Friday, November 20, 2015

6 Guidelines for Extracurricular Advisers

I have been an extracurricular activity adviser for as long as I've been a teacher. I have been the faculty adviser for class councils, student council, radio club, and a few school magazines. I have been the assistant director for the marching band and every kind of director for school plays. I am the adviser for yearbook and stage crew.

I'm pretty committed to extracurriculars in part because they were a big influence in my own high school years. I learned plenty of things in the classroom, but I learned a lot about leadership and responsibility and working with other people and just generally how to get things done in band and on yearbook staff.

School activities can be enormously empowering for students, but they can also be an avenue for just wringing the power right out of them, and it is a real challenge for teachers to stay on the path that allows students to find and exercise their own voice.

Here are the things I try to stay mindful of when working as a faculty adviser.

1) What Are the Actual Stakes?

I have seen adults act as is getting decorations properly assembled for a school dance was going to decide the Fate of Western Civilization As We Know It. But as it turns out, almost nobody has ever died because tissue poms were not fluffy enough. Prom decorations are almost never a life or death issue.

This does not mean you set slack, half-baked standards for your students. But your most important stakes are not the dance or the class elections or the layout on pages 44-45. Your most important stakes are your students and their learning and their experience and growth as human beings.

It's important to remember that the stakes of your actual activity are not life or death because

2) This Is a Terrible Way To Do Things

There are very few projects in the world for which the best approach is to hand the work over to a bunch of teenagers. The best way for me to get a good yearbook done would be to shove the students out of the way and just do it myself, or do it myself with a few well-trained students who would work only under my direction, doing exactly what I would do. That would certainly be more efficient and yield a more uniformly good product. But what would be the point?

The best way to get a dance well-decorated is to have experienced adults do it. For that matter, your school band would probably sound better if you replaced students with trained adult musicians.

An inexperienced fourteen-year-old is not anybody's first choice for getting a job done quickly, efficiently, and well. But of course, getting the job done quickly, efficiently and well isn't the point. The point is to provide an opportunity for that inexperienced fourteen-year-old. But when you get caught up in creating a good product, it's really easy to forget that. That's when you have to remember the most important question

3) What Are the Students Learning?

This is a school activity. In a school. Are your students learning anything?

The yearbook biz has been highly technified. At this point, I could choose a bunch of pre-made page layouts, hire a local photographer to come to school and take all the pictures, and assign my students the task of plugging pictures into spots in the layout. But what would they learn? So we start with a blank page, and they learn about design principles and layout and the editors decide what the graphic elements will be for the book and they design every aspect of the book from the ground up, and when it's done, not only do we have a book that they created themselves, but they've learned some things.

I know there are schools where the teachers and/or parents basically do all the decorating for Prom. That's sweet, but what do the students learn from it?

And here's the absolute hardest part of this-- sometimes the lessons come from failure. They have to-- because if the students don't have the chance to fail, they don't have the chance to succeed. This can be a tough judgment call-- I may allow my yearbook students to make decisions that I think are kind of ugly, but I can't allow them to make decisions that might lead to the book never coming out at all.

The lessons are not always the ones you want, the way you want them. Years ago I had a class in which some guys ran for senior class president and vice-president as a goof, and students voted for them as a goof-- and they won. I know advisers who would have quietly changed those results. I didn't. The students learned a lesson in democracy ("Oh, man. Did we do that?"), the defeated officers learned a lesson in not taking positions for granted, and the elected goofballs learned about having to step up.

As an adviser I have to constantly ask that question-- what are my students learning? Because if all they're learning in my activity is how to take orders from an adult, well, I think they've already got a handle on that lesson and we don't need to reinforce it.

4) Guardrails and Railroad Tracks

So do I do anything as an adviser, or do I just let them run wild?

Anarchy is not an option. The school district has hired me to make it possible for students to pursue certain activities in a safe and responsible manner. I have a responsibility to the district to make sure the students are safe and don't make a terrible mess.

I see myself as a set of guardrails. It's my job to make sure they don't end up too far into the weeds, to set some boundaries, but to give the freedom to wander within those boundaries.

That means setting first principles. The yearbook is supposed to be representative of and supportive of all students in the school, so no, you can't put only your friends in it and no, "Most likely to die alone" can't be a senior superlative.

That means sharing experience and laying out options, particularly when students are stuck. Here are three ways I can think of to write this sketch for the talent show, and here's what happened in the past to groups that tried Option #2. Now you decide.

It does not mean being a set of railroad tracks, determining exactly where they must go. Because nobody actually needs to learn how to follow railroad tracks.

5) Know Your People

Does this all sound like a balancing act? It is, and it depends so much on the actual students involved. What they can do, what they already know, what they need to know, how willing and ready they are to use their own judgment and voices-- these are all huge factors, and you have to be able to gauge them. In every activity there are years in which you're dealing with students who are pro's and just need plenty of space. In other years, they may need plenty of support and encouragement. Sometimes it's just a building year.

6) It's Not About You

Yeah, we can type that out in forty-foot font. It's not your prom. It's not your yearbook. It's not your show. The whole enterprise, whatever it may be, is not there to express your voice, your aesthetic, your view of the world. No, you can't complete ignore those things because they are wrapped up with your experience and your professional understanding and that's what you're there to provide. But you are not the point, the goal, the purpose.

It's the vanishing test. If you disappeared tomorrow, could your students keep things running smoothly for quite a while? If the answer is "no," you are doing it wrong. If you have made yourself indispensable, you are doing it wrong. It may make you feel Really Important, but it's no help to the students.

Yes, these are hard things

Lord knows, I have failed miserably many times. But I keep working at doing better. There are few things as cool as seeing your students realize their own strength, their own voices. For them to look at a project, a performance, a Thing they have created and to realize that the Thing is them, themselves, taken form in the world and taken a form that is completely in-formed by who they are.

But every time you take a choice or decision away from them, you tell them "Well, this is a thing you can't do" or "You couldn't handle it if anything went wrong" and that message just makes them smaller. Don't give them that message. Don't lead them to suspect that their voices aren't legit, can't hold up, shouldn't speak out.

Confidence comes with competence, but students aren't always good judges of their own competence (and in some times and places they don't have much to judge). But we can help them build both by giving them support and freedom. Maybe you are a genius visionary and students will benefit immensely just by following in your wake and sweeping up the crumbs of your attention and direction. But for the rest of us mortals, giving students the safe space to figure out how they will get things done in the world and still be their best selves will just have to do.

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