Looking back on 35 years – a retrospective take on a respected yearbook adviser’s illustrious career
Written by Sarah Scott
Yearbook advisers last an average of three years on the job, but Jim Jordan is retiring at the end of this school year with more than 10 times that tenure. He has been a yearbook adviser at Del Campo High School in Fair Oaks, California for 35 years.
Under his leadership the Decamhian yearbook has won 13 CSPA Crown Awards and 19 NSPA Pacemaker Awards. Jordan was named the 1996 JEA Yearbook Adviser of the Year. He has also has been awarded the Gold Key by CSPA, the Pioneer Award from NSPA and the Medal of Merit from JEA.
More than that, Jordan has connected with students and the people he’s worked with over the years. A mark of his popularity: Jordan’s first yearbook editor – from 34 years ago – will be at his upcoming retirement party, along with his current and final editor. He keeps in touch with yearbook staff from every year he’s been an adviser.
Jordan is known for his loquacious tendencies and certainly lived up to the reputation during an interview with Walsworth Yearbooks.
Walsworth: Let’s go back to the beginning. How did you get into teaching and yearbook advising?
My father was a school administrator and when I started college the last thing I thought I wanted to be was a teacher. Then my second semester of college, I met this amazing professor who got me loving literature. And then I decided, “Wow. It might be kind of cool to teach high school kids about literature and writing and stuff like that.” And I decided I was going to be a high school teacher.
I got into teaching because I loved literature and I have stayed in teaching because I love high school-aged kids.
You’ve been an adviser for 35 years. What is it about yearbook that’s kept you from tearing yourself away?
It totally has been this connection to kids. When I talk about my workshops, I always use this line that I open up with, “Who are we as yearbook people, yearbook students? We are bright, talented, creative students working as a team to create something beautiful through words, photos and contemporary design that will last a lifetime.” It’s this idea of academic coaching, that you get these great kids together.
It’s putting kids in a situation with the right tools and the right guidance and the right training, where they can discover and use talents they didn’t know they had. That whole process of awakening talent in kids – that’s what’s made it interesting all these years, as far as the day-to-day grind of putting out the yearbook.
Beyond that, I’ve made thousands of friends, literally, all across the country. Advisers and students and all sorts of things, that have enriched me as a professional as well. It’s always exciting.
What are some of the important lessons you’ve learned over the years?
The number one lesson of the process of leadership is that you have to train everybody to communicate. If people aren’t talking about the issues and the problems and being upfront with what they are, that’s when you have trouble. So the need and the importance of constant communication.
When I don’t create an atmosphere where that happens, we’re going to have problems. If I’m not open to kids telling me ̶ good, bad or indifferent ̶ what’s going on, then you’re going to have problems. But when communication is flowing, we can have much more success.
That’s a big lesson learned. And another one is just the power of students to master software and hardware and to create things that are amazing. To see what my students have been able to do, it’s mind-boggling. And I think adults quite frequently sell high school kids short. They don’t give them credit for how amazingly talented they are. But, on the same token, you have to create an atmosphere where kids feel valued, and they have the room to fail, and the freedom to try new things. And frankly, as time goes on, it gets harder to recruit those kind of kids that are up for that kind of challenge.
That’s always a dilemma any adviser is going to face, is how do you get the kids into your room that have the desire and the talent and the willingness to try new things and find the talents that they have.
Why do you think that’s getting more difficult?
There’s lots of reasons. I think there are more options for kids now. And we’ve seen this arc, too, of when the desktop publishing was new. Yearbook was state-of-the art, and it was sexy to have computers that nobody else had. And now more of that is common place. It’s not as flashy and shiny. It’s more seen as work. Kids have more access to technology, they have more access to jobs, they have more access to things – good things – that are happening around school. There was a time when all of those things didn’t exist. And it’s just harder to find kids to commit to this nine-month process of creating a book. And for a lot of kids it’s too daunting.
Kids that do it get value, get unbelievable value from it, but it’s hard to get kids to commit to that kind of daunting work.
I’m told by people who know you that you’ve had a very impressive group of kids over the years. How would you say your class helped them in life?
This is one of the stories that’s amazing. I have a student, he was on the staff in 1987 but his main year was 1988. He won the MacArthur prize – it’s called the genius award and they give about seven of them every year.
He got it for his work with immunology, because he was involved with the SARS virus. He’s still doing that work. He was put in our district’s hall of fame and I got to introduce him. And he said, “The graphic skills that I learned in yearbook, I use every day when I’m making proposals for new funding, when I’m communicating with people about projects that I’m involved in.”
