Serving as a student council adviser takes a lot of passion and energy. Between juggling fundraising efforts, serving in the public eye, and dealing with regular classroom teaching duties, advisers may struggle to find solutions to problems or simply long for someone with a listening ear.
Educators generally benefit from collaboration, and working cooperatively is now emphasized for everyone from school board members to first graders. Professional learning communities “have positive impact on both teaching practice and student achievement,” according to a 2007 study by a team of University of Florida researchers who reviewed 10 reports on the topic. Gregory Anrig, vice president at a nonprofit research think tank, got attention for his book Beyond the Education Wars: Evidence That Collaboration Builds Effective Schools and his advocacy efforts pointing to research that showed collaboration pays off.
“The most crucial finding was that the most effective schools, based on test score improvement over time after controlling for demographic factors, had developed an unusually high degree of ‘relational trust’ among their administrators, teachers, and parents,” Anrig wrote in Educational Leadership magazine.
Advisers for student leaders, especially, say they often have unique problems and work independently, so it’s helpful to have connections to others facing similar issues.
“We need to have a place online or in person where we can go for validation, advice, and empathy,” says Laura Mullen, an adviser at Murphy Middle School in Texas, who recalls her early years supporting a group when she felt like she was working in a vacuum until she began attending conferences for student leadership. For instance, Mullen wanted help addressing a sticky issue about whether she could pass along information to a high school adviser about a member who had been dismissed from her group, or whether it would violate federal FERPA rules about the privacy of student records. “We cannot serve our students in this role as adviser without having someone to go to when things get confusing, frustrating, or complicated,” she says.
Making Connections Through Conferences
When Mullen first took over as an adviser, a statewide conference helped her a great deal.
“Having a source of information was life-saving, and I can honestly say that I would not still be an adviser without the advice and support that I received from that training,” Mullen says. “Collaborating in some way is essential for those of us who serve in these positions.”
Bill McIlwee, a veteran adviser at Eureka High School in Missouri, says LEAD Conferences and national conferences offer structured programming mixed with a lot of opportunity for advisers to connect.
“It totally changed the dynamics of my chapter,” he says, noting that both he and his student leaders benefit from the opportunity to exchange ideas with others. “We learn new things throughout, and at one point we share what we learned at the conference and how we will try to improve something in our chapter. It helps us all.”
“I think there are strong benefits to attending local events and learning locally, but also great benefits in stretching your comfort zone and thinking outside the box and outside your state,” says Sara Nilles, executive director of the Oregon Association of Student Councils, whose state conferences typically attract representatives of 100 schools.
At Bellingham High School in Massachusetts, adviser Amy-June Remy finds that state meetings and getting together with other local advisers help her “find tools that keep her chapter headed in the right direction. … It’s a great opportunity for local advisers to connect and find out about great things happening in their state and how to get involved locally,” she says. “And we all need that ‘hey, you’re doing a great job’ every once in awhile.”
Chris Hill, an adviser at Lake Oswego High School in Oregon, feels a summer Adviser Institute is very helpful. It’s a two-day event where advisers network and get a “refresher about why we do what we do,” and where newly hired advisers—often just moving into the positions in the summer—can get a crash course before the school year.
NASSP sponsors both the National Student Council Conference (at Wayzata High School in Plymouth, MN, June 25–27, 2018) and LEAD Conferences, which offer multiple opportunities to collaborate with colleagues at schools throughout the country.
A Place for Problem Solving
Natasha Schaefer, a veteran science teacher and student council adviser at Woodcreek High School in Roseville, CA, struggled with problems such as school restriction on induction candles, an unwieldy teacher recommendation form, tracking service hours, and structuring a big talent show. She found the new NHS/NJHS Adviser Online Community was very helpful in resolving them. (National Student Council also recently debuted its own Adviser Online Community.)
“Advisers often begin communications with, ‘Does anyone ever …,’ ” says Kristina Vuong, adviser to an NHS chapter at Socrates Preparatory School in Casselberry, FL. She says that advisers are often looking for clarification about “standards that we should hold our students to.” Appropriately maintaining standards is easier with support, she says.
“There was once a thread about everyone’s GPA requirements. It is nice to know that most schools are expecting so much of their group of leaders,” Vuong says, noting that other issues related to the functional operations of a group have been discussed and resolved.
