Create an environment for success

by Holly Hartman, yearbook adviser
Memorial High School, Houston, Texas

Good. Better. Best. It is a process. Discover what it takes to be the best.

Memorial High School's yearbook won a Gold Crown from CSPA.

Memorial High School’s yearbook won a Gold Crown from CSPA.

Go to camp.
Try to go to a summer publications camp, if at all possible. It gives the staff a place to focus on the theme/design of the book without the distractions they will have once school has started. Take as many staff members as possible so everyone feels like they had a say in the final decisions. Not everyone will absolutely love the theme/design, but the majority must buy in and totally “get it” or they will never be motivated to work on the book for eight months. The second benefit of going to camp (and perhaps the more important one) is the bonding that will happen after the staff spends several days together.

Get together.
If you can’t go to a summer camp, at least meet as a staff a few times at the end of the summer to start the planning process. (You may want to do this even if you have attended a camp so staffers who didn’t go can feel included.)

We always meet in the room a few days before school starts to get the room set up. They re-label the staff mailboxes with names, create the September calendar and decorate. They also make sure the computers are set up/ready to go. This gives them ownership of the room and a sense of contribution to the cause. After we get the room in shape, we go to dinner or bowling or for fro-yo or some other fun activity. We share the theme/design ideas with staffers who weren’t at camp, and we get to know each other better.

Throughout the year, plan social events for the staff. This can be in the classroom or outside of school hours. Deadline celebrations are important, even if that’s just everyone bringing food and having a classroom party after completion of a deadline. Celebrate birthdays, even if it’s just a quick few minutes at the end of class to sing and have cookies.

FOOD IS KEY! I have 42 girls and 2 boys on my yearbook staff. Trust me, the girls eat/want food just as much as the boys. We never have an after school work session or a late night without food. If we are going to be at school for more than an hour, I put out snacks. And I ASK the kids what kind of snacks they want! If we are going to be here past 6:00, we order dinner. They LOVE ordering dinner. When dinner gets here, we stop working, and everyone sits at the big tables, and we eat together. We talk about anything and everything that is NOT yearbook related. I ask the girls lots of questions at these late nights about them, their lives, their families, their college choices, etc. They need to know that I care about them and their lives beyond their contributions to the yearbook.

Regarding food expenses…we are allowed to use money we’ve raised from ad sales to buy food for the staff. That may not be the case in all districts, but if it’s allowed and if the money is available, use it! Spending $40 on snacks is a cheap investment if it means you get four hours of work after school to finish a deadline. For staffs that don’t have extra money for food, there are alternatives. First, local restaurants and grocery stores might donate. Also, parents can donate money or snacks or meals. Most parents are willing to send a bag of chips or a case of water or bring a pot of spaghetti once in a while. I know a lot of staffs who have one or two “staff moms” who coordinate bringing snacks/meals and collect money for snacks/meals.

Create space.
Every staff member has a mailbox/cubby at the back of the room. It’s the same kind of mailboxes teacher have in the front office. I leave notes, completed surveys, proof pages, edits, etc. in these mailboxes. I have two periods of yearbook, so staff members who are not in the same period can leave each other notes in their cubbies. More than anything, they love having a mailbox because it’s a place in the room that is their own where they can store the mounds of STUFF that accumulates.

Show off.
I have tables in my room that have Plexiglas/plastic type covers on them. I take pictures throughout the year of staff members and at the end of the year, the seniors get to put their pictures under the plastic so that they live on forever in R206. It’s a big deal for them. Also, the J1 kids who take my J1 class see these pictures and ask about them and see how much fun we have on YB staff, so it’s a little free advertising for getting kids to apply for staff.

I also have 8 by 10 portrait (which staff photographers take) of each staff member printed at the beginning of the year, and they hang on the bulletin board in the room all year. Again, it makes the staffers feel like they are special, and it is good advertising for the J1 kids to see the staff pictures.

Every once in a while, when you have a little downtime or you can feel the stress rising, stop the staff and play a quick “getting to know you” or staff bonding game that makes everyone laugh and gets everyone back on track.

We have a Star Staffer board. Every week or two, the editors and I choose a staff member who has gone above and beyond in the last few weeks. We print their picture, print out a questionnaire/fact sheet that gives some interesting facts about them and hang them on the board and make a big deal about announcing the star staffer to the class. The recipient gets a certificate and a $10 Starbucks card.

Make it theirs.
Make the room someplace the staff wants to spend time. Decorate it in a fun way. Let THEM decorate. I let them hang funny pictures of themselves, write notes to each other on the board, customize their computer desktops, etc. so they WANT to be here. I display awards we’ve won in past years. The yearbook room should be a safe haven for them. I tell them that R206 is a “no drama” zone, and I enforce that. Not everyone is going to be best friends, but I do not tolerate petty gossip, drama, etc. and if that starts, I quickly nip it in the bud.

The room has to be someplace they look forward to being. I let them study in here during their study hall or lunch time if they want to. We play music. I don’t freak out if I see they’ve taken a short break to watch a funny YouTube video or if they’re on their phone briefly, as long as I know they are actively working. Obviously, there has to be a limit to the distractions, and I will definitely remind staff members that they need to get focused. But I need to think about how I (and most adults) work. I certainly don’t work non-stop without stopping to read or send a text or email (or play Trivia Crack!), and I still manage to get my work done.

If a student needs to go to the office or their counselor or call their mom or whatnot during my class, I almost always let them. If I know they’re going to work for three hours after school that day, I can certainly allow them five minutes to get something done during the school day. The work environment of the yearbook room has to be different than a traditional classroom, or there will be no motivation for the kids to be here! My students (especially editors) spend HUNDREDS of extra hours in my room — they have to like being here!

Excerpt from Elements magazine “How’d You Do That?: Build A Successful Program.”