A Conversation With … Tyler Stewart and Kristi West

Each year, the Warren E. Shull Award is presented to a middle level and high school student council adviser who demonstrate exemplary character, leadership, and commitment to young people and their development as student leaders. In 2020, Tyler Stewart, social studies teacher and student council adviser at Berg Middle School in Newton, IA, was named the Warren E. Shull National Middle Level Adviser of the Year, and Kristi West, student council adviser at Hardin Jefferson High School in Sour Lake, TX, was named the 2020 Warren E. Shull National High School Adviser of the Year.

Advise: What’s the best advice you would give to a new adviser?

Tyler Stewart: What I always tell people—and I say this to kids a lot, too—is just to always try to do what nobody else has been doing. Try to flip the script, do something different. I see a lot of people that go into certain positions, like coaching positions; they do what the last coach was doing, and then they kind of get those same results. So, I try to tell people [to] look at how things are done and how can you change it to benefit your program, or what can you do differently or maybe just completely change? That’s the only way to really do anything meaningful or successful.

Kristi West

Kristi West

Kristi West: We have such a big turnover rate in student council with new advisers. So, the first thing I tell them is don’t try to do it all in the first year. We want to keep you in this game, and we’re here to help, so reach out to your experienced advisers in your district, your state, and get involved and ask for help. You have to build your program. And it is not an adviser council—it is a student council. Those kids have to work. You cannot do it all yourself. And you’ve got to take care of yourself in it—make those adult connections— because that is the one thing that’s kept me doing it all these years, besides the kids. I love the kids, but my friendships that I’ve made throughout the years with the adult advisers, when things are tough, that’s who I reach out to.

Advise: What do you do to make your council visible to the school student body and staff?

West: We do all the teacher appreciations for our teachers. We have two luncheons a year. We do “snack attacks” throughout the months, but we work with our freshmen doing Character Strong every Friday. We have a homeroom-type class that we have, and we do Character Strong with the freshmen. Then, we’re constantly running programs for our student body—different type of projects throughout the year—but our main thing that we give back to the student body is our Homecoming Week. We have an entire day where we don’t go to class. We run kind of like a carnival-type atmosphere, no charge to the kids. There’s funnel cakes, cotton candy, snow cones. Everything we make on the Homecoming Dance goes back into the kids that week. It’s not a fundraiser for us at all. That’s one thing that the kids look forward to every year. We do class competitions all day. The kids just love it. And we have something for every single kid that day. We have Super Smash Mario Bros. set up in the gym. There’s ping-pong for the ping-pong kids, and it’s been a huge success. We’ve now been doing it 12 years.

Stewart: We do a lip-sync battle once every year. It’s usually mid- to late February, the week after Valentine’s Day. I did it five years ago—my first year in student council—and got like 200 people there, and this last year it had evolved into an event where we had a professional production company coming in, putting in 14-foot video screens from each edge of the stage that they built for us, and we had about 1,400 people show up. This year, we donated all the proceeds to an organization—it was Four Diamonds, [the service project for the 2019 National Student Council Conference]. We ended up donating about $9,000 to them, or raising $9,000 for them, but it was just a cool event. It’s kind of just growing every year. Our vice principal— she and I have this running feud during the show that we’ll try to one-up each other’s performances every year—one year she rappelled from the ceiling, which was insane, and this year she took a Harley down the middle of our gym. That’s one of the things I think the kids look forward to every year, and it just gets blown out of proportion, and that’s the draw, I guess.

Advise: In what ways are you encouraging student voice or promoting the use of student voice?

Tyler Stewart

Tyler Stewart

Stewart: I’m fortunate that we have caucuses in Iowa, and we’re the first in the nation. Most people get sick of the phone calls and stuff. But I love it because I can email a campaign and they’ll come to my class and visit with my students. I invite student council kids to events where politicians are speaking—both parties—when they come to my class. This last cycle, we had Beto O’Rourke come to my class, and we had Pete Buttigieg visit our school and speak at an event in our school. We had kids meet him and talk about civic duty, civic action, and that’s been very, very helpful. We have a lot of kids now, I think, that are really finding some passion in government and understanding that they do have a voice. So, that’s one of the ways I incorporate that.

West: We do a lot with our state student council, and that’s where I let the kids have their voice. Last year, we were the state vice president school. So, my kids had a voice in the state student council, and then we have one officer who made it to [the NASSP Student Leadership Advisory Committee], Sam Dickerson. My kids also, as far as any project, present the project to the principal—they have to go and present it. As far as meeting with the superintendent, they go and meet with the superintendent as well. I always say it’s student council, not adviser council. If they want to do something, they have to go meet with Mr. Brown, not me. I think it’s good for them—they don’t always need to be told “no” by me. And I feel like that gives them voice. Also, we have started meeting with all the different clubs on campus, and I think that gives not just our student council voice, but that gives all the clubs on campus a voice in the decision-making process. It kind of levels the playing field where we’re not doing all the projects, too.

Advise: What has been your most impactful experience in your time as an adviser?

Stewart: I find the most meaningful time that I’ve spent with student council, one of the few, I guess, would be going to the national conferences the last two years, seeing the kids just absolutely grow. For our middle school students, when they go, they leave and they’re just energetic, excited, happy, talkative about everything. I remember getting a comment from a parent that said, “I don’t know what happened at that conference, but my daughter just doesn’t shut up now. She’s always talking ‘Student council, what we do, what we do,’” and that was kind of impactful for me. I thought that was really neat.

West: I think I’ll just give one, but I really have two. The first one is my brother passed away from a blood clot, but basically he had two kidney transplants, and a pancreas transplant before that. And so the blood clot was a complication from all of that. And I had a real hard time with that over the years. I had a state officer, and she wanted to run for office and we talked about things, and we ended up running an organ donation [drive] because that’s a huge thing—that we do not have enough people signing up to be organ donors. And so, that was our platform all year long, and it took me a long time to get to where we could do that. So, we ran for office, and we won, so that became the state platform that year, and it was a huge success. We did a really good job that year, and then it went up to the national level and won the national award. So, I was super, super proud of that group of kids, because it meant so much to me that they took it and ran with it, and they knew how much it meant to me.

And then this year, we had a student who passed away from opioids. He took a hydrocodone that he didn’t know was laced with carfentanil, and he was one of our student council kids. Now, he had already graduated and went to Rice University. So, we ran on changing D.A.R.E. Week—because we don’t feel like on the high school level D.A.R.E. Week is a thing—you know, dress-up days are not doing it anymore. That doesn’t get to the heart of the matter for D.A.R.E. Week. Now, with everything that went on with coronavirus, we didn’t get to put in our numbers this year. But we had a really successful state project this year. Just seeing their hard work and seeing it just come to fruition is very impactful, and their accomplishments.

Advise: What are things that keep you in your adviser role?

West: My favorite thing is seeing the kids after they graduate and what they do with it. You know, I have kids that come back and say, “I couldn’t have done this without student council.” “I know my voice. I know how to speak to people. I can negotiate things because of student council.” They’re ready for college. They’re not the ones that hide off in college. They’re in the forefront, and so that makes me super excited. The other thing is just my personal connections, too. Seeing all these kids and the great work they do, and then my connections that I’ve made—you know, it’s so much fun when you go to a conference and you see all your buddies. You might only do it five times a year, but I miss this right now. I miss going to the state convention.

Stewart: I’d have to agree with a lot of that. I say the connections, for me, are really important. When I first started in student council, my second year the eighth graders had become freshmen, and I’d always see them at football games or whatever may be, and they would say, “Our high school student council doesn’t do as much, or doesn’t do anything, like our middle school one did,” and that conversation now over the last four years has changed to “How can we work together more?” So, the student council there is now starting to feel the effects of us having a strong student council, and so they’re growing. And that’s kind of neat to see that how that conversation has changed. I agree with the personal connections, though.

Advise: What piece of advice, wisdom, anything would you like to give to advisers?

West: I would say this year is going to be different. Don’t get discouraged; have a Plan A, a Plan B, a Plan C for everything you do. Things are not going to be just like they’ve always been. We’re going to have to think outside the box to include everybody, and we’re going to have to make sure we make those connections, especially if 50 percent of our kids are at home. Reach out to your other advisers; see what they’re doing. I know with our state organization we’ve already compiled a list of virtual projects that you can do. I know there’s some virtual projects on [www.NatStuCo.org] that you can do. Start doing those virtual meetings—it can be done. I can have more meetings because of Zoom, because we can have them at night now! So, we’re going to be meeting a lot more than we used to.

Stewart: I guess my advice would be, to kind of go off on what Kristi was saying, the times that we’re living in right now are totally unprecedented historically. I’ve been telling my student council kids this as well, that our student council needs to rise to the occasion and meet this moment with the most innovative ideas and be ready for the biggest curveballs that we’ve ever seen. And I say that with COVID, going back to school, the latest push for equality in our country—that’s stuff that is now going to be raining down in the classrooms every single day, and it’s going to be on our shoulders to make sure that we effectively push that across and make sure that our schools are impacted in a positive way. And so, as an adviser, be ready to go full speed ahead and make sure you just kind of follow what you think is the right thing to do. It’s going to be really, really challenging.

Advise: Great point. Anything else that you want to say that might be beneficial for fellow advisers to read, to know?

West: If you’re a new adviser, just remember it takes three years. I always tell them it takes three years, and then it gets easier. But hang in there, because the kids need you. I’m a math teacher. The kids’ll tell you I’m probably one of the hardest math teachers that they have, but at the same time, I do believe if they don’t have all their activities and sports, we’re not going to keep them engaged. I’m really concerned about that this year, because from the way they’re showing this model, I don’t know if that other part’s going to happen. And so, we’ve got to make sure that those activities, in some form, happen. So, hang in there. Make it worth their while. Make student council worth it. I feel like my student council job is just as important as my math job.

Stewart: The only other piece of advice I’d want to add is when they become available again, attend as many conferences as you can. That’s where I found my passion get ignited. For the [2019 National Student Council Conference] in Pittsburgh, I was fortunate enough to be able to bring about seven other staff members, and they came back with nothing but positive things to say. It kind of reignited their fire and passion for teaching. I think it’s going to get better and better and better every year, and that’s really, really exciting to see that grow.

West: And on what Tyler said, I’ve talked a lot about networking with adults, but your kids network at those events, too. That’s what helps them at college. Because they network with other kids at these events, and then at college they can go, “Oh, I know you. I know you.” Our kids, when they go to these big schools, they know half the people in the room through student council, and that is so cool. “You were in my small group at Mo-Ranch. I know you.” I just I find that really neat, you know?

Advise: Absolutely. —

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