Learn From the Best

Chad Rizner was still on stage after winning the 2017 Warren E. Shull National High School Adviser of the Year Award when his phone started buzzing with a swarm of congratulatory messages. This award, he told Advise, is “more of a recognition for our school and the hard work our kids do, because I don’t do all the hard work. They do.” 

Rizner and Penelope Allen, Warren E. Shull National Middle Level Adviser of the Year, accepted their honors at the NASC National Conference in Derry, NH, in June 2017. The annual award recalls National Student Council founder Warren E. Shull, and it recognizes student council advisers of exemplary character, leadership, and commitment to young people in helping to develop them as student leaders.

In conversations with Advise, Rizner and Allen shared a wealth of experience in helping students uncover their leadership potential—valuable advice for advisers in any role, whether student council or the National Honor Societies.

About the Winners

Chad Rizner, in his eighth year as student council adviser at Jefferson City High School, Jefferson City, MO, brought 17 years of sports coaching experience to the post. The sociology and leadership teacher has guided student council in efforts to honor veterans; make homecoming more inclusive for community and alumni; and convene school, city, county, and state elected officials for a Community Leaders Breakfast. Active in Missouri Association of Student Councils (MASC) leadership, he first experienced National Student Council (NatStuCo) as a student delegate to its 1989 conference.

Penelope Allen is in her 10th year as student council adviser at Lafayette Middle School, Oxford, MS. The math teacher has led her students in the areas of service, school spirit, and leadership. Students have “adopted” their special-needs classmates and participated in leadership workshops, and student council has grown as students envision the impact they can have. She is active in the Mississippi Association of Student Councils (MSASC), and this year her school is hosting its second MSASC state conference. 

Q. In your time as adviser, how have the concepts of student leadership and the role of student council changed, and how should student council advisers adapt to those changes?

Allen: Our principals have made a huge difference in allowing students to be heard. Our student leaders are leaders regardless. They see a need and they see classmates wanting change, and we have a principal open to hearing the students and letting the students act on those needs. For example, we didn’t have microwaves in the cafeteria. Now there are four, and we’re blowing the breaker. So, we’re getting an electrician to look at it. We let them lead. 

Rizner: The biggest change is the time crunch we all seem to be under. Schools used to be the center of life, and that was how kids and adults got their entertainment and kids occupied their time. So, there’s a balance between having standards of participation and being flexible. If I’m talking to an athlete in student council who’s saying they can’t do something, I ask, “Would you say that to your coach?” But with that said, it’s important to be flexible, because if you force a kid to choose, they may not choose to do student council. If they have to miss something with student council, they fill out a form and talk face-to-face with an adviser. It’s easy to send a text to say you can’t be there, but it’s different when you have to look in somebody’s eyes and see the disappointment or frustration. It’s funny how many times a kid will say they don’t think they can be there, and we have a discussion, and they end up being there. There’s power in that. There’s value in that.

Q. While your job is teaching students, let’s flip the script. What are the top lessons that advisers can learn from their student leaders?

Allen: As adults, we often have an idea but aren’t sure how to share it or if we should share it. The students, they just go right into it. They see the possibility that somebody could say yes. I’ve learned to share ideas and don’t always look for the cons. There are pros that we may not see. I’ve learned to go into situations without fear of being shot down. 

Rizner: In today’s world, we’re sometimes short on optimism, but kids naturally see the world with optimistic eyes. I don’t know how many times I’m not really thrilled about going to an event, but then you’re swept up in the energy and spirit of the kids. Also, if you give kids the time and the resources to think and make decisions, they come up with incredible things. If you rush them, they come up with the last thing they saw. I learned to give them time, so when they looked at the need for activities for kids in our town one winter, they held a cabin fever carnival. They got school clubs to run booths and held games in the gym. 

Q. Strengthening community ties is a theme running through your work. Why should advisers encourage student leaders to build bridges to their communities? 

Allen: Without the community, we’re just a school. When we build those bridges, we become a service for our community. Plus, you create relationships that can never be created within the walls of the school. We hosted a senior citizen prom that was amazing. It opened doors for different organizations to ask how they can help. One of our students met a lady who wasn’t going to have anyone visit her on Mother’s Day; her son is in Germany. The student asked his mom, “Can we please take her flowers and go visit her on Mother’s Day?” You can only imagine when word about that kind of thing starts getting out. It shows that Lafayette Middle School cares for the community. 

