A Conversation With Dana Hawkins and Nicole Elmore

Dana Hawkins

The Edward Rynearson Adviser of the Year Award was established to recognize outstanding Honor Society advisers for their leadership and commitment to the purposes of the National Honor Societies. Each year, one NHS and one NJHS adviser are selected from among the submissions to be recognized as the Rynearson Advisers of the Year. For 2020, Dana Hawkins of Port Aransas High School in Port Aransas, TX, has been named the NHS Rynearson Adviser of the Year. Nicole Elmore of River Heights Intermediate School in Eastvale, CA, has been named the NJHS Rynearson Adviser of the Year.

Advise: Dana, tell me a bit about you and your NHS chapter.

Dana Hawkins: I have been in Port Aransas at the high school for [four years]. I’ve been a teacher for 16 years. Port Aransas High School is very small. We have a total of 198 students in our whole high school. We usually have about 25–30 members in our chapter a year. Our chapter is very involved in the community. There are certain things that they are required to do when they join this NHS chapter. For instance, one thing is we hold our blood drive. Our blood drive comes to our school five times a year, and our students are in charge of that. Our kids are the waiters and waitresses and busboys at our Chamber of Commerce banquet. Last year, we did a jacket drive and a food drive, and they’re required to participate in at least one of our services for our community.

Advise: Nicole, tell me a little bit about your NJHS chapter in school.

Nicole Elmore: This is my 11th year teaching, and it’s my eighth year as an adviser. We have approximately 1,200 students for seventh and eighth grade. … I usually take about 50 to 60 of our top kiddos. They have to do a formal interview, fill out their application, have teacher recommendations, and so forth. We try and make it as close to high school scholarships and career interviews as possible.

Advise: What kind of projects would you say are the most successful with your students?

Elmore: Some of the projects that we have completed in the past that have been successful include our food drives and blood drives. Those seem to really get kids involved, because they get to see the process of getting these services together as well as the end product. I feel like those types of events really hit home with our kids because they can see what they’re doing and how it makes a difference in our community.

Advise: Tell me about the blood drive. I don’t think we have that many NJHS chapters that host them, so tell me how your students help with that.

Elmore: Our students help with a blood drive in sort of behind-the-scenes ways. We serve as guides, set up, clean up, support—they like to go around and talk to the people as they’re getting their blood taken and kind of make them feel comfortable and tell them about NJHS and how they volunteer. I think it’s a little different than NHS, because my kids are still like 12 and 13. So, there’s only so much that they can do, but as far as what they do, they take it with a whole lot of pride and put everything they have into it.

Advise: Dana, how about for you? Successful projects for your students in your chapter?

Hawkins: I think the most success I’ve seen is anywhere we’re doing service for our community, because our community is so small. Three years ago, we were hit with Hurricane Harvey, and it decimated our town. I mean, our entire town was underwater; most places were at least 3 feet underwater, some as high as 6, and we just have kids getting into their homes three years later. It was amazing to see how these kids came together. I think our kids have such pride in our community because they’ve grown up there. They’ve lived with these people their entire lives. Any time we see an issue or a problem in our community, our kids are right on it and ready and willing to help. And they’re so supported by our community.

Advise: Nicole, how did you in your NJHS chapter modify things in the spring, or how are you doing things now? You know, changing activities, etc.

Elmore: We had already done our group project—we hosted a huge food drive [in March]. Most of them just had to finish their required hours, but there were also some that were just stuck at home and wanted to make a positive impact and be present. One of the things I set up last year was a mentoring program with the elementary school next door to us. My eighth graders mentored two kindergarten classes. They wanted to keep in contact with the kids, so they made “how-to” videos, like “This is how to do this science experiment,” and they would video themselves, or they would read them stories. We created a Google Drive to send over to the school next door so that they could use those for their kids to keep that connection going. This year, I have a Google Classroom that we use, and I post different scholarships or activities, service that they can do digitally, for them to start making an impact in the community.

Advise: I noticed that you had mentioned your cross-age tutoring program. Tell us a little bit about that.

