September 21, 2000 / Fall 2000 / Staff Management

No Surprises

Written by Lisa Morris

Questions key to taking on someone else’s program

New yearbook advisers routinely face obstacles, but when the little pink phone message sheet appeared in my mail tray in mid-November, it aroused no suspicion. The message seemed harmless: “Call the yearbook plant.” Yet, the news I learned when I made that call was straight out of the yearbook X-files.

“Did you know,” asked the customer service representative, “that so far we’ve only received 16 pages of your book?”

I naively reminded her that we were a fall delivery book and assured her that we would have another set of pages in before the holidays.

A long pause followed, which she broke by clearing her throat. “No, Ms. Morris, I’m not talking about your current book. I mean we’ve only received 16 pages of last year’s book.”

I learned my lesson: When taking on another adviser’s program, it is never too soon to adopt a “No Surprises” stance. Questions are the key to avoiding surprises, and from that point on, I asked lots of them! As the new adviser, you may not like all the answers, but armed with facts, you will be able to walk into your new job with your eyes wide open. Often the first step toward fitting into a new job is realizing exactly what the job is.

Doing your homework

Contracts

Early on, check what contracts are in place for the school year. Review the publishing company contract and find out the status of the prior year’s book. Is it complete? When will it ship? Schedule a meeting with the company representative. The rep can tell you a little about the yearbook program’s history and can address any concerns and questions.

Review the photography contracts, too. What photos are included in the contract? Underclass? Seniors? Sports? Candids? When and how will the photos be taken and delivered? What part in the process will the yearbook staff members play? Will the yearbook staff receive part of the commission?

Financial Records
Financial responsibility is a large part of yearbook advising, so talk with the school’s bookkeeper and check the publication’s financial records from last year.

  • How much money is in the account?
  • Is the book in debt? How much? Will the administration help get the program out of debt? Within what time frame do they expect you to make the program financially stable? Check the records to find out why the debt occurred in the first place.
  • How much money is still owed to creditors – especially to the yearbook publisher?
  • How much was spent on film, supplies and printing costs for the yearbook?
  • How is money generated? Does the school provide any financial support? Does the senior class pay to have their portraits printed in color? Has the staff held fundraisers in the past and how much was earned?

Class Sizes
While in the office, check the publication’s stability by seeing whether the yearbook staff size has been growing or decreasing over the past few years. Also, how many students are returning to the program, and what grades are they in?

Facilities
Tour the facilities available to you and your classes. If the staff will be using a “community computer lab,” be sure to check into what other classes will be using it too. It is hard to use a lab when an accounting class plans to use it during the same hour!

Technology
Ask questions about the cameras, equipment, scanner, printer and the computers.

  • How old is the equipment?
  • What is the computer replacement schedule?
  • How are replacements funded?
  • How much memory do the machines have, and how much is needed to run the software?
  • What software is in place, how up to date is it, and is all the software licensed?

As the new adviser, you are in a great position to point out problems that may have been overlooked for years – old cameras, antique computers and outdated software. While it is nice to make a technology “dream list,” are there supplies needed immediately to begin this year’s book? The former adviser probably approached the administration with the same concerns, but sometimes they do not hear the message until it is delivered by a new voice.

Publications
Finally, be sure to look at the school’s publications. Take copies of the yearbook and newspapers home and look through them carefully. They will help you see what expectations are in place at the school. Look at the quality of the publications, but also look at the people and events covered. This will give you a preview of the year to come.

Working with the yearbook staff

Set the Tone
If possible, send a summer letter to student staff members, introducing yourself and your expectations. In the letter, set the tone by being upbeat, presenting the year as an exciting challenge and a “fresh start.” Organize a staff meeting/pizza party before school begins where you can meet the students and ask questions. Lead by positive example – do not criticize the past – instead, move them into the goal setting for the future.

Student goals and input
From the beginning, avoid “turf wars” by making it clear that it is their book, not yours, and that their input is valued. Encourage them to make written lists of what worked the year before and what did not – what they want to keep, and what they want to change.

Discuss these lists over the summer or at the beginning of the year, and come up with a master list of what worked, what did not and suggested changes. Ask questions to cover any areas students leave out. How were photos assigned last year? How did that work out? How were proofs handled? Are you happy with that process? How did the student body react to last year’s book? What did they like? Dislike? And so on.

