Lessons Learned

Like every other function in schools, the plans of student leaders were disrupted dramatically during the pandemic as face-to-face meetings were canceled and activities and projects that are the lifeblood of most groups ground to a halt. Looking back, advisers have had a chance to reflect on their work and reset their approach to meetings, activities, community service, and more.

“It was a year ago that we shut things down,” says Lem Wheeles, an 11-year student government adviser at Dimond High School in Anchorage, AK, whose school had limited face-to-face contact with students during the pandemic. “I’m looking forward to having things back to normal, but one of the things I appreciated about the time dealing with the pandemic is that it gave us a chance to sit back and think about what we want to do more of and what we might not want to do again.”

Wheeles and others say there was very little upside for education and student groups during the pandemic, but a reevaluation of projects and processes is valuable. The pause to reflect can create new energy for groups.

The pandemic restrictions caused Heather-Lyn Cotraccia, a new adviser just starting in the position at Livonia High School in Livonia, NY, to think about the role more carefully because she couldn’t shadow an experienced adviser as expected. She concluded that she had to accomplish one key goal. “It wasn’t what I was planning or what I hoped for,” Cotraccia says. “But it also gave me a chance to ease into the position a bit more slowly and think about what I personally needed to do. And during that time, I realized that I need to be more comfortable with giving the students responsibility for their work. That will be important for me.”

Both experienced and new advisers say those two recommendations are important—both the reevaluation that Wheeles put in place and understanding the importance of giving students leadership responsibilities are two key tips for any adviser examining their role.

The Students

As an adviser to other groups in her school in the past, it was easier for Cotraccia to give students responsibility. With school leaders, however, projects are often important to the school and very visible, and she recognizes she might feel uncomfortable giving students full responsibility or the final say. Still, it is necessary to let student leaders actually lead.

“You need to take that first step and not speak up and be willing to let them fail,” she says. “It is difficult, but it is good for them and it’s the right approach if you want to be successful.”

“That is an ongoing challenge,” Wheeles says, “but it has to be a very deliberate effort on an adviser’s part—to empower students to make decisions and do the work. They are capable of much more than we expect if we let them step up.” He notes that it also relieves the adviser of some portion of the sizable workload that comes with the position.

Angie Sallee, a leadership group adviser from Odessa High School in Odessa, MO, says she has to regularly remind herself of this important approach.

“Our goal is to develop leaders, and students cannot develop their leadership skills if they are not given the opportunity to lead. The concept is easy in theory but difficult to truly implement. The adviser needs to serve as a guide, relinquish control, and let go of perfectionism to allow students to grow,” she says. “Letting the students lead is often messy and takes more time, but it is worth it to watch them shine.”

That can mean allowing the group as a whole to take responsibility, but also allowing for individual successes. Sallee cites an example of when a freshman student was preparing a presentation for a workshop at a state convention, and Sallee considered whether she should do more to put together his slideshow and provide a script.

“Instead, he worked on his presentation for about five hours—while I assisted as needed—and then spent two hours working out what he was going to say. Seeing his face when he finally recorded and uploaded it was completely worth it. And the next time he needs to make a presentation, he will have the skills to do it on his own.”

Young people at any level can benefit from taking on such challenges, says Dale Rogers, principal at Morley Stanwood Middle School, in Morley, MI, who is also student council adviser at the high school.

“It’s OK to let kids fail as long as we use that as a learning opportunity,” he says, noting that it means the students should be given the preparation, structure, and resources they need, and then an opportunity to evaluate their effort to see where they failed or succeeded.

Rhiannon Boettcher, activities director at Clackamas High School in Clackamas, OR, says advisers also should think about how they develop relationships with students.

As a new adviser, she found it difficult to get the seniors in her group to move away from the policies and procedures that a popular predecessor had in place. She learned to work with them but make her mark with underclassmen.

“Having experienced student leaders in the group was a double-edged sword. One in particular was really helpful in showing me the ropes, but some of them were used to doing things a certain way, and it was hard to influence them as much—or develop a relationship. So, I worked with them but maybe focused my ideas for doing things more on the younger students.”

Boettcher did not make radical changes in her first year so that students could adapt and she could learn about the position.

“Don’t beat yourself up that first year. Things will go wrong and there will be some criticism, especially since you are doing things differently. Be open minded yourself, too, and be willing to change things you had in mind that aren’t working.”

The Projects

During the reevaluation of his program, Wheeles did a “needs assessment” to look at how projects by the group could help fill specific needs in the school or local community. “We really have a substantial amount of community service, and I felt it was important to focus the work on areas of need rather than just develop a project because it sounds like a good idea. So, we have been looking to help in areas where we can maybe help solve a problem.”

