June 22, 2009 / Staff Management

Who should drive?

Written by Peggy L. Evans

The staff could not contain their excitement. They showed me their cover design and said it would look “really cool” in neon orange with a bright green alligator holding our school mascot protruding from the wide open jaws. Such is the life of a South Florida yearbook adviser. When I awoke from this nightmare, I thought again about who actually controls the book. While some advisers control every step of the process, from cover to endsheets and everything in between, others hold to the philosophy that this is a student production and decisions should be made by the editor and editorial staff members.

There may be many advantages to holding the reins tightly. It is, after all, the adviser who is held accountable by the principal, the auditors, the faculty, the students, the parents, the school board, and the community. No pressure there! It is so simple to just be the one saying no and the one who controls the creative process, the ad campaign, the distribution, the sales, and the pictures. But what of those who believe that students should control all these steps? I am one of those!

I believe a well-trained staff is the key to a good editorial board. Choosing an editor wisely is more than half the battle. Allowing the students to know that they will make 99.9 percent of the decisions gives confidence and makes for personal buy-in of the final product. When presented with cover designs, layouts, special effects, or ideas to increase sales, my first question to the staff is, “What do you think?” I rarely say no to ideas reached by consensus. I may have a better idea, and may even suggest alternatives, but the final decision is theirs. Budget concerns may bring an end to some ideas, but I have had the luxury of student business managers who keep spending in line. My student business manager handles more than $125,000 a year and has yet to lose track of a penny. Control in the hands of students fosters an atmosphere of trust and accountability.

The sense of family that most yearbooks maintain creates an atmosphere in which students know that if mistakes are made, it is part of a learning process. Allowing for free give and take between adviser and staff lifts fear of failure. It is not all about the book. In the 25 years I have been an adviser, I have won the most awards, received the most satisfaction, and smiled more at the end of the years in which students seized the helm and presented to the student body a publication that they knew reflected their ideas. The sense of pride instilled early in their journalistic training carries through their staff years.

Does this always work? Of course not! I have stared into the jaws of that alligator on occasion. I have had my share of staff replacement problems. I face the same problems every adviser faces. However, I also have had reports from former yearbook staff members of their great successes after high school. They all refer to the responsibility they learned in yearbook and how it helped them grow. It is their publication.

I believe an adviser is just that — an adviser. I provide them the tools they need, the training they require, and then I step back and watch them use those skills. When we open the first box at the end of the year, I watch as the editor takes the first book and holds it up and says, “We did this!” What greater satisfaction can an adviser have?

Peggy L. Evans