A Conversation With... Sue Iverson

Sue Iverson was named the 2019 Warren E. Shull National High School Adviser of the Year. Now retired, Iverson served as the student council adviser at Wayzata High School (WHS) in Wayzata, MN, for 21 years. In 2018, her school hosted the National Student Council Conference.

In addition to her duties as student council adviser, Iverson served as the gifted and talented program and AP coordinator at WHS.

Advise: What was the structure of your student council at Wayzata?

Iverson: We have a senate and we have a house. The senate is the kids who are elected from the student body—36 students for a school that has a population of 3,500. It wasn’t a representation of our voice, which is what the student [council] at Wayzata High School is supposed to be—the voice of the students. So, we also have a house for students [who] don’t want to take the risk of running an election, or if the senate meetings don’t fit into their schedule. To be in the house, you spend August and September coming and helping out at student council events. If you’ve earned points doing different things by Homecoming Week, then you are eligible to be a member of the house. The house [comprises] 150 people. It just allowed more students to participate in a way that was comfortable for them and fit into their schedule, and still felt like we had a group of students who were really able to be the voice for a school of 3,500. … I’m fortunate to work in a school where the principal does really care about culture. “Culture matters,” is what he would always say, and he really views those kids as the pulse of culture. I felt fortunate to be part of a student council where the administrators worked so closely with those kids.

Advise: What would you say are the pros of working with a student council that large?

Iverson: I think it’s the impact you can have. There were some kids who were your worker bees, and that’s what they wanted to do—they wanted to be making the decorations and making the school look cool. There were others who wanted to be part of solutions. First of all, I was giving kids experiences to really grow and develop as leaders, and second of all, I think we were making a bigger impact on the school because we were getting kids from all over. They found a way to be involved and make an impact at their school. I think, as far as leadership development, as an adviser I really got to be a part of working with the kids. I would see where they were and then I would help them figure out how they could develop from [that] place.

Advise: How about the challenges of working with a group that large?

Iverson: There is so much pressure on kids to build their resume. Out of 200, you know there were always a few who were just putting their name on there to have another thing on their resume. I could say there were issues there, too, where not everyone was pulling their weight. So, that challenge for me was to help those kids who were bugged by it to then say, “Remember this as you move on from here and what that feels like. In your professional life someday, when you’re a part of a group and not everybody is pulling their weight, how are you going to respond to that?” I tried to use it as more of a learning experience rather than being “the mom” and saying, “You’re not following the rules.” I felt fortunate to be able to have some of those conversations with kids. I guess that was the biggest challenge, the accountability.

Advise: How did you prepare your student council members to be active leaders?

Iverson: We would always start out the year talking about “What do we stand for?” If there was an issue that came up that the principal was talking about [with the student council], that would always be like, “If we’re Wayzata High School and we’re representing the student voice of Wayzata High School, what is it that we stand for?” … I guess really understanding what our goals were as a group and then, individually, how the kids were portraying that to others. I would always encourage them to present at different opportunities. We would go to the Hennepin Division Conferences, the Minnesota state conference, the national conferences, LEAD Conferences. I really, really encouraged kids who were ready for that to present something and be active leaders and take the risk to put themselves out there, just to help them realize how much they got back from that. A lot of the times kids are like, “I wanna be involved, but I don’t want to be right out there in front of everybody.”

Advise: How did you make your council visible to the student body?

Iverson: At Wayzata High School, we really were in charge of probably 95 percent of the social programming. I think that was a challenge in a school that size to really make our presence known, but the kids are much better at this than I am. They had great social media presence—they know how to do all of the Snapchat filters, and they have their connections on every level. It was out there on Instagram, Twitter, then it would go out on the Wayzata district page, too, so not only were kids hearing about things, but parents were hearing about it as well. It’s such a large school, we really are focused on making sure people know all the opportunities that are out there for kids. That’s one of the ways that we really did outreach, through the social media platforms that we would use.

Advise: What would you say have been some of the most impactful experiences that you’ve had during your time as an adviser?

Iverson: Hosting [the National Student Council Conference] in ’18 was probably the No. 1 best choice ever that I made for the council. We also hosted state conferences twice. It takes so many people to put those things together, and when you have an opportunity to bring all of those kids into it, again, [it’s] another opportunity they won’t forget. I also loved what we would do with our Adopt-a-Family [program] over the holidays, and we would raise money for Interfaith Outreach, an outreach program right in our community. Student council adopts members of our community in the name of Wayzata High School. I have these 200 student leaders; they’re all walking around with their fanny packs collecting money for Interfaith Outreach, and the teachers allow them to get up and talk about it in class. A lot of our kids go on and volunteer at Interfaith Outreach. Then, we also have a Welcome Back staff breakfast every August, so when the teachers are returning for workshop week, we serve breakfast to the staff and greet them when they come in like in a gauntlet, cheering for them and welcoming them back. We have that community of caring and realizing how little actions can help others and change that culture of our school.

Advise: What is the best advice you would give to a new student council adviser?

Iverson: I have been thinking about that a lot, because I am retired. The most important thing to me was that the culture for student council that we built lived on. It was very important for me to realize that the student council is not me. I truly was an adviser, and I was helping kids to learn their leadership potential, realize their leadership potential, and be the best they could be in making positive changes at our school. It took on a different life every year, depending on who your leadership students were. But it has to be something where I always thought, “If I step out of this equation, I want something that keeps going.” That it’s not Sue Iverson’s student council, it is Wayzata High School’s student council. I think as a new adviser, obviously you take a lot of ownership in it, but you have to understand that you’re doing this for the kids and for the culture of the students. You’re helping students realize their potential and go out and make a difference in the community that they’re in.

Advise: How about advice for those seasoned or experienced advisers?

Iverson: Again, I would make sure you’re setting it up that way. You get tired. There are certain things you get really tired about: “Oh, I don’t want to do this again.” But it isn’t about you. Obviously, you have to keep a healthy balance. I’m not saying do things that beat yourself up. But if it’s truly legacies that you’re building for your school, then they should be legacies. When you step out, they should continue on. That’s what fueled me—those little things you’re doing, the little impacts that you’re making along the way.