Yearbook Advisers of Note: Meet Vanessa Martinez
Written by Jim Jordan
Vanessa Martinez never planned on being a teacher. She was a working, professional multimedia journalist in the El Paso area. But life did lead her into the classroom and she’s now the adviser at El Dorado High School.
After reading about Martinez below, you can listen to more of her story in the latest episode of the Yearbook Chat with Jim podcast.
El Dorado High School, El Paso, Texas
College Attended: University of Texas at El Paso
High School Attended: Andress High School, El Paso, Texas
Did You Participate in Journalism in High School? Yes! I was on the yearbook staff all four years. I started out as a sports reporter with the Cross Country page and moved up to co-EIC my junior and senior year.
Have you been a professional journalist? I was a copy editor with the El Paso Times. I worked on the layout desk, which was a hub for smaller papers. I would lay out small papers for Carlsbad, Farmington, Ruidoso and Alamogordo. I also had the chance to work on TV y Más, the Spanish-language entertainment insert from El Paso Times, and the Living section of the El Paso Times. It was also a treat to be assigned the A section of the newspaper, which made me responsible for choosing the stories we would run from the AP Wire. I would write headlines to fit space, write cutlines at times and give all pages a final read before sending to the printer.
Size of Your Book: 9
Number of Pages in Your Book in 2018: 320
Number of Pages in Your Book in 2019: 304
Student Population: 2,100
Number Sold in 2018: 425
Other Classes You Teach: Graphic Design and Illustration, Newspaper, Commercial Photography
Number of Books You Have Advised at El Dorado including the 2019? Five
Other schools you have taught and/or advised at: El Dorado is my one and only so far!
Describe El Dorado High School.
El Dorado High School is located on a side of town that is experiencing a lot of growth. However, it’s very close to a new high school and that has reduced our student population quite a bit since 2017. It is a Title I school, so our population does have a good deal of low-income students. However, we’re situated close to middle income and high-income neighborhoods. It’s really a melting pot. We are the only school on the east side of town that has an IB program and we’re relatively close to Fort Bliss, which is also expanding. We do get a good share of military students. Being just 20 minutes from the border with Mexico, a good deal of our population is English Language Learners. We’re very proud of our Mexican-American roots and I’d say 90 percent of our population is Hispanic.
Describe your yearbook class/program.
My yearbook program is spread across four classes, plus we put in A LOT of time after school. My yearbook students are also my Aztec Gold Online news students, so they’re always busy covering something on or off campus. My staff is typically between 20-30 students, which means that we can’t afford to have kids just “hanging out” on staff. I have about 10 editors, which are my leaders on staff and have their own specializations (photo, copy, design, sports and index). I have one or two EICs each year. Every student, including editors, will be assigned about 3 or 4 spreads. They are expected to cover that organization’s activities year-round, interview, write and photograph everything that is needed for the spread.
What is the biggest challenge you face and how are you addressing it?
I think my biggest challenge has been maintaining the size and quality of our yearbook, while working with an ever-shrinking student body from which to recruit staff. There are so many early-college and dual-credit course offerings, that students have less and less room in their schedule for yearbook. We also have endorsements in Texas, which means that students choose a career path in 8th grade and then must follow it through high school. TEA accountability is tied to whether or not students adhere to their endorsement. This has been a blessing and curse, because sometimes students must stay in my graphic design endorsement (which includes yearbook/newspaper) even though it’s not what they expected it to be and I also can’t always recruit students who take my class and want to stay because they have another endorsement.
I haven’t really discovered a way to address this issue yet. We’re very big on recruiting, so we’re at every event that we can be for middle schoolers and even incoming freshmen. I try to make my graphic design class challenging, so that students know what yearbook staff will be like when they get into that class. I will often allow seniors who wanted to do yearbook when they were underclassmen but weren’t able to because of other course requirements onto staff. When I allow that, there is always a chance that they will be unprepared for the demands of staff. On the other hand, some of my best students were seniors that came in with no foundation course!
How did you decide to go into teaching? Advising?
I never planned on going into teaching because my degree is in multimedia journalism. I always thought that I would like to work in a university one day, though. I was working at the El Paso Times in 2014 and would have been completely content to stay there on the copy desk. But, there were rumors about downsizing again and that the paper might be sold to another company. My husband, who was my boyfriend at the time, encouraged me to think about getting my alternative certification to be a teacher. He was a math teacher too and said that I had the personality to be in the classroom. He really believed that it would be something that I could be good at.
I applied for a few open journalism positions at different high schools, but I only got one phone interview with El Dorado High School, where an old friend was the current yearbook adviser. It all worked out and I started at EDHS about five weeks into the school year.
What was the most difficult part of your first year advising?
The hardest thing about advising in my first year was setting boundaries and establishing classroom management with my students. The great thing was that the majority of the staff were experienced seniors, and they really took the reins to make the yearbook happen. The difficult thing about my first staff was that they were used to the way that things had been done under the previous adviser and they pushed the limits of what was acceptable. I’m also a pretty easy-going person, and I trusted that since they were almost adults, that they could be counted on to simply follow all the rules. I’ve since learned that high schoolers are still kids. My first-year students missed their old adviser and there were some behavior issues. I had a student steal a sheep brain from biology class and hide it in my classroom until it started to smell!!
It was also really hard not having any experience as a teacher, or being classically trained to be a teacher. I came up with all my lessons by myself. I didn’t even have a scope and sequence to follow!
What made you want to come back for year two?
