three things they learned and carry it through the book.

9. Honesty

If you don’t like their design, picture or story, then tell them. Too often, teachers offer blank praise and the students know it isn’t sincere. Your staff will respect you more if your opinion has weight and suggestions, because they will appreciate your honesty rather than generic praise.

10. Let them plan

Create a to-do list of expectations and allow them to set dates and add ideas. For example, for our senior section, I created a lengthy outline listing all the parts that need to go into the section — senior quotes, superlatives, top 10 seniors with feature stories, baby pictures, etc.  —  and I allow the senior section editors to choose the deadlines. Although I gave them the outline and order to complete the tasks, they feel organized, have ownership over their sections and have a specific plan to follow.

Yerd Spotlight award

This is one award, presented by one student to another student. We have a decorated jar filled with candy and inspirational quotes that is passed on every month. The students choose staffers and recognize them in front of the class at deadline parties; they always impress me how they choose people outside their social circle to recognize.

I inherited a struggling program where it was “every man for himself.” Students didn’t take pride or ownership over their responsibilities, and the staff would get frustrated with each other when they didn’t pull their weight.

I started with a few ideas each year to build trust, confidence and relationships, which led to the kids having fun in the class and enjoying the chaotic family dynamic we embrace today.

It takes one student to buy into an idea or principle… one starfish at a time. How many starfish can you save this year?

“True leaders don’t create followers… they create 
more leaders.”

—  J. Sakiya Sandifer

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Tiffany Cavicchia, NBCT

Tiffany Cavicchia, NBCT, was a journalism major who worked for CNN and Teen People magazine before becoming a teacher. She has been teaching English for 14 years and yearbook for four. At Mooresville High School in North Carolina she advised The Pitchfork yearbook, which she rebuilt from the ground up, earning countless student awards and multiple regional and national awards, among them a 2017 JEA Rising Star for herself. She continues to nurture talent in budding designers and journalists.