Dr. Eve Rifkin, Dean of Students, on how City High School’s advisory program holds space for positive relationships with students.
“I believe that the moral education centers upon this conception of the school as a mode of social life, that the best and deepest moral training is precisely that which one gets through having to enter into proper relations with others in a unity of work and thought.” –John Dewey
When John Dewey, American educational thought leader, wrote his Pedagogic Creed in 1897, he was responding to a major shift that fundamentally changed the way schools did business. Prior to this shift, schools were firmly rooted in small rural communities, served as centers of village life, and facilitated interactions that were largely relational. What followed was a push for efficiency, codified standards, and rigorous systems of measurement. Unfortunately, in our quest to adopt a more modern educational system, we lost one of the most important fundamental qualities of the school: relationships. One structure that can help schools reclaim relationships as a central component of their communities is a well-developed advisory program. With support from leadership and focused training for staff, an advisory program has the capacity to transform a school community in profound ways.
What is Advisory?
The underlying principle of an advisory program is that every single student, no matter the size of the school, will have at least one adult that is looking out for them.
In short, advisories are relatively small groups of students that meet each week and are facilitated by a staff member, otherwise known as “the advisor”. Groups may be single or multi-grade. Although how often advisories meet and what they do in their meetings is driven by the particular needs and context of the school, the most effective advisory programs have a strong emphasis on social-emotional learning, develop a culture of community and connections, and provide a safe space for all students within a school. In many ways, an advisory program provides the backbone for schools that are committed to maintaining safe and caring environments for all students.
Who is an Advisor?
It’s important to distinguish the roles of an advisor from those of a teacher. While any good teacher knows that the secret to learning is relationships, the primary role of the advisor is to develop relationships with their advisees. In order to maintain small advisory groups, it is very likely that most, if not all adults in a school will also serve as advisors. As advisors, however, the role that school adults play transforms. For example,, when a school principal or a math teacher step into the role of advisor, they set aside their ‘instructional leader’ or ‘math teacher’ roles and become ‘relationship builders.’ Because the caring and relationship-centered environment of the advisory are not a means to an end but rather the entire point, all advisors need to be up to the task of spending time with young people, facilitating important and sometimes difficult dialogue, and providing guidance on academic and extracurricular pursuits. Given how precious time is to educators, school leaders can support advisory programs by providing advisory planning time for all staff members that will be serving in this capacity.
An Advisory Snapshot
As the Dean of Students at a small urban high school, my role is to maintain a safe and healthy environment for every one of my students. Every one of my students is every student at my school. However, when I step into the role of advisor, three times a week for thirty minutes each time, “every one of my students” are the eleven seniors in my advisory. This week, my advisees and I sat in a circle and looked together at data from a school-wide social emotional learning survey that all students took at the start of the year. We zoomed in on what appeared to be a school-wide troublespot: “self-efficacy”. We had a 15-minute conversation about whether or not they felt safe to ask questions and what teachers can do to support them when they don’t understand things. My role as advisor was to facilitate the conversation, listen carefully, and occasionally reflect back some of their insights.
Two days later most of my advisees were working on their digital portfolios in preparation for their student-led conferences, while I helped a few students complete their FAFSAs. Next week I will attend a judiciary panel for an advisee of mine who needs my help figuring out how to fix a serious mistake. While my tasks as an advisor vary from week to week, my role stays the same: to look out for “my kids” in all the ways they need me to.
Care Comes First
School leaders must believe that a “culture of care” is not an afterthought, but a central element of the school’s mission. This focus on care will not be easy, neat, or predictable. For teachers and staff to know each student and each other well will require the messy work of relationship and trust-building. But as education scholar Joseph Murphy suggests in “Creative Productive Cultures in Schools” (2016) the small communities that will emerge within the advisory program will have the capacity to transform the school culture, as “assets of care and warmth are stockpiled to assist in helping students reach ambitious learning targets” (Murphy, 2016, p. 83).