[This post comes out of Friday’s work session with the Innovative Schools network where principals and counselors and teachers and social workers came together to talk about how they care for the children in their schools. It was wonderful to spend the day with caring, committed educators, planning for ways to better care for the children in their charge.]

Lots of schools have Advisory programs, but there are many schools where Advisory is little more than homeroom. For some reason, Advisory – despite being something that many educators will tell you can / should be a great thing – remains an elusive success in too many places. And with the proliferation of education books out there, it’s telling that the quintessential book on Advisory – The Advisory Guide by Poliner and Lieber – is over ten years old.

But done right, Advisory is nothing less than the soul of a school. It is where Noddings’ ideas of the ethic of care can live and breathe in the structure and schedule of a school. Done right, Advisory guarantees that every student in a school will know they are cared for, and that they have an advocate. Done right, Advisory levels the power dynamic between teachers and students that can transform school culture from authoritarian to authoritative. Of all the things SLA does, Advisory strikes me as one of the most important pieces of our culture — and one of the most easily poachable by other schools.

But it has to be nurtured. I think in many schools, working on being a good Advisor doesn’t get the necessary professional development time, and too many teachers (myself included, more often than I care to admit) often plan Advisory last because it’s not an “academic” class. And those two things can combine to kill effective Advisory programs.

And we have to help teachers be good Advisors? There’s nothing about the typical teacher preparation program that does this. Those programs (especially at the secondary level) focus on how to help teachers be great teachers of their content, not great teachers of their children. So how do you plan for care? How do you help teachers become Advisors? What are the big ideas and questions we have to ask if we are to create powerful Advisory programs in schools?

  • How do you develop caring relationships with kids? What does that look like? How do we care for kids? Fundamentally, teachers have to grapple with this question to be good Advisors. One of our teachers at SLA says that he is “School Dad” for his Advisees, which may be one way to start to answer that question. And yes, that answer can look different for different teachers, but we have to be willing to tackle the question to make Advisory successful. Aspects of this question also include helping teachers to be good listeners to kids and helping teachers to understand the different cultures and communities that students come from, and helping them to examine issues of implicit bias so that they can respect and care for all students in a way that doesn’t simply mean that teachers look to impose their own value systems on their students and Advisees.
  • How do you make Advisory class time successful / useful? (Full disclosure here – I don’t think I did this all that well as an Advisor. I was good at the one-to-one with kids, but I don’t think I maximized the time we spent together.) Schools can and should give PD time for Advisors to meet together by grade-group to co-plan, develop themes, share activities, etc… this takes the onus off of the individual teacher to always come up with activities. Also, some of the best Advisors I’ve seen have co-planned some of the class time with the students, which also creates powerful buy-in from students.
  • How do we develop our ability to act as advocates and mediators for our Advisees? One of the core functions of a high-level Advisory is the ability for Advisors to help navigate the spaces when students and teachers come into conflict. In traditional schooling, the power dynamic between students and teachers is such that students can often feel shut down when they have conflict with a teacher. Advisors can level that playing field and help students and teachers build healthier relationships inside the academic classroom by moderating and mediating those hard conversations. Engaging in professional development where teachers role play how to be on both ends of that conversation can prepare teachers to fundamentally change the dynamics of the classroom to create more equitable, healthier schools for everyone.
  • How do we build partnerships with families? Helping advisors work with families is key to a successful Advisory program. Making sure that parents know that Advisors are there for them – as well as their children – is powerful. Helping advisors learn how to talk with families in positive ways that respects the different cultures and communities that families come from is another piece of the work that must go into building a positive Advisory culture.
  • How do you prevent “bunker mentality” between Advisors and Advisees? This one falls under the category of “What is the worst consequence of your best idea?” It can be too easy for Advisors to think they are the only adult who can help an Advisee… and it can be too easy for Advisees to be think that and Advisor is going to keep their secrets for them in unhealthy ways. Advisory professional development can — and should — engage in discussions about what can be dealt with within the context of the Advisor-Advisee relationship and what needs to involve other adults and why. And Advisors need to be open and honest with their kids up front when they say, “I cannot keep things confidential if that would jeopardize your well-being.” Learning how a trusting relationship with students must include other adults is a powerful part of building a healthy Advisory program.

The hard part about all these questions is that there are few concrete answers, and schools (and individual Advisors within schools) will come to different places on how they answer them. But these questions must be engaged in openly, honestly and often for schools to have powerful, transformative Advisory programs. There is no such thing as the “add water and stir” Advisory program. They are as different as the students we teach and the schools we teach in. But, at root, Advisory programs can be living proof of the ethic of care in our schools. They can make sure that we do, indeed, teach the whole child for every child. And they can be, as we strive to make it at SLA, the soul of our schools.