I was teaching at Hastings High School in Minnesota when my principal came to me one day in the middle of class and somewhat sheepishly asked me to take on a new assignment. That brief conversation changed everything for me.
“I’ve got a position I think you’d be great for,” he said. “It will take some work, but I know you’ll enjoy it. I’d like you to be the adviser for our student council.”
It’s true. It was a lot of work and I truly loved being an adviser for student leaders. My 20 years in that position, and now five more working with you as director of student programs for NASSP, have been exhilarating, inspirational, incredibly fulfilling, and a lot of fun.
I also recall, however, that there were a few times when I faced two problems as an adviser: I was just too busy to do the job the way I felt it should be done, and sometimes—especially during those first few years—there was no one in the building who understood student council. So I was unable to swap ideas with a colleague or just commiserate when things went awry.
So, when we began to think about ways to enhance the great work of what is now known as National Student Council, I thought of those times. How could we better serve that new adviser finding their way or a veteran adviser called on to do too much in their school? How could we inspire all our members and help them do this important work better? And what can we continue to do to engage more student leaders?
Fortunately, others were thinking the same way, including many of you who responded to a recent survey that we carefully planned, deployed, analyzed, and learned from. Advisers for student leaders don’t take the job because they want recognition or more money. I’ve asked them about it. They do it because they love kids and they want them to be fulfilled, be successful, and make a contribution to their school and the world at large. They always want to do it better—and we’ve repeatedly seen their efforts pay off.
So, our challenge was pretty simple-we wanted to find exciting new ways for advisers to do just that: Do their job better. Now we’re ready to address that challenge and help you. (See sidebar below.)
The Big Picture
I want to take this opportunity to remind you of a few other things that are important beyond just doing this important work well. Often in these jobs, we get hyper-focused on that upcoming big project or conference—or that student who we know can take the next step to becoming a leader if we coax him or her into taking responsibility for a new committee. We have to-do lists, lots of folders and markers, and organized closets. These jobs require that sort of focus. But the bigger picture is important, too. We are building leaders and contributing to education in monumental ways by shaping future leaders.
Our students succeed and grow while they are with us. They become more confident, learn new ways to relate to other students, find their own strengths, and see the bigger picture. I know you’ve likely seen this take place before your eyes—a student who just seems to blossom, pop out of their comfort zone, learn something new about themselves, or step up for a classmate, you, or another adult in doing something almost jarringly thoughtful, smart, or mature.
More and more emphasis is being placed on the importance of teaching kids leadership and social/emotional skills—and employers say they want those qualities in their employees. One recent survey of employers said leadership skills are one of the biggest things they find lacking in job candidates, and one they want most. There is no better place for a student to learn them than in student leadership.
Plus, we’ve seen what often happens to these students as they move on. I know of young people who have gone on to be very successful in the military, in business, and in government positions nationally and in their hometown. They thrive in college—in fact, colleges look for student leadership on applications as a sign a student will be successful in life. They inevitably are more involved in their communities and their world because they learn about the importance of that participation in their formative adolescent years.
A former governor of Michigan and major national political figure proudly proclaims that he learned how to lead as the president of his student council. Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan, and Jesse Jackson were all active in student government. A young woman in Colorado who has quickly advanced to lead others with much more experience in her company was recently asked about her skills with people and as a leader; she attributed them to her work as chairman of the committee planning a big homecoming week and her other work in student leadership. Ask top leaders in any field about their high school experience and many will tell you it involved student government.
We help these kids grow in ways that other parts of their education don’t. But beyond that, we help their schools.
Our kids are the ones making certain that student voices are heard, and education policymakers now agree that such involvement is much more than a symbolic gesture and is critical to the success of our schools. They give students a voice. Student leaders also improve the character, culture, and performance of their school.
As role models for other students, student leaders create a high standard, lifting other students by example. Through the programs and projects they undertake, other students benefit in many ways. Their classmates might feel good that they donated food, or gave blood, or raised money for a good cause through a council-sponsored project. Or they might learn about safe driving, healthy choices, or what’s at stake in a local political issue or campaign. This is all part of important education that only comes to a school this way.
Student council projects change the way a school feels—from the lively hand-lettered posters in the hall, pep rallies packing a gym, and memorable moments at the prom, to the gifts in the staff mailboxes that give teachers a lift and special programs for disabled students or visiting senior citizens. And student council changes the way the community feels about the school—from the park cleanup and car wash to the donations to a shelter for the homeless or broken family.
We importantly enhance the education of our student leaders and other students-and we make schools better.
