Yearbook Advisers of Note: Meet Jonathan Dixon
Written by Jim Jordan
What seemed like bad timing led Jonathan Dixon to a career he loves as a teacher and yearbook adviser at Corsicana High School in Corsicana, Texas. The start was rocky – he came in halfway through the year to find mostly blank pages. But since then he’s built up their program, especially their photography, and now leads an award-winning staff. You can learn even more about Dixon in his interview with Jim Jordan on the Yearbook Chat with Jim podcast.
Corsicana High School, Corsicana, Texas
High school attended: Arlington Heights High School, Fort Worth, Texas
College attended: University of Texas, Arlington
Did you participate in journalism in high school? I did not. I had a natural ability to write and was placed in an Advanced Placement course; however, I was extremely lazy and had almost no work ethic for things I did not find interesting. English and writing was one of those things. How on Earth did I end up with a major in journalism and a minor in English!?
Did you participate in journalism in college? I contributed to the campus paper and worked with a team of students on a research piece.
Were you ever a professional journalist? Unfortunately, no. When I graduated, like all journalism students, I was going to change the world…in sports. I desperately wanted to be a great sports journalist that told the true stories of struggle beyond the scoreboard. But in 2008 we were at the peak of the great recession and the downfall of print journalism. I was told by many publications that unless I had 20 years of journalism experience, entry level just didn’t exist. So, with student loans looming, I had to find work. Teaching sounds cool…two years and a M.Ed. later, I was again looking for that first big boy job.
I applied all over Texas with not a single call back. Fall came and I was just looking for any job that I could find – even outside of education. Then in December, I spotted the Corsicana job. Whatever, I’ll apply. Got my first call back. Any by some stroke of fate, I beat out a guy for the job who had 20 years of journalism experience.
Were you ever a professional photographer? I was never a professional. In college I had to take two years of photojournalism as part of my degree plan. But those were at 8 a.m. and I skipped half of those classes (do as I say, not as I did). But I suppose something about that subject planted some seeds in my soul and when I found myself in a place looking for a creative outlet and a thousand bucks in my pocket, I went to Best Buy and bought my first camera. A Canon Rebel, the gateway drug of many prospective photographers. I got obsessed. I locked myself in my room with the Rebel, Photoshop, and YouTube. I consumed everything I could find. I found photographers I admired and began trying to figure out how they achieved certain looks. I started entering local contests like the State Fair, winning in portraits. Winning at local photo clubs (beyond nerdy). I went straight into teaching from there.
What were you doing before you became a teacher and a yearbook adviser? Education was my first what-I-consider-to-be adult job. Before that I worked through college at Best Buy and Sam’s Club.
Size of your book: 9
Number of pages in your book in 2019: 232
Number of pages in your book in 2020: 224
Student Population: 1600
Number sold in 2019: 320
Awards for the 2019 book: Theme: The Next Big Thing
Walsworth National Photo Contest (5,200 entries):
- 1st place portraits
- Two Portrait Honorable Mentions
- One School Spirit Honorable Mention
- One Sports Action Honorable Mention
Other National Photo Contest:
- 4th place portraits
- 5th place portraits
Idea File by Walsworth
Recognized by publisher for senior ad design
Number of books you have advised at Corsicana including the 2020? 10
Other schools you have taught and/or advised at: Corsicana is my first and only school.
Other Classes You Teach at Corsicana: CTE Courses: Digital Media, Commercial Photography
What other activities are you involved in and outside of your role as teacher and adviser? Student Council Advisor and Fine Arts Department Head.
How and why did you first get involved with scholastic journalism? After the recession and downfall of print media in 2008, journalism positions were impossible to find. Everyone was either laying people off or going under completely. No one was hiring. So, in a way, I was forced into the decision. But that’s not to say I walked that path begrudgingly. I love the idea of working on new creative projects each year. Teaching photography while continuing to grow myself. Plus the summers! Show me a teacher that didn’t take that into consideration and I’ll show you a liar.
How did you become interested in photography? I really loved the technology aspect of it. I’m a nerd at the core and a bit of a gear snob admittedly. Photography was a great outlet for all those things. My training was very limited, only a couple photojournalism courses in college. Those mostly focused on the very basics of digital photography.
How and why did you decide to go into teaching? advising? It was a late night come-to-Jesus reckoning with myself. I was drawn to education in that moment and I have never regretted it.
What was the most difficult part of your first year advising? My first year advising was quite challenging and fairly unique. I started on January 3, on a day which was supposed to be in-service. It wasn’t. I had students walking into my room just moments after arriving on my first day at Corsicana HS. The editor that year came in before class started to introduce herself. I could tell she was wanting to make sure we kept things on track. But to my surprise, hardly anything had been done in the book thus far. The pages were largely blank. The students were saving all of their pictures onto a single external HD, which they passed around the room to get pictures. I knew that was a disaster waiting to happen, so I ordered a second HD to back it up. Before that drive could arrive, someone dropped ours and so went our pictures…along with our hopes and dreams. Technology told me that the drive was kaput and nothing could be recovered. Well luckily, I had a tech savvy friend who came to the rescue and we in fact were able to recover roughly 75 percent of the drive along with random pictures from the last five years they’d been using that drive. Sheesh.