Well, I don’t give up easily. I’m kind of stubborn that way. My first book was pretty successful, in that the school loved it. I figured that I could only get better with all of the experiences that I had just worked through. Plus, I had some incredibly dedicated and talented juniors, sophomores and freshmen that were coming into the program and I was really excited to work with them.
What advice would you give to a first-year adviser?
You don’t know what you don’t know, so ask questions ALL THE TIME. Find mentor teachers in your hall or department and don’t be afraid to ask them questions that you think you know the answer to. Ask your local yearbook rep for help or to connect you to other teachers in the area that can give you lessons and ideas for the classroom. Also, don’t give up! Remember that you are the professional in the room and no matter how difficult a student might be, never allow yourself to lose your cool. Kids will come and go and graduate, but that classroom is your second home and territory, so take charge!
Over the years what have you enjoyed the most about advising a yearbook?
I LOVE it when I see a student take initiative with a design idea, story angle or photography assignment and really knock it out of the park. If it comes down to a brilliant idea between me and a student, the student’s brilliant idea is always better. It’s so cool to see them take an idea, run with it and collaborate with each other’s talents to make it happen. I still get the goosebumps when a student shares an idea that they are really passionate about.
What has been the most difficult part of advising for you?
The hardest part of advising has been balancing my love for the work and my personal life. I can spend a lot of time working at school on the yearbook, and I think because I am passionate about it, that also trickles down to the kids. The majority of them are just as dedicated. It takes a lot of hours to create the kind of quality piece of scholastic journalism that we produce. However, I have a family and a husband that misses me when I’m at work too much – and I miss them too! I hate missing out on fun family events. I have a hard time balancing that sometimes. I learned this year that I can’t be a perfectionist in every facet of the yearbook if my students are not as exacting as I would like them to be.
There was a strong program already at El Dorado. What strategies did you use as you took over? How did you make the program your own?
I’m so grateful for the foundation that the previous adviser left for me at El Dorado. I was very blessed to inherit a strong program that had already created a yearbook culture at the school. I never struggled with administrators or teachers dismissing the importance or function of the yearbook staff. I think the best thing that I did in my first year of advising was to sit back and watch the kids work. Like I mentioned, they were very experienced and worked like a well-oiled machine. I really let them handle the production of the yearbook.
With that said, there were areas of the newsroom that I saw could run better. All of the experiences that I had in different newsrooms, from high school to college to the El Paso Times, helped me create the environment we have today. I think I’ve also always been very open with my students and shared my personality with them. I play my music and sing and decorate the room so that it feels like a place where the kids can be themselves and let creativity grow. I think just by being myself, I have made the program my own.
What goals have you set, personally and for your program?
Every time I come up with another idea to make our newsroom run better, I joke with the kids that I get my life together more and more as an adviser. One of my goals is for us to have a strong, robust and helpful student staff manual that codifies all of the great policies and procedures that we have come up with to keep staffers and editors accountable and working like that well-oiled machine. This is my second year teaching graphic design and illustration, so I want to see that program grow too, so that we are not just producing the yearbook and Aztec Gold online, but also doing programs for athletic programs, fine arts productions and a magazine someday. I want to see my students be accepted to excellent graphic design and communication programs. I want to continue my education and get my Master’s degree. Of course, my goal is to add a third CSPA Crown to our achievements and continue being competitive.
Tell me about something you are proud of in your life as an adviser.
I’m really proud when I see students that started out with me as freshman – shy, insecure, looking for acceptance and validation – transform steadily into senior leaders on staff that are empowered, confident, articulate and sure of their talent. This happens in different ways for each student, but it’s the greatest privilege to be part of these young people’s development at one of the most formative times in their life. It’s the biggest point of pride for me to have students pursuing journalism, art and communication and to know that I had a little part in that. It chokes me up just thinking about it! Award and banquet time is always my favorite, because that’s when I get to acknowledge that growth.
Tell a story about a moment in your career as adviser that you will never forget.
I have two mini stories to share that really demonstrate the resilience of my students and how they can really rise to the challenge with maturity when something goes wrong. The first one is about when our yearbook server crashed in February 2016. We were on deadline and our local 8 TB Buffalo server quit on us in the middle of working on our winter pages. We lost everything that we had done up until that point, including a lot of photos. I had a sophomore staffer, Xytlali Compean, who wasn’t even enrolled in my class that semester, lose all of the content for her two pages, girls basketball and student council. I had Lali as a freshman and for the fall semester, but her schedule had changed in January and she lost yearbook. Every other student that has lost my class mid-year simply moves on and never thinks to find a way to finish their pages. Lali, as a sophomore, would come in during her lunch time and after school to work on those pages. When she found out that her photos were gone, she didn’t even complain! She just went to work on planning how she could get more photos for her page. I’m still so amazed by her maturity and resilience in the face of losing everything she had worked on during her lunch time! She ended up being a copy editor and then co-editor-in-chief on the two books that we have won Crown awards for.
The second story is from February 2017. We were on deadline, actually sending pages that night, and I had my editor-in-chief helping me index pages. She was doing just fine, but must have got distracted or just mixed up at some point and ended up deleting everything off a page (to index only the names) before it had been PDF’d and sent to the Walsworth. She deleted a completely designed and edited page. She cried and we were like, what are we going to do?! The page was due in an hour. Along with the copy editors that had proofed the page, Miller, Lorenzino and Melanie put their heads together, three to a computer and pieced the page back together from memory. I was astounded by their commitment to each other and their unwillingness to give up. They fixed the page and we sent it on time. Wow!