I just hear over and over again that kids take the skill, the leadership skills, the graphic arts skills, the writing skills. And they use them in whatever field they go into.
Talk about a gift to me as an educator – I’m privileged to hear that, that kids learn something that was valuable and they continue to use it in their careers.
If your yearbook staffers remembered you and your class for one thing, what do you think that would be?
I would hope they would say that I pushed them to find levels of greatness in themselves, and I pushed them to create a level of greatness in their book that they wouldn’t have gotten to had I not been there mentoring, pushing, cheerleading, telling them it’s not good enough when they needed to hear that. That’s what I hope that they would say.
That’s one thing that I would say is a hallmark of the Decamhian – our yearbook – is that we are detail people. We’re going to know how much space is between the headline and the body of text. We know how much this is set up, and why we did it this way. We are fanatical about details.
I see that more and more in life, nobody’s fanatical about details. Nobody follows directions. And so, if you are a detail person, you’re going to be valuable wherever you are.
Do you have any advice for yearbook advisers who are just starting out?
The number one thing is you’ve got to recruit the best kids. You really can’t do this at a high level unless you have kids who are intellectually curious, and wanting to work hard, and wanting to explore their own talents. And you have to be the person that finds those people and you have to be the person that nurtures that.
And then – I’ll give a commercial here – there is one of the great things that we’re trying to do at Walsworth. I’ve been involved with the Mentor Program. We’re trying to give new advisers support so they can talk to somebody on a regular basis who will say things like, “I’m never sure whether the book’s going to come out on time. I worry about how the pages are going to come together on that deadline before Christmas and here’s some strategies that I’ve used to help get through that.”
Don’t let yourself become an island. Hook yourself up with the journalism community that can support you. I literally have hundreds of great adviser friends that I can turn to and that I share with. And that’s the great thing about social media and Facebook is that we’re sharing our burdens and our joys every day. You know, it’s not me, it’s just how it is. And we’ll buck up and make it happen.
Just find yourself support to let people come alongside you and show you that they’ve been there, too.
Why is mentoring advisers a big deal to you?
Because I would like them to find the joy in being a yearbook adviser that I have. Also, we’re at a critical time here now. Unless we have people who are willing to see this as more than just a burden, if we don’t get great people wanting to be yearbook advisers and stay in it for more than one or two years, it’s going to have a huge effect on the quality of the yearbooks that are created, which will then have a huge effect on whether or not schools are going to make yearbooks a viable part of their curriculum and their school culture.
So, if we don’t have people that want to keep doing it, the form is going to diminish. And my greatest fear is that yearbooks are only going to be meaningful in schools where the parents are affluent and they have a yearbook in their past. If you’re not upper middle class and owned a yearbook as a parent, the schools that don’t have a majority of those kind of parents and those kind of kids, I’m worried that the yearbook form is going to die out. And you’re going to see schools continue to eliminate them from their curriculum.
The key to making that not happen is having professional people that enjoy the process of putting it together.
Why is it important that all schools of all demographics produce a yearbook?
It’s the very nature of what a yearbook is. It’s the permanent record, the permanent physical record of what happens at an American high school during a calendar school year. And if students are doing it well, they’re telling a meaningful story. And if you don’t have a publication, that is going to be lost ̶ a permanent publication like that.
And newspapers and online stuff fill that role, but as you see with your 9,000 pictures you have on your phone – do you have those catalogued anywhere? Is there any kind of a story that goes along with them? That’s our job, to be the storytellers of the school. The permanent-record storytellers.
You’ve won a lot of awards. What do you attribute this to?
What happens is you create a legacy of success. It’s all about culture. You want to create a culture of excellence, a culture of communication, a culture of quality – wherever you are!
I saw what we could do when we worked together collaboratively in yearbook. The legacy of quality keeps the book being great, but then it also gives back to the kids, who then understand what a legacy of quality is.
And we’ve won awards because we believe, I believe, that if I’m going to put my time into it, it’s going to be great. To put out a mediocre book takes a lot of time and effort. So why not just notch it up a couple and put out one that’s the best you possibly can?
You have been with Walsworth for your entire career. Do you think you’ve benefited by sticking with one yearbook company?
Oh, yeah. They’ve been so supportive of what I’ve done. And there’s been some things, like desktop publishing, we grew it together. And you meet the people. There’s one guy, he’s long-since passed away. His name is John Hamilton. And, and – I’m going to cry here – the spirit of (Jordan sighs deeply) he’s been gone so long that people won’t even remember him.
But I used to bring my kids every spring to the plant. We’d usually come on the first weekend in May. And I couldn’t wait until we would take the kids into the plant and they would meet John Hamilton. And John Hamilton was and is the heart of what Walsworth is. It’s real people doing the work of yearbooks, who really care about you as an individual.