Elmore: The kids would go for almost an hour twice a week, and they would work either on reading or math with their little buddies. They completely adored one another; they were always making thank-you cards. The “littles,” as we call them, [were] always looking forward to seeing their “bigs,” and wondering what story they were going to read, or telling them about their weekend. It was such a rewarding experience, especially for my eighth graders, because they got to see the difference that they made in these kids’ lives. I think it also felt good to them to have the little ones looking up to them.

Advise: Dana, tell us a little bit about what your chapter has had to do to modify events in these strange times.

Hawkins: When we left last year, we’d done our canned food drive over Christmas and Thanksgiving, and then we were starting to work on our Soup Bowl. That was put on hold, but I told the kids—they knew they still had to get their hours. I know a lot of our kids were at home in charge of their siblings while their parents were at work. They were given hours because they were mentoring and helping their siblings, so they could do that. They could go and pick up beach trash. They could go and deliver Meals on Wheels to our citizens. We tried to allow them anything that they could do by themselves where they could still get credit hours—they didn’t have a lot of opportunity because of COVID-19 and all the restrictions. This year, we’re back at school; we’re hybrid right now. We’re doing two days a week they’re in school and two days a week they’re on video with us. So, we’re back to normal.

Advise: What are some other things you do that may encourage college and career aspirations?

Elmore: One of my requirements for our chapter is to fill out an extensive application. So, it’s not just you have this great GPA; it’s what you’ve done in the past and what you plan to do in the future and how you plan on achieving those goals. That tells me a little bit about their character as well. They also have to learn how to write a request for a letter of recommendation from teachers. So, I teach them how to email, to type it and print it out, and sign it, how to address an envelope, and how to follow up politely when it’s been three weeks since you’ve heard from the teacher you asked to write you a letter of recommendation. I feel like these are life skills that are just so important that they don’t learn until it’s crunch time in high school. So, they have practiced speaking with adults in formal conversation. We teach them how to shake hands and make eye contact, how to manage small talk, which all seems kind of natural to us as adults, but when you’re in a conversation with a 12-year-old, you can tell it’s not natural at all. Some other requirements that I have would be monthly scholarships. They find and complete a variety of scholarships, whether they are old enough to apply for them or not. My kids are writing those letters, applying to various scholarships, just to get that practice.

Hawkins: Starting their junior year, they take the SAT. Our school provides that free of charge for them. But I love the idea that Nicole said about the monthly scholarship. I’m going to take that and incorporate that into my chapter, because that’s amazing. Usually they wait until their summer right before their senior year, and then they’re just like, “Augh!” Crazy. So, I love that idea with the juniors. I’m going to start doing that. We have a Veterans Day program at our school, so all the veterans that are from our community come to our high school library, so our kids are there to greet them and do small talk. They can talk to a 75-year-old man about World War II or whatever and be engaged with it. I try and tell them that sometimes you’re going to find people who you’re not interested in and who are boring, but you still have to be polite. Those are skills they need to know, because you’re going to run into it for sure.

Nicole Elmore

Advise: Do you do anything with your chapters to encourage student voice or civic engagement?

Elmore: Our school really pumps up our ASB [associated student body] elections. And so they kind of get the experience of what it takes to run as a candidate; how to publicize your views and what you plan on doing to make the school better, or ASB better; again, they like to make their little videos, and they share those on our Colts News. This year, with virtual, they got to watch all of the candidates make their little commercials—what they stood for, what they plan on doing—and then they have an online ballot where they had to log in officially with their school ID number to keep it secure, and they got to vote. That is something that we’ve been doing. Then, our NJHS chapter actually just signed up with DoSomething.org. They’re a little shy about it, but I can tell already that they’re very interested in some of our issues that are going on in our community. They want to make a difference, but I think some of them are kind of shying away from all the negativity. I’m trying to encourage them that with voting they can encourage that positivity and bring that back.

Hawkins: This year, as you know, it’s a huge year. And so we have already had a meeting. We’ve got a committee that’s in charge of decorating and making posters that just say, “Go up and vote,” “Get out and vote.” And also we’ve got a few kids that are in charge of those seniors that will be able to vote. You know, there’s probably only three or four who are having a birthday, but making sure that those kids are registered to vote and that they know where their polling place is. We’ve got that, and I’m excited to see what they are going to do with this, with our little square halls, and see how they take to the decorations. So, it’ll be exciting.

