One of the things I’m always meaning to do on my blog but don’t do as often as I’d like is break down how we do some of the things we do at SLA. So when someone asked a really good question on Facebook, it seemed like a perfect time to turn the answer into a blog post. Here’s the question:
I have been involved with schools that have an advisory system — but it seems very challenging to bring it into the public school system since teachers are not trained to be advisors. How do you suggest we work towards solving this issue?
The most important thing is this: Prioritize it. So what does that look like…
1) Schedule it with real time and don’t make that time the dumping ground or the place you steal time from every time something comes us. Don’t make it first thing in the morning so it is easy to skip. Treat it as a real extra class that teachers have to work to prepare for, because while it may not be as much work from a grading perspective, the time and energy teachers will spend caring for children, getting to know families, dealing with issues that come up is real. Advisory cannot be the thing teachers deal with after they have dealt with everything else or it will just be “homeroom” like it is in so many places. For us, that means scheduling time for Advisory for 50 minutes at the end of the day, twice a week, and teachers teach four classes plus Advisory instead of five classes plus homeroom as they would in other School District of Philadelphia schools.
2) Don’t assume that teachers know how to care for children – teach them how to. I love Carol Lieber’s book “The Advisory Guide” (published by Educators for Social Responsibility) as a foundation text. Do a book study with teachers about it. Then have a subcommittee that helps to draft a framework for the curriculum with broad themes for each year and examples of ways to execute them. Our committee has our Health teacher, our counselors and some of the teachers who are really invested in Advisory and they set the agenda (with me) on how to run workshops for our faculty.
3) Make it matter by making it a core function of the school. We don’t have traditional Parent-Teacher Conferences here. We have Parent-Student-Advisor conferences where teachers all write narrative report cards which are then processed / talked about / reviewed by the parent, student and advisor together. This makes the Advisor the primary link to the families, which goes a long way toward really making the power of Advisory tranparent to families (and teachers.) If a child gets in trouble, advisors are looped in immediately. Our college counselor works with the advisors so that they are the primary school-based adults to help students make decisions about their college process.
4) Don’t make it “just another class.” Teachers know how to teach classes, but they may not know how to have a class that is really more group high school survival therapy than any other subject. So you have to help teachers resist the urge to create assignments that can be graded and have homework, etc… I always think of Advisory as a pressure value for kids, so if it becomes something that has a lot of homework and requires a lot of work for a grade, it defeats the purpose.
In the end, the shorthand we use for the way we think about how Advisory drives much of the way we think about the relationships between students and teachers can be summed up with two ideas – first, you have to think of Advisory as the soul of your school. Second, with everything you do, remember that you teach students before you teach subjects. At SLA, we believe there is a difference between saying, “I teach English” and “I teach kids English.” Kids should never be the implied object of their own education. Advisory is the place in the schedule where that idea has its core and then it spreads into everything else we do.