Our organization was founded 86 years ago, and it has always been fascinating to me to think about the number of advisers, students, and schools internationally that have benefited from it year after year. National Student Council is a remarkable resource because of the very important work that you do—it’s important for our education community and it’s important for our society generally. These students often change their schools and their world.
So, we think we’ve done a good job of moving forward to continue that tradition. We’ve adapted and met your needs and provided a platform where you can share and learn about the best new ideas. I’m happy to see these carefully conceived changes taking place in our great organization—a body that I think is so incredibly powerful and important.
Ann Postlewaite is director of student programs at NASSP.
Resources at the Ready
Take a minute to familiarize yourself with the features we are adding-so you know where to turn for help.
First, we’ve got a new name—National Student Council—but, more importantly, we’ve developed a number of very useful and exciting new features that will make your job easier and more satisfying—in a location where we hope you can find everything you need.
Check out our updated and streamlined Adviser Resource Center, a site full of tools for nearly any circumstance. Soon we’ll debut a leadership speaker series as well. All of these resources are designed to evolve and change, so they can use the best new information from people like you.
Our ever-growing database of project ideas (the National Student Project Database) is being upgraded and made more user-friendly. Soon we will be launching a revamped RSVP program—a student-led program that strives to enact meaningful change in the school or community. It’s a perfect way to address student voice and school climate.
One of my priorities—developing good, accessible, and useful tools for new advisers—comes to life in our comprehensive New Adviser Starter Kit.
Looking back at my first days as an adviser and my conversations with the many new advisers who work with us every year, I’m gratified to see there are useful new resources for you. These new tools provide guidance at those moments when you feel uncertain or need help making a decision, and inspiration to take the next step as you grow in the job.
One of my favorite new features is the online community we’re growing that gives you the type of next-door connection to other advisers that is so valuable in your position. With this Adviser Online Community, you can easily post a question and seek the help of others. We hope it will make you feel like we’re all in this together and have a network of support. (Also, see NatStuCo Update.) That’s what I needed at times, and this provides it.
When I talk to more experienced advisers, I recall that feeling that they probably sometimes have of needing inspiration or a few new ideas in the fall as they plan for the year. Again, you can get feedback through the online community. Or, for example, when you’re simply looking for a new twist on a proven activity or need a totally fresh idea to re-energize your students, you can log in to that database of projects. Dig in for some projects you think your leaders would find interesting and easy to plan—then get them started in a new direction figuring out how a cool new project might take shape.
Certainly advisers have those busy weeks right after a big event when you just don’t have enough planned or just aren’t feeling as inspired. Later this year, you’ll be able to turn to our planned new online leadership speaker series—webcasts with leadership experts especially for advisers. You can earn badges to display on your profile in the Adviser Online Community as you complete different webcasts, too.
The new career exploration webcast series for students will continue to grow and offer a similar opportunity for you to design a meeting around this resource—then expand on it. We envision this as a key center where students can consider their future career plans and what it takes for them to get there—something I found sometimes doesn’t get enough attention in high school. It is even an important exercise in middle school.
One other group these enhancements are aimed at is middle school students and advisers. I know that the middle school staff with whom I’ve worked sometimes found it hard to identify useful guidance, specifically for these students who have interests and capabilities very different than their high school counterparts. We recognized that as we undertook these changes and are adding features specifically for them.
Involve Your Principal
There is another side of the relative isolation advisers may feel. They often are fortunate to have a lot of autonomy. But principals are more supportive of their decisions and leadership when they feel comfortable about the work of their student leaders and the job advisers are doing with them. Showing your principal how you’re using these new tools can make him or her feel confident about your efforts.
In addition, principals may have to appoint a new adviser, and the resources in these upgraded features for newcomers will be very useful as administrators direct them and work with them collaboratively. If they are worried about whether the proper procedures are being followed, they can help new advisers find election guidelines, tips on holding a parent meeting, guidance for handling funds and publicizing a big event, or other well-established standards.
Plus, an adviser has access to plenty of supporting information when you proactively go to your principal with a new idea. You easily can say, “Here’s a school of similar size that pulled this off beautifully, and so will I.”
Principals historically also love the Raising Student Voice & Participation (RSVP)—and the changes will make it easier to access and implement. It gives advisers and administrators a structure to have student leaders really involved in the school—and the community. All of that puts a feather in their cap and makes them see student leadership as a key gear in the school community machinery.
You’ll learn more about these new features as you use them-and they’ll continuously improve as you contribute. Take time to acquaint yourself with them and join in. I’m thrilled with how we’ve moved National Student Council another step ahead, and it will get even better with your participation.
Let us know how you feel as you use these new resources. Email us at [email protected]. As we move forward together, we want you to contribute your ideas to make these resources even better.