Rizner: Students get an appreciation for what it takes to do things in the community. It has nothing to do with the amount of money they raise, as far as their development goes. We tell the kids to think about how much work went into the county fair or the Fourth of July celebration downtown. Someday, they’re going to be the business owners and the lawyers and the doctors and the teachers who give up their Tuesday nights all year to help plan the county fair. That’s a bridge to the community of the future.

Q. How do you challenge students to tackle big projects while recognizing their capabilities and time constraints?

Allen: That’s one thing we struggle with. Our students see high school student council members at national and southern conventions, and they [start to] think they’re high schoolers, too. We have this conversation a lot. They would meet every day after school if they could. Sometimes we do have to have a reality check. They’re very driven. They know the time constraints and say, “Here’s our hour. Here’s our agenda.” They work on that agenda so they can meet those goals. 

Rizner: It’s about starting kids early in their careers to develop their skills and abilities. We only have them in 10th, 11th, and 12th grades. Our committee heads, who have all the responsibility and power, are set in April. So going into the next year we know who those leaders are. Some jobs, such as event chairs, are left open specifically for sophomores. We try to do a restaurant night fundraiser every term, which involves contacting a restaurant, figuring out a date, and advertising. It’s not a huge event. If it’s not done perfectly, it’s not going to kill us. We help the sophomores through that process, giving them an opportunity to step up. 

Big events and big jobs can be broken down into a series of small events and small jobs. That’s hard for younger members to understand. They think, “I’m on (the) assemblies committee, and all I do is run the spotlight.” Well, if you can’t run it, we wouldn’t have a spotlight, and that’s critical to making the assembly successful. 

Q. How do you balance between advising and micromanaging, especially if an idea or project isn’t going as planned?

Allen: When I first started advising, I would chime in and say, “Let’s look at the things to think about.” But then the kids went on to high school, and the first time they were told “no” by the administrator there, they were surprised. I realized that by micromanaging their every movement, they weren’t seeing that life lesson of being told “no.” The students created a process, with a form to fill out before going to the principal or superintendent. It covers the information they need to know in advance and the questions they may be asked. I do think it’s good they hear from administrators that something is just not possible, or that certain issues might come up. 

Rizner: That goes back to starting early. If you’ve trained people the right way, you don’t have to micromanage them. We tell committee chairs we know they’re doing a good job when they’re telling us what to do. “Hey, Rizner, remember to reserve the gym on such-and-such a date. Hey, Rizner, remember to get the money bag for the volleyball tournament.” When that happens, we’re where we need to be.

Q. How do you manage your own challenges regarding your personal and teaching responsibilities?

Allen: That’s a bit tough. I teach math. That has to come first. Student council adviser is a volunteer role. My daughter was in student council here, and now she’s in high school student council. I thought I needed to step back for her senior year so I could spend time with her, and she said, “Absolutely not, Mom. Student council is what you do.” My family is very understanding. They know what advising our student leaders means. They step in if I’m not home; or at a student council event, they usually show up and help as well. 

Rizner: I married somebody who understands. My wife is a second-grade teacher. When we got married, I was a coach. We talked about that and what it means. My boys are in seventh grade and ninth grade now. I smile to see them learn lessons from other adults, because I’ve spent my life trying to teach those lessons to other people’s kids, and obviously to my own, but it gives me a better appreciation for the things that teachers and coaches and sponsors do. 

Q. What does it mean to you, your students, and your school to receive the Shull award? 

Allen: It’s validation on their part that what we’re doing is right. I never went into student council looking at the end result as an award. That’s not our goal. I just wanted to help students find their voices. In middle school, they’re figuring out what school’s about. They’re just figuring out who they are, and this provides an avenue and platform they can be a part of to build their voices. For me, it’s cool to get up every morning. I don’t feel like I drive to work. I get to live my dream. 

Rizner: I work at the school I attended. The tradition of excellence we have is long. One of my advisers, Dennis Lock, was the executive director of MASC, so it’s not like Chad Rizner created all this. Mr. Lock’s successor as executive director is Terri Johnson, and she is a fantastic resource I lean on a lot. She was on staff at MASC camp when I was a camper there. I learned from the best, so that makes the job a lot easier. The award is a reflection on our school, our council, and our kids, showing that the work we do is important. The kids buy into that and want to be a part of that. The award is a recognition of all that hard work. 


M. Diane McCormick is a writer based in Pennsylvania.


To learn more about the Warren E. Shull Award, visit www.NatStuCo.org/shull.