Advisory. It’s a concept that has been around nearly as long as the middle school movement, defined as regularly scheduled times when students have the opportunity to interact with a small group of peers and a teacher-advisor. But why should schools have them? What should they accomplish? And how do you convince reluctant teachers it’s worth the time?
For principal Todd Brist, who spent the first part of his career as a high school teacher and administrator, the unique needs of young adolescent students weren’t immediately obvious. “I didn’t really understand that they’re different. I used to just think of them as big elementary school students or smaller high schoolers,” he says. Being introduced to This We Believe after becoming a middle school principal changed that perspective. “I realized that these kids really are different.”
Brist fell in love with the middle school model and the developmental uniqueness of the age group, which helped shape his own approach to advisory as well as his doctoral work. Joe Mazza and Phyllis Fagell sat down with Brist to learn more about some of his top insights for schools implementing advisory programs. Listen to their discussion on the Middle School Walk and Talk podcast or enjoy the written recap here.
Know what you want to accomplish.
So many schools want to accomplish everything all at once – Promoting social skills, getting them ready for high school, helping them get organized, creating a sense of belonging. The first thing Brist typically advises teams do is come together and decide ultimately what they want to accomplish. “Yes, you will likely touch on a variety of topics, but what is your focus? And if you settle on multiple objectives, you’re probably going to need more than 12 minutes a week,” he advises, “The more time you allocate, the more you can accomplish.” This purpose should lay the foundation for the design and implementation of your advisory program.
Make sure it reflects your own students.
Purchased or “out of the box” advisory lessons and programs can be very helpful, but you need to make sure your program reflects your own school community and student needs. “Everyone wants to grab something off the shelf or for me to tell them what to do,” explains Brist, “but local districts have local needs. Year to year can change, cohort to cohort of students can change. You may have to regroup.”
He added that positive aspect of some of these programs is their basis in research, but that also means you end up with a lot of teacher-led instruction. Don’t forget to make time for student-led interaction and to intentionally build their buy-in for the program. Brist also recommends surveying staff and students to identify current needs or issues and then using your advisory time to address them. But, returning to number 1, keep in mind how much time you’ve allocated. “You don’t want to introduce a heavy topic and then not give them time to digest it fully until the next week or month,” he advises.
Don’t forget staff buy-in.
Without staff buy-in and training, advisory can become glorified homeroom periods or study halls. It can also be a challenge to convince your math teachers, for example, to give up precious instructional time for an advisory program. But they’re losing that time anyway, argues Brist. “Developmentally we know our adolescents need a place to belong and become. We can ignore that developmental need and not have advisory. And I can tell you, we’re going to fight those behavioral and academic issues first period and second period and third period. We’re going to fight them in September, October, and November.” Alternatively, he says, “We can purposefully carve out time in our day and be intentional about what our kids need developmentally. I know that if you’re the math teacher you’re worried about the time you’re giving up. I promise you that you’re losing those instructional minutes already in redirects, reteaching, and addressing the emotional needs that are happening within your building.”
Empower advisors to be your adult advocates
One of the most important and positives outcomes from a high-functioning advisory program is that every child in school now has an adult advocate. Yes, advisors help with administrative functions like signing students up for the right classes and ensuring they’re getting their work done. “But they’re so much more than that,” says Brist, “You’re their advocate. When a kid feels like they belong within their middle school now we’re starting to get rid of some of the roadblocks that prevent us from teaching math, social studies, and English.”
Review, Revise, Repeat
Once you have an advisