May 6, 2009 / Staff Management

The Phoenix Lives: I wish I knew then what I know now

Written by Idea File Staff

“I wish I knew then what I know now.”

That’s the lament of many a first-year yearbook adviser. Because it’s a unique position within the school, there is usually no mentor and no training. Many times, the position is thrust upon the unsuspecting teacher, either with this line from the principal, “You’re hired. Oh yes, you have to do yearbook, too,” or upon arrival on the first day of school.

Out of five new advisers for four schools mentioned in this story, only one had contact with the previous adviser, while one said the previous advisor would not have provided much help since she was not technology-savvy. Four mentioned great support from their yearbook representatives. None were members of state or national scholastic journalism organizations.

Like the phoenix, the mythical bird that was consumed by fire and rose from the ashes, these advisers were engulfed by yearbook and emerged from their first year actually looking forward to year two in 2005-2006.

Like many new advisers, this group learned by doing. When asked what they knew by the end of the year that they wish they had known when they started, they willingly shared their stories. In an effort to help new advisers, here are some tales from new advisers in 2004-2005 and how they plan to proceed for the next year.

Climbing the ladder
You cannot blame new advisers for not having a plan, since they don’t know what they are planning for.

“Ummm, nope. No plan. We didn’t finish our ladder until our last deadline,” said Kristen Bosch at Mount Vernon High School in Alexandria, Va. “I certainly wanted to have a plan, but didn’t know what that plan should have looked like.”

By spring, though, she was ready for the next year.

“My editors for next year will be great, and we’ve already completed a draft of our ladder, spread designs, and have decided on a theme. Because I know what will be coming up, I can create a calendar, and create ways of tracking what the students are working on and what they need to do that day or that week,” Bosch said.

“By establishing very specific and very realistic deadlines for next year it will also be easier to come up with a grading system that makes sense. Because I’ll be more organized, my students will have an easier time being more organized,” Bosch said.

Linda Hoffman, a co-adviser at Buffalo High School in West Virginia, said they tried to plan a ladder, but they kept making changes to it because something would happen at school that they would want to include.

“Another goal for next year is, our ladder will be our ladder. It won’t change,” Hoffman said.

We have the technology
Hoffman, an English teacher and newspaper adviser, and the other co-adviser, Susan Desmeules, the art teacher, were told on the first day of school that they would be in charge of yearbook. They got practice doing the 2005 yearbook, however, because the 2004 edition was not finished – only 16 pages of the 128-page book had been submitted. It took three months to finish.

“We were unprepared that we had a yearbook that had to be finished up from last year. It was a bad thing and a good thing, because we learned how to fix things,” Hoffman said.

Hoffman and Desmeules were told after their first submission that they had more than 100 missing links. Hoffman said she knew Pagemaker from working with it as the newspaper adviser, but she had not dealt with the types of problems that arise on yearbook, such as photo links and submission. She had to develop a folder system for photo links to correct the submission problem.

Linking is a big task to learn.

“Being more computer literate would have helped a lot,” said Darrylin Melton, Baton Rouge Magnet High School, Baton Rouge, La. “I would have been making sure students were creating pages correctly.”

“The hardest thing has been learning the processes of everything such as digital imaging, color choices, linking, and proofing,” said Amy Hawkins, White County High School, Sparta, Tenn.

“I wish I had known a little more about the computer programs. It seemed
that I played catch up the entire year. I was comfortable with everything at the end, but it was too late,” Hawkins said.

Deadline has no synonym
Buffalo High School is an extreme example of a school missing deadlines. The 2004 book, which should have been delivered  in September, was distributed in December. The 2005 book will deliver on time, Hoffman said.

Whether or not you ignore them, deadlines are like a big, bad bogey-man – invisible but still there. Melton said meeting deadlines was the hardest thing about being an adviser, and they just consumed her.

“I went to sleep thinking about yearbook, dreamed about yearbook, and woke up thinking about yearbook,” she said. “Meeting deadlines was very difficult because those dates arrived so much more quickly than I imagined.”

Bosch said they mostly met their deadlines although the work was not being done.

“My editor had a nasty habit of saying, “we can get that on proofs.” Pages would go in without pictures, and sometimes with nothing at all,” Bosch said. “No matter how much I discouraged this, she would still wait to get pictures taken. This meant that we took a very long time to get our proofs in, and, because the missing items were usually pushed aside, that meant we struggled to get high-quality photos or copy for the pages we finished on proofs.”

Melton plans more accountability for her students next year to avoid these problems.

“I will attach more grades to assignments. I also will post a year-long
calendar with assignment due dates (not all of which I really made clear to my
students).  I will additionally determine students’ strengths early on and make sure assignments are made more equitably,” Melton said.

“Finally, I’m considering an end-page listing of which student(s) worked on which pages. That way I hope to make students more accountable for mistakes they make,” Melton said.

You can lead a horse…
All advisers grapple with motivating students, but it can particularly frustrate new advisers who do not have the right staff members in place.

“My biggest challenge was student motivation. I pulled quite a bit of the weight this year. I never realized how much an adviser had to continuously prod or ask the students to do work, check -in, take pictures, follow up, etc.,” said Hawkins.

Bosch her staff was used to getting “smiley faces” on their copy from editors for turning in sub-par work.

“The staff members were used to submitting their first draft of everything for publication, and many took pictures of their friends for their spreads.” said Bosch. “So, when I came in with grand ideas about the quality of copy I wanted, and the deadlines I wanted to meet, and the specific criterion for spreads, they didn’t respond well.

“I would get so frustrated with the staff when they were assigned copy for a spread, and they would come to class without having it done. Then they would work on it in class for 20 minutes and I would tell them they needed to do x, y, and z to make it better. They didn’t like that I didn’t like their writing, and I didn’t like the fact that they expected As for barely trying.

“Eventually, I sort of gave up my attempts to get higher quality copy and captions. I knew they were capable of it, but instead of editing for content, my only job was to edit for grammar, right before we submitted our pages,” Bosch said. “I’m looking forward to next year, mostly because the students who didn’t like working hard will be gone.”

It’s a business
Hoffman and Desmeules found that a late book not only causes problems with production, but with the business end of the program. The book had been very late the past couple of year, and businesses were becoming unwilling to buy an ad.

“We need to rekindle the interest of the advertisers,” Hoffman said.

They started to get back that interest by showing advertisers the eight-page color foldout of homecoming included in the 2005 book. Hoffman said it cost $3,700 to produce the foldout, but took a “leap of faith” that, even on a tight budget, they could afford it. She wants people to see that the Buffalo yearbook staff has begun to produce a quality product.

“We just tried to show them (advertisers) that we are going down a different path. We also teased the students with it and we have more buyers,” Hoffman said. “What we are hoping for next year is word of mouth (to increase ad and book sales).”

Melton said she made only a few changes during the year, but those she implemented did work. She made improvements to the organization of book sales and to distribution.

“First, we had each individual who bought a book fill out an order form with name, grade, homeroom, home address, and exactly what was purchased… (yearbook only, +nameplate, and/or + supplement) and for what price.  That way we had both a receipt and order form to confirm orders.”

Her staff conducted three book sales during the fall, with price increases for each sale.

“We made sure during each of our sales that at least two students manned our two sales locations during each lunch shift. Yes, this was a problem last year.  You can’t sell books if nobody knows where to buy them.  We also advertised each sale by putting attractive posters on the wall and making announcements each day.”

Melton said the August and September yearbook price was $35, the same as last year, plus $3 for a name plate and $5 for the supplement. In October, prices went up to $38, $4 and $8, respectively.  November’s prices were $40, $5 and $10. No books were sold after December 1, although the staff ordered and sold extras in April.

“I distributed seniors’ books on a Friday at their senior breakfast and the rest on Monday. We only sold extras after all were distributed,” Melton said.

“We distributed the rest during lunch shifts on Monday. I divided the orders into 9th, 10th and 11th grade lists. We set up a line for each. Handing them out was a piece of cake.

“Yes, there was a problem last year. The office was also selling orders for the book and did not give the previous sponsor all the orders. There were a number of students (about 20) who had paid for books and received a refund instead of a book. That did not happen this year because I let the office know that only my staff could sell yearbooks,” Melton said.

Getting the hang of it
Hoffman and Desmeules, who actually produced two yearbooks their first year, were excited about the 2005 edition. They helped staff include some creative coverage that has not been done before, such as the eight-page homecoming foldout, and a story on siblings in the school.

“For example, our school of 282 students has 26 sets of siblings, plus faculty with sons and daughters. It’s so nice to say, “let’s highlight this.” There were so many things left out of the yearbook before,” said Desmeules, who said students had told her they had never been included.

“The kids are getting excited about this. This yearbook seems to have a flow,” Hoffman said.

All five teachers will be returning as advisers next year. That is because throughout the chaos, they have discovered in the ashes the things that make advising yearbook worthwhile: they loved the creativity and enjoyed work with the students on such a creative endeavor.

They have already made some changes in their programs, and they have plans for more.

“I already have implemented several changes. I interviewed applicants, bought new computers, ordered InDesign to replace Pagemaker, and developed  a grading point system,” Hawkins said.

“I want them to understand the yearbook journalism verbage, so they understand what ‘link the images’ and ‘signatures’ are,” Desmeules said.

Desmeules said some students who had been on staff two years had never heard those terms. She said that at the beginning of the next school year, the staff is going to work on article writing, caption writing and basic design.

Alas, there probably are advisers who only lasted one year, or will continue but their heart is not in it because the obstacles seem to difficult to overcome. But for the advisers in this story, Bosch summed it up.

“Most days are good. I’m really excited about next year, and this excitement for the promise of a great year now overshadows the struggle that was this year.”

Idea File Staff

Idea File Staff reports are posts compiled by the Walsworth Yearbooks Marketing Department, covering a wide range of yearbook topics.