Redondo High’s Ziegler is ‘Yearbook Adviser of the Year’

Mitch Ziegler posted this selfie on how not to take a photo (with a lens cap on the camera) to Twitter on his way to a photography conference in Texas. Photo from Twitter

When Mitch Ziegler was offered a job teaching English at Redondo Union High School, in the fall of 1990, it came with a condition he struggled to accept: he would also have to advise the team putting together the school yearbook.

“I wanted nothing to do with the yearbook at that point,” he said in a phone interview. He had what he considered a more serious goal, inspired by one of his high school English teachers, who facilitated intriguing discussions about books from a beanbag on the floor. Those had been his first intellectually expansive experiences. He wanted to teach English. 

And so he did, for 27 years. But in advising publications, both the yearbook and the school’s newspaper, Ziegler found his calling. 

This year, his 35th as a teacher and his 31st as a yearbook adviser, Ziegler has been named the 2020 H.L. Hall National Yearbook Adviser of the Year. What this means is a panel of judges representing the Journalism Education Association (JEA) has decided he is the best yearbook adviser in the United States.

“In his 31 years as a yearbook adviser, Ziegler has become a legend in the field,” Erinn Harris, the awards chair, wrote in an announcement. “Student press rights advocate, photography guru, local committee chair, writing coach, contest judge: there isn’t one area of yearbook that isn’t in Ziegler’s wheelhouse.”

His experience teaching English and photography gave him the skills to guide his staff through the process. His passion for telling stories both verbal and visual made him an inspiration to his students.

Ziegler said he enjoys the national yearbook conferences, the camaraderie, and the work, but what he loves most is engaging with editors and staff.

“In an era where it is cool not to care, I work with students who are excited by great writing, who share their photographs of the homecoming football game and beg for a critique, who continue to ask my opinion on a design that will eventually win the NSPA Design of the Year, even though the student had surpassed me long before as a designer,” he wrote in an essay to the awards committee. “Their passion inspires and humbles me. Jeez, I love this.”

Ziegler remembers each yearbook, and the team that produced it, with vivid clarity. Some years stand out more than others. In 2003, he asked the department chair to “get me out of yearbook.” He said he was done. That year, The Pilot won its first award, the first of what would become many.

Mitch Ziegler. Courtesy of Mitch Ziegler

Ziegler remembers 2005 as the year “everything came together,” and 2011 as the year Redondo’s book influenced yearbook design on a national scale. He remembers 2014 as the year his team took a risk in recreating the Sports Illustrated body issue, 2018 as the art book, which gave The Pilot a reputation for being unique, and 2019 as the year Allure Magazine, a publication he never took seriously, inspired the design.

Ziegler refuses credit for the award-winning quality of the publications he advises. 

“It’s not like I had anything to do with it,” he said. “I give my students a lot of freedom. I critique the hell out of them, but they do it. That’s always been my thing.”

Colleagues disagree that he had nothing to do with it.

Pete LeBlanc, the National Yearbook Adviser of the Year in 2006, said Ziegler is an innovator in the field.  “Your kids have done stuff that nobody else’s kids have done,” he said in a recorded video, “and you’ve been the one who has made that all possible for them.”

Mary Kay Downes, the 2007 Yearbook Adviser of the Year, wrote in a letter to the awards committee that Ziegler’s style has encouraged his staff each year to excel. 

“It takes a rare gift to imbue students with the passion to reach within themselves to find that creative spark, and Mitch does it by allowing them to be in charge and take control,” Downes wrote. “They alone choose and hammer out the theme. If they encounter challenges, he does not swoop in and fix them, he advises.”

Last year, the Pilot staff certainly encountered challenge. When schools across the country closed, the yearbook was six weeks away from its final deadline. Staff made sure files from the classroom server were on the cloud, packed camera bags, and made plans to meet on Google Meet. They redesigned the opening and closing and added three coronavirus-related spreads. Through it all, Ziegler did what he had done every year before that one: he trusted his editors and staff to pull it off.

“The editors have been preparing for their moment for three years,” he wrote in a letter to the awards committee. “And when they hit a wall with the book, I’ll ask questions, offer some ideas, prod them, support them, and eventually, get out of the way because I know they will find their answers.” 

Ziegler encouraged his team to approach the pandemic not as a crisis, but as an opportunity. He believes the events of 2020 will improve yearbook design nationally because teams were forced to innovate.

Click the gallery to see the Covid-related spreads in this year’s Pilot. Courtesy of RUHS yearbook staff

The Yearbook Adviser of the Year Award joins a litany of awards recognizing Ziegler as an adviser to publications. He was named a Distinguished Yearbook Adviser in 2010, a California Journalism Educator of the Year and a Distinguished Newspaper Adviser in 2015, a National Scholastic Press Association Pioneer and a JEA Medal of Merit recipient in 2017. This year he received a Columbia Scholastic Press Association Gold Key. 

What’s nice about winning an award, Ziegler said, is people come out of the woodwork to congratulate and thank him. He said he’s the kind of person who focuses more on his personal failures than on what he’s done right, so this week, he’s moved by all the comments that suggest the high school’s publications have mattered as much to others as they have to him.

“What makes Mitch Ziegler the Yearbook Adviser of the Year is his commitment to humanity, generosity, and education,” wrote Courtney Harper, a yearbook adviser at the Orange County School of the Arts, in a letter to the awards committee. “Yearbook is a class, after all, and advisers are teachers. Mitch epitomizes what any administrator, parent, student, or colleague would want in an adviser, teaching both artistic and crucial real-world skills through his medium in yearbook. It’s clear he has changed many lives for the better while also producing quite a few fantastic books along the way.” ER

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Written by: Rachel Reeves

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