Evaluate the master list with the editors. Try to keep what worked for the students, and replace what did not work with new ideas, both yours and theirs. Change can be frightening, but by giving the students ownership in the process, you begin building an understanding of what the program was, is and can be.

Pinpointing problem areas
Realize everything cannot be changed the first year. Help the students decide what changes are most essential and work on those areas. For example, during my first year, the staff focused on the basics: meeting deadlines and improving computer skills and photography. Since then we have used those basic goals as a foundation and added new more challenging goals eachÊyear.

Communicate and compromise
Once you get the students talking, keep them talking.

  • Plan activities that encourage the staff to get to know each other and you. These activities could be simple classroom activities like playing a question/answer game, untangling a human knot, or chatting over pizza. On a larger scale hold a one-day workshop focusing on team building and planning the book.
  • Take a retreat or trip together. Anything that lets you bond as a team will work. Early in the year we get together at least three times: once for dinner, once for an “over-nighter” to the state high school press convention, and once for a day-trip to the local Walsworth fall idea workshop.
  • Build staff morale and reward students for doing well and meeting deadlines.

These activities foster the trust needed to keep the lines of communication open. You will not do everything the way their former adviser did. They will not do everything your former students did. Talk to each other about problems, solutions and compromises so everyone wins.

Expectations and grades
Go into the school year with a grading system in place. Explain it to students during the first few days of school. Put the grading policy, deadlines and the consequences for missing them in writing for both students and parents. Have parents and students sign and return a form stating they have read and understood the expectations. Keeping these signed slips on file will eliminate problems later. Also, give copies of these rules to the guidance counselors and principal, so everyone is clear about the class expectations.

Assess staff skills
Assess student skills immediately. Be sure students can really do what they say they can.

  • Check computer skills with simple tasks like designing ads or yearbook posters.
  • Gauge writing skills by having them interview each other and write short articles about each other. This will also help you get to know your new students.

These early skill assessments will keep surprises from happening in mid-October when the chief photographer admits that she does not really know how to develop film. The time to teach or improve skills is early in the year, before students are facing real deadlines.

Building the program

Organization and record keeping

Begin record keeping and organization as soon as possible. Again, assess what works, what does not, and have students brainstorm organizational techniques.
Database everything in sight and make backup copies:

  • yearbook buyers
  • receipt numbers
  • advertisers and ads sold
  • advertising prospects
  • budgets, etc.

This will take time, but it will save hours in the long run, and will make sorting information simple.Ê Besides, if you start now, next year all the information will be in place and ready to access.

Public relations
Sometimes all the “newness” can be overwhelming – new adviser, new rules, new students, new program-but in the public relations arena the word “new” can mean magic! Use this newness to your advantage to get the yearbook program into the public eye and increase sales and enthusiasm.

  • Be sure the yearbook is mentioned in the daily announcements and on community access stations.
  • Hang posters.
  • Design a showcase display or a bulletin board promoting the yearbook.
  • Pass out flyers, buttons, candy, etc.
  • Hold contests and giveaways.
  • Invest in staff shirts, anything to make the program more public.
  • Show the students and staff you are interested in them and their activities.
  • Professionalize the program with letterhead, business cards, advertising materials, etc.
  • Show the community you are interested in it, perhaps by joining the local Chamber of Commerce, or by having the staff do some volunteer work.
  • Put together a web site.

First year goals
To make the transition year easier, remember that you cannot do it all in one year. Focus on the most important items:

  • foster staff unity and trust
  • stay positive and build staff morale
  • raise students’ expectations and focus on the program’s potential
  • visit other schools to talk with students and advisers
  • push the students to take on more responsibility for their program
  • learn to set realistic goals
  • work on recruiting for next year’s staff
  • and remember to learn and have fun.

Taking on another adviser’s program is tough, but thankfully, you are only the “new adviser” for the first year. You will ease your transition by asking questions, listening to students, and setting realistic goals. Over the course of the year, you will lay the groundwork for a program that suits both you and your students, so that when your first yearbook finally arrives, it will be no surprise that it is a success!

Lisa Morris

Lisa Morris is the yearbook adviser at Connersville High School in Connersville, Ind. She was named a JEA Special Recognition Adviser in 2003. Morris has advised yearbooks at several schools in Indiana, guiding some of the staffs to national honors such as a 2007 Pacemaker Finalist at Carmel High School.