Vuong also found details about a senior auction and a teacher appreciation project in the online community, both of which were just as successful for her as the author predicted. And, she says, she has found inspiration to get re-energized.
“Sometimes I feel like we get in a rut as an adviser,” Vuong says. “We have so much going on so we just reach for the same activities over and over. It’s nice reading about what other chapters or councils are doing. What may seem like the same old thing to one is new and fabulous to another.”
Digital communities can also be valuable resources for student activity advisers.
Facebook is useful for “a quick question an adviser might have about a specific lesson, charity event, or a fresh idea,” says Aurora Roth, an adviser at Sherwood High School in Oregon. Michelle Paine, a counselor and adviser at Grand Valley Middle School in Parachute, CO, turns to Pinterest for ideas and to share her group’s thoughts with others.
“The internet has increased interaction between myself and other advisers not just in Oregon, but nationally and internationally, and has made it faster and easier,” Nilles says. “We can share files, ideas, and pictures with a quick click.”
She notes that by organizing those electronic communications, she has a historical record of things that have occurred and a database of ideas and remedies. She also notes that busy advisers can collaborate online when it is convenient. “I talk to and feel more connected to advisers across the nation on social media than I do to people close by,” she says.
An increasing number of advisers are using the Adviser Online Community, and Mullen explains that it is easier than some may think.
“When you first sign on to the NASSP online community, you will find a wealth of information and it could be overwhelming,” Mullen says. “It’s a vibrant community of advisers helping each other with all sorts of issues and concerns.”
There is a tour for new members, and then she recommends clicking on the “discuss” tab and using the search option at the top right corner of the page for a topic of concern.
“You would be surprised at how many other advisers across the country have some of the same situations,” she says. “That is what makes the site so valuable; not only do you find an answer to your question, but you feel normal for asking it. Other people have shared your experiences and have solutions.”
You can also enter your own question if you want to start a conversation.
“Every time I have put in a question or a concern onto the discussion page, I’ve had at least three to four advisers answer me within less than 24 hours,” Mullen says.
She frequently uses the “resources” tab to get shareable documents that advisers frequently use, and checks the “news” tab for items of interest for her school’s student groups.
For those looking for some inspiration and fresh ideas for upcoming projects, advisers from student councils and the National Honor Societies can also access the National Student Project Database (www.nhs.us/projects; www.njhs.us/projects; www.NatStuCo.org/projects) to share a successful project or read about them, and discover projects that have earned national recognition like the Outstanding Service Project award or National Council of Excellence status.
There are also committees and leadership roles at the state and national level where advisers can serve to contribute and learn more about what is happening in student groups throughout the nation.
Creating a Connection
Remy notes that sometimes it’s also just “a pleasure to get to know people like this who are making an impact in their sphere of influence.” She, and others, say relationships that become very important and last for years often grow out of connections with other advisers-even in other parts of the country.
“By communicating, reflecting on what I read, responding online, and getting my questions answered with a variety of responses, I’ve gained confidence. I know I’m meeting national standards and know I’m not alone,” Schaefer says. “And it is just fun to learn what other schools are doing across the country.”
“It’s also rewarding to be able to share your positive moments with people who understand the work that went into it,” Mullen says.
Like Us On …
Stephanie Stonex, the student activities director at Canyon Springs High School in North Las Vegas, NV, found state and national conferences useful, but she wanted a quicker way to communicate with her colleagues.
“I was finding myself looking on Pinterest and YouTube to find new ideas for my own student council. Because so many people are on Facebook, I thought that was a good place to create a forum for our advisers in the state,” Stonex says.
She set up the page and recruited advisers she knew statewide to participate, and they committed to recruiting others and keeping the page fresh.
At meetings or conferences, she reminds past participants and tells new advisers about the page, and at the beginning of the school year she welcomes advisers statewide back to school and encourages them to post events. If there isn’t much activity, she or other active participants post something and ask for comments.
“I know when I have needed help and posted it on Facebook, several people have given me solutions. Other advisers do the same, and we all try to be as helpful as possible. It is an easy way for people to communicate.”
Get Plugged In
NASSP has several resources that advisers can access to collaborate with their peers or learn about their successes.
Adviser Online Community NHS/NJHS:
National Student Council:
The National Student Project Database
The National Student Council Conference