What made you want to come back for year two? I was eager to have a staff of my own with my standards in place. I had fought extremely hard to get this job and I wasn’t about to give it up after a few months. I was hungry for more.
What advice would you give to a first-year adviser? Know that you first year will feel like you’re treading water. Terrible things will happen. But you roll with it and solve each problem as it comes. Your book will have mistakes. Apologize and move forward. Learn from everything you did the first year. Figure out what you did right and what you can improve upon. I built my program slowly. Each year we tried to make one thing better than the year before. It has worked here because the yearbook program was very weak to begin with. I’ve been able to build it up how I see fit. But if it is your first year, don’t stress the mistakes, accept them, by grateful for the opportunity to learn from them.
What were some of the factors that have led your success as an adviser? In 2016 we were celebrating our 100th edition. We wanted that book to be special and decided to go all out. We had saved some money from the year before and had a little extra to spend on some nice features. That was also the first year that we attended Camp Lonestar, the annual summer workshop hosted by Walsworth to kickstart the coming year’s book. This is where we took giant leaps forward in a single year. We saw what great programs were doing and what was possible in a yearbook. We got a ton of ideas and saw just how far we could climb. I only regret not going sooner.
What has been your biggest challenge as an adviser? My biggest challenge has been managing personalities on staff. I am lucky enough that I get to recruit and select my staff with no restrictions from admin. We put the best students in the school to work on the yearbook every year. But with that also comes a lot of big personalities. Getting all of those type-As to work together can sometimes be quite challenging.
Photo Program at Corsicana
Canon or Nikon? Neither. I switched us partially to Sony last year and we are fully Sony for this book. My philosophy has always been to invest in quality over quantity. For that reason, we don’t have a lot of cameras or lenses, but the ones we do have are top of the line. Our three main cameras are two Sony A7 IIIs and one Sony A7R III. The A7R is our high-resolution portrait camera.
What’s one piece of equipment you don’t have but want? Since we just switched to Sony, we are still getting compatible lenses to complement our excellent camera bodies, this year we bought the Sony 200-600 and the Tamron 28-75. Next year I think we will invest in a great prime lens and an ultra-wide angle.
Do you teach specific photography classes along with your yearbook class? Yes, I teach Commercial Photography under the CTE umbrella. We do a lot of studio work in this class and I teach students basic photo concepts along with how to market themselves and their business.
How have you used photography as a fundraiser? We actually take all of our own senior portraits. We do cap and gown traditionally here in Corsicana. Two photos, one holding the cap and one wearing the cap. I decided to take over this piece of it a few years ago when I saw how inflated the prices had become for our seniors specifically. I knew we could do better and charge a price that everyone could afford. We are a title 1 school – our families can’t afford much in the way of extras and I feel like every mother and father deserves a great portrait of their child in a cap/gown. The following year, we took over senior portraits and have consistently sold to over 80 percent of the graduating class. We keep it simple, two photos on a flash drive and the print rights to those images for $25. We also offer a large print for $30 if anyone wants that option. This has been a great fundraiser for us and it has allowed us to keep the quality of our book high despite the low sales we can never seem to break.
What awards have your students won? Traditionally we have not entered our book in for many awards. However, in 2017 I learned about the photo contests hosted by various publishers and decided to enter some of our better images into the Walsworth Photo Contest. We won two honorable mentions that year in different categories. In 2019 we won first place portraits and two honorable mentions for portraits along with a few other HMs for various categories.
What three things would you tell an adviser who is trying to improve the photography in their yearbook? First thing I would tell them is to look for opportunities with great light. Any time you have interesting light is an opportunity for something awesome to happen inside of it. The second thing I would tell them is to always be aware. Even if you don’t have an assigned camera with you, today’s phone can capture some amazing detail and dynamic range. Could be just enough to capture a dynamic photo. The third thing I would recommend is to invest in some lights. Even if you’re just getting cheap speedlights, the quality of your images will improve significantly. When we started investing in studio lights, this is when we saw the biggest leap in our book for image quality.
Tell me about something in your life as an adviser that has made you proud. I try to recruit a diverse group of people into my yearbook program. We are a diverse school and I want the staff to reflect that as well. Sometimes we get a student to show up for interviews that you would not expect. Maybe they’re shy, maybe they’re not involved in anything else. They’re not your typical yearbook kid. But one thing I know about yearbook, it pushes you out of your comfort zone. You’re placed into situations to interact and communicate that you would not normally chose on your own. These kids benefit the most from yearbook and I can see the personal growth in them. Being able to facilitate that environment for young people makes me very proud. They’re blossoming.
Tell a story about a moment in your career as adviser that you will never forget. One day my 2017 editor came up to me and she was really excited but being very quiet about it. She said, “DIXON! I have a secret and I can’t tell anyone but I have to tell someone….I’M RANKED NUMBER ONE!” She stared at me with the most excitement and intensity I’d ever seen in her. She was one grading period away from being named valedictorian. This moment sticks with me because it reminds me of how lucky I am to be a small part of the story for so many amazing human beings. Many of these kids will grow up to be the movers and shakers of the future. I’m glad that just for a bit, I get to be a part of that.