He worked in the color department at the time – this is almost pre-desktop publishing. And he had his people that he worked with and they knew Del Campo High School. And when we would come in there, he would always make my kids feel like they were the most important people in the world. And he was funny. I wish I could remember… he had these Missouri-isms that were just hilarious.
John Hamilton working in the Walsworth plant cared about my kids and he knew me. He didn’t have to do that. It was just his job. But that’s the kind of people that work at Walsworth. That was back when Walsworth only had one plant in Marceline. They were great people that took great pride in their work, and I knew that. And I knew I could walk in that plant at any time and people would take good care of me and my kids.
And you don’t get that from the big conglomeration companies quite in the same way.
I was told, before I let you go, to ask about your Gatsby suit.
Oh my goodness. I’m obsessed with teaching The Great Gatsby. I’ve been teaching it since the middle-80s. I’ve probably read it 75 times, probably taught it 75 times. Well, in one of the early chapters Nick, who’s the major character, he goes to this party and he’s wearing a white flannel suit. And I would always say to my students, “When you get rich, I want one of you who’s rich to buy me a white flannel suit so I can teach The Great Gatsby as Nick in the white flannel suit.” Blah blah blah, laugh, you know, crazy – been doing that for years.
Well, then, the Leonardo DiCaprio movie came out and at the same time, Brooks Brothers – who’s a real famous men’s clothier from New York – they came out with a Great Gatsby line that went along with the movie. And so, I was down in Los Angeles, I went to a Brooks Brothers store and I looked at all the clothes.
And some of the jackets were $700. The pants were $400. The shoes were $400. Well, as I looked at the stuff and looked at the advertising for it, now Facebook’s involved. I get on Facebook and I say, “You know, somebody should buy me the pink suit that’s the Gatsby suit from chapter seven.” And on Facebook they laughed, “Oh, yeah, we should do that, blah blah blah.”
Then about a year later, it starts coming up on the ads in Facebook that they’re having a closeout sale on the Great Gatsby stuff. So I do a screenshot, put it up again. “Somebody should buy me this suit, come on!”
Well two of my 1992 editors-in-chief, they’re now in their 40s, they started a GoFundMe. And over 40 of my colleagues and former students raised $1,400…
(There’s a long pause, and Jordan chokes up)
…and they bought me the suit.
And it’s this beautiful pink linen suit. And now, when I teach chapter seven of The Great Gatsby, I teach chapter seven wearing the pink suit.
And that’s a physical (he takes another deep breath) reminder that’s it’s been a pretty good career.
And what you did had meaning and meant something to somebody.
(There’s another long pause)
I wasn’t expecting to cry.
That’s so amazing, though.
It’s pretty amazing because I’m still close with those two kids. And another one of them who got involved, I went up and saw her when we were in Seattle for the JEA convention. And (deep breath) it’s pretty amazing. It’s pretty amazing.
Jim, do you have anything else you want to talk about, or that people should know about you?
No, just that I’ve been very proud of the fact that I’m a career teacher. I could have been a principal, I could have left and worked for Apple or whatever. But I decided I wanted to be a career teacher because (Jordan takes a deep breath) there’s something powerful and amazing about working with high school kids every day.
Yeah, they’re a pain. And I have developed a world where I get to work with the very best. I don’t have to work with a lot of kids that cause problems for everybody else. But in my world, I have the privilege of working with the best kids every day. And that’s a pretty amazing way to spend every day of your working life.
I have a little suite of rooms, room 16 and 17. And I have taught in this room 17, where I’m sitting right now – room 16 is the yearbook room – I’ve been in here literally every day since 1982.
And I can sit here…
(Jordan takes a deep breath before continuing.)
And I can point at desks, and I can remember who sat there, and I can remember what they’ve gone on to do. And can even remember where the kid in my class sat that committed suicide. And I can see the two desks with flowers on them for the girl who died during a car accident in 1995.
There’s something rich and amazing about having done this for this long in one place. And I’ve had the privilege to work with the great kids that I have.
(Now he laughs)
On the other hand, you can’t do it forever. I don’t want to teach until I’m 90. I don’t want to be that guy who stayed too long.
So it sounds like “Why would he leave?” Well, the time comes where it’s just time. Time to try something new. Time to mix it up a little bit and go out there and find the next adventure.
I hope your next adventure is as wonderful as teaching has been.
Well, it can’t help but be because that’s just who I try to be. Wherever you are, you try to find happiness and joyfulness and be thankful for what you have.
This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.