Where Do I Begin?

It’s time for the new school year to start, so you may be asking yourself, “Where do I begin?”

Ideally, you should have already selected your officers for the year. If you haven’t, set up interviews, begin the selection process, and start voting as soon as possible within the first three weeks of school to establish your new, eager group of young leaders for the upcoming school year. The longer you wait to select new officers, the harder it will be get your group off and running for the new year.

For example, your student council officers might be organized like this:

Student Body President: Act as chief executive of the high school associated student body; preside over all student council meetings; host all student assemblies and pep rallies; have power to call special meetings of the student council; have power to withdraw monies from student council treasury; vote in case of a tie; have power to appoint committee chairpersons; possess veto power over all motions passed by the student council.

First Vice President: Act as president in the absence of the president; assume the office of president in case of presidential removal; be present at all student council meetings; assist in any duties deemed necessary by the president; oversee all club activities; run all elections with class vice presidents.

Second Vice President: Take over as first vice president in the absence of the first vice president; take over duties of the president if both the president and first vice president are absent; be present at all student council meetings; be chairman of the student activities and organizations, except clubs; organize and conduct all assemblies and pep rallies.

Secretary: Be present at all student council meetings; keep all correspondence of the student council on file; record all attendance at “out of school” student council activities, mandatory events, elections, and activities; keep all meeting minutes readily available for the council; conduct all correspondence with other schools; keep accurate member grade and attendance records.

Treasurer: Be responsible for all financial business of the student council; be present at all student council meetings; keep an accurate and current account of all receipts and disbursements and present a financial report at meetings; authorized to withdraw monies from the student council funds with approval of the adviser; keep accurate record of monies collected for each class.

Chief Justice (selected by interview after class elections): Take roll call; keep accurate attendance of leadership class; assign seats for leadership class; act as a sergeant-at-arms and preside with the other class judges to rule in judicial actions as needed.

The selection process for officers and members should include teacher recommendations, a student essay, an attendance and discipline check, an oral interview, and an eligibility grade check. Some councils choose to require a certain number of hours of community service before an application is accepted; some require a certain number of student signatures from their own freshman, sophomore, junior, and senior class to run for office. In short, application processes vary, so select one that makes the most sense for your school district and learning environment.

Once you have your officers in place, be sure you have a selection process for all students to follow in order to join your organization. Upon completion of your roster, it is important that every person-not just the officers-has a clearly defined role in the organization. Emphasize the importance of attendance, participation in voting and events, contribution of ideas, and donation of time to the entire venture. The group is only as strong as its weakest link, and every voice matters.

Great! Your officers have been selected and now your other members have a firm understanding of the role they are to play within your organization. So, the next logical question might be, “What do my students wish to accomplish for the year?”

Defining a Vision

Meet with your new officers as soon as possible to discuss their vision for this upcoming year. Ask them what their goals are and how they plan to achieve them. It is imperative that the ideas come from the students, not from you. If the students do not have a vested interest, you will not have a successful year. Advisers are there to help the students succeed, not to fulfill their own agendas. For example, don’t pick two homecoming themes and tell the students to choose one because they are your favorites; the students will be less likely to take pride and ownership in the event because it was not their idea to start with.

When your officers are setting goals, emphasize that the goals need to be team-oriented and projects must be for the entire group-not for individuals. It is the job of the adviser to:

  • Help students describe the projects or activities in enough detail for everyone to understand them.
  • Create a clear purpose and objective to be achieved from the projects.
  • Define the number of subcommittees necessary to complete each project and detail their function.
  • Construct a timeline of tasks to be completed within the overall project deadline.
  • Make a list of materials and equipment needed for project completion and determine where the materials may be found.
  • Calculate how much the projects will cost and how much potential income the projects may generate.
  • Brainstorm ways to promote the projects with students.
  • Evaluate the success of the projects upon their conclusion.

Once the broad strokes are worked out, don’t forget to focus on the dynamics of the group itself. Student interaction is a key part of the club experience, and it is your job as adviser to nurture those interactions.

Appreciating Diversity

To help students work well within the dynamic of their newly formed group, discuss the diversity that exists within the group for the year. Be sure to highlight that diversity celebrates the differences we enjoy in other people, such as their culture, choice of music, food, the way they dress, movies they like, etc. Discovering and exploring these differences will help your leaders to better understand operating and planning for the group, rather than individuals. For example, if your student president is a Harry Potter fan and other students in the group are not, everything for the year cannot be based on a Harry Potter theme.

To ascertain these differences, you can create your own diversity survey, or look to various leadership books for surveys you may give to your students to fill out. (We have provided one for you on page 17 from the NASSP publication, Leadership Lessons, Lessons to Lead By!) Return to the secretary, tabulate the results, and discuss them with your group.

Once goals have been set, ideas have been generated, and the plans have been made, it is time to create an activity calendar for the year.

Creating an Activity Calendar

First, contact the office for district “blackout dates”-dates for testing; holidays; or events on a school, district, or state level that would pose
a conflict-and list those on the master calendar. To get everyone involved, give each student in the group a planning sheet so they may do the same.

Then, have each student take their calendar home and create their own version filled with suggestions for the remainder of the year. Encourage the president to open the next student council meeting by asking for ideas from members. The students can then vote on the dates, and the secretary can compile a final list of dates. Consider sending an electronic version of these dates to all administrators, teachers, and custodians so they know what to expect in the coming year. Revisit the calendar at the end of each quarter to make any necessary modifications.

Planning is great, but it will all be for naught if you can’t entice the rest of the student body, teachers, parents, and local community members to participate in the chosen activities. Let’s shift the focus to getting the word out.

Generating Buzz

Think about creating excitement, fun, and wonder for your projects. You want students to be talking about and taking part in your event, so good publicity is paramount. Here are some tips for generating that highly sought-after “buzz”:

  • Pinpoint your target audience and ask students for ways to get others excited about your events. Who will want to attend each event? Why? How can you use their interests to draw them in?
  • Use graphics and pictures to capture students’ attention.
  • Think outside the box as often as possible-what can you do that is different from the other clubs to stand out?
  • Keep your messages short and sweet. No one wants to read a novel on the fly. Make your point and keep it interesting.
  • Use bright colors that can be read from a long distance away. Teach your students some basic Art 101, for instance, to avoid yellow text on a green background because it can’t be seen.
  • Don’t wait! Start publicizing the event early, not the week or day before the event.

While posters and visual aids can be great tools, it’s important to never underestimate the power of word of mouth. Teach everyone in the group some basic public speaking skills, and seek out leadership lessons to instruct students on how to write a speech and how to speak into a microphone.

Looking Ahead

One valuable piece of advice for advisers going forward is this: Keep everything. Whether it’s in physical binders organized by year or simply folders on your computer, memos, contacts, speeches, notes on what worked and what didn’t, can be invaluable not only for you, but for incoming members.

It’s ideal to select next year’s officers in spring for both student council and Honor Society so the outgoing and incoming officers have the chance to meet at the end of the year. A fun idea might be to pass along a “legacy notebook” that contains insights and recommendations from the experienced officers to the incoming ones. This gives students the opportunity to get creative, but no matter how their legacy piece is presented, new officers always appreciate the advice.

An exit survey is an excellent tool as well. Consider a simple questionnaire asking what students loved doing this year and what they really didn’t enjoy. Again, it’s helpful for new officers to see which events were a hit and which may have totally flopped.

Finally, celebrate the outgoing members with a party, picnic, or some special event where you as the adviser recognize the accomplishments of this group of students. Honor them with awards or gifts in an informal setting with all the members present to show your appreciation for all their work and commitment.

Remember: Let the students create a year that is from their hearts and one of which they can take ownership. Students are always amazed at the huge impact their actions have at their school and how much influence they can have on others. A single event can truly make a difference in the life of another student. —

Patty Hey is a 30-year student activities director, student council and NHS adviser, and has served on the NHS National Council for three years. She is winner of the 2009 Nevada Adviser of the Year Award, 2010 Region VII Adviser of the Year Award, and 2013 Rynearson National Adviser of the Year Award. She may be reached at pjheyzoo@gmail.com.