Advise: What has been your most impactful experience being an adviser?

Hawkins: During the induction ceremony, our new seniors are the ones who run it. They are completely in charge, and they just are so grown up. And then you see our new inductees coming. I think just getting to see that pride and that honor on those kids’ faces, and just the responsibility that it takes, and them knowing that. I feel honored just to be able to be around these kids because they are so amazing. It’s the cream of the crop, and I just feel blessed that I get to be around them and help mold them and shape them.

Elmore: I would have to say, honestly, when I first started as an NJHS mentor, I worked in San Bernardino City, and I worked with a small group of kids because we didn’t have as many kids that made the academic requirement. My small group of kids worked so hard to maintain their grades, to be present and safe in the community, because it was not a safe community. To watch them go through induction as if college was the next step, and they were going to be the first ones in their family to go to college, still gets me kind of emotional to see how they’ve basically come from nothing and they’ve become successful. I don’t feel like I had a whole big role in that. I mean, obviously I helped, but I feel like they were so determined that they inspired me to keep doing NJHS even though we have a million other things and we’re volunteering our time for this. It just kind of reinforced why we do what we do. They were actually the first year that NJHS and NASSP started the scholarships. …

Advise: The Outstanding Achievement Award.

Elmore: Some of them got them, and it was so meaningful, because this was like their first realization that they could go to college. … Seeing how hard they had to work for what they wanted actually I think developed some of my character skills and my work ethic, because they were so impressive at 12 that I can’t even imagine what they’re going to be like as adults. So that would be my moment.

Advise: What advice would you give to new advisers—NJHS and NHS?

Hawkins: Just enjoy every second of it. We’re tired, and we’re pulled in 50 different ways, and we all wear so many hats. But just be mindful and be in the moment and just take it all in and enjoy every second of it. And I think my whole thing is about being kind, and I think if the kids can see and take that from me, then I feel like I’ve done my job—just showing that kindness and that love and just taking it all in.

Elmore: I would like to add that, for me, I have really high expectations for my kids, but I also offer them the support they need to get there. My students kind of realize that there is no other option—you are going to be successful. I don’t care how hard it is. I don’t care how many tears you cry. I will be there with you every step of the way, but you’re going to get there. And they tend to rise up and impress me every year. A lot of people think, “Oh, 12- and 13-year-olds, they can’t do much,” but my kids feel like they’re going to change the world. I don’t let them think otherwise. They continue to grow and build those lasting relationships with one another in the chapter, as well as with me.

Advise: What recommendations would you give fellow veteran advisers?

Elmore: Being organized is a huge part of being a good mentor, especially when you have so many kids. I have 60 kids, so I have to make sure that they’re on top of their [service] hours. I have to be OK with giving kids some responsibility as well and also being OK with the fact that some of them are going to fail and learn from that experience, and they’re going to bounce right back because they’re resilient, and they always do. Releasing that power is a little scary sometimes, but it’s necessary for them to learn and grow.

I would [also] like to give the advice that you have to always remember that, especially with little ones, that their eyes are on you 24/7, everything you do, say, think—they know about. I think that’s really important as a mentor to be conscious of what you’re modeling, because they are watching.

Hawkins: I think that everybody needs to take care of themselves. Because at Christmas, I know you’re tired, and with everything going on, I think it’s super important that you take care of yourself. When you get home at night, if you leave school at 5 o’clock—leave school. Don’t bring home two hours of homework every night. Leave it at school, even if it’s just one night a week that you’re like, “I’m going to leave it at school.” I really think we have to take care of ourselves, because so many teachers are dropping because of everything new we’re having to learn, and it’s just too much for some people. I just think, you know, we have to take care of each other. We have to take care of our kids for sure. We’ve got to take care of ourselves—whether it’s a bubble bath, a glass of wine, a date with your spouse or your partner. Just take care of yourself. —

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