Atyka Ditto, a student leadership adviser at Acton Middle School in Granbury, TX, believes that advisers should make service a priority for a number of reasons when they think about projects for the year. Service projects provide an opportunity for the adviser to assess the students and encourage them to appreciate work they can do for others.

“Volunteering with these students helps me better understand them and how they fit into the world around them,” she says. “Helping them find out what is important to our community and school helps them build relationships and broadens their perceptions of the world.”

One of Ditto’s students who was new to the school said working on a food drive made her feel part of the school community. “She told me ‘This is the first time I have felt at home here.’ Giving back like that helps you feel like you’re a part of something bigger and better.”

Student groups should keep good records of their projects, which can serve as a template later. Wheeles establishes Google Docs for each project with information about the planning, execution, and evaluation afterward.

Others note that planning for all projects should start in the fall or even the summer—even on those projects that aren’t happening until later in the year—with one student assigned responsibility for reporting on the progress of the work. Having all projects planned, scheduled, and on each meeting agenda keeps them from slipping through the cracks and allows for things to be put in place early.

Ditto uses the Remind app and asks students to use it to keep things on schedule and send information. Social media and online communications can make an adviser’s job easier, but rules about it should be established in advance and students should carry the load for upkeep.

Ditto also suggests that projects be discussed at meetings using a comprehensive agenda with checklists for to-do items. Meetings should be scheduled in advance, and attendance should be expected—with policies about those who are absent or don’t meet their responsibilities.

Caroline Vacante, an adviser at Palo Verde High School in Las Vegas, says she often came to meetings with a list of assignments for students her first year.

“I was just trying to survive. I would create task lists for students and assign them. It worked well for a little bit and got the work done, but then a student mentioned how it was feeling more like ‘adviser council’ than student council. Now, I prep the structure of the class and provide guidance, and the students fill in the content.”

The Adults

Both experienced advisers and newbies say that having a good relationship with the school administration and other staff members is key.

Boettcher works with an experienced assistant principal who sometimes halts a project, but typically for good reason. The principal also allows Boettcher to try new approaches if she can justify them. “She says that if I sell it to her correctly and have it backed up with a plan, she’ll go along with it—unless she just knows it isn’t going to work. You have to approach administrators by doing your homework and having good lines of communication,” she says.

Rogers, an administrator himself, says that advisers need to build trust by being forthcoming about plans and getting approval, but also clearly describing problems that develop. “I would strongly suggest advisers work closely with their administration,” he says. “And if something goes wrong, tell your administrator before they find out and get blindsided.”

Others recommend that advisers reach out to parents but have parameters for their involvement and clear assignments.

Shari Endo, a school counselor and adviser at Lindale Middle School in Linthicum Heights, MD, says she believes new counselors and those with more experience should find a mentor—someone they can bounce ideas off when they have a question or problem. Some advisers use an adviser at another school for this purpose; others get support from another staff member or turn to a reliable parent.

Endo and Wheeles also strongly suggest participating in regional, state, and national organizations that provide guidance and resources. “When I started, I had no idea there was so much out there. I have found state and national conferences invaluable—and so have my students,” Endo says.

Wheeles says applying to be a National Council of Excellence through NatStuCo has been of great value. It caused his group to examine its projects and processes more carefully and improve on them because it requires groups to report thoroughly on their activities.

The Job

Experienced and new advisers also are quick to say that with all the shifting facets of these positions, it is often easy to forget to pause and enjoy the work. Endo describes how, as she gained experience, she learned to appreciate the ways in which students participate and grow.

“Give yourself time to learn and absorb things, and don’t be intimidated by what someone else has done. Enjoy it. You are always going to feel like a newbie to some degree, but that is part of the fun,” Endo says.

Vacante agrees, “Hang in there because you and your students will find your groove; it just takes some time.” —


Jim Paterson is a freelance writer based in Lewes, DE.


Sidebar: Succession Plans

Taking on a student leadership group can be challenging, especially if the job was previously held by someone who made a distinctive mark. Terry D’Imperio, the longtime adviser at Livonia High School in Livonia, NY, who recently passed on her duties in the role, offers the following to-dos for advisers leaving the position:

  • Hold elections before you leave.
  • Have new advisers attend spring weekly meetings.
  • Have the outgoing student president and incoming student president meet with new advisers starting in April to plan summer activities.
  • Encourage new advisers to attend as many conferences as possible (e.g., LEAD Conferences, the National Student Council Conference, and state conferences).
  • Share your Google Drive and all supporting documentation.
  • Leave your contact info.
  • Remind the new advisers that this is a new chapter for student council and to make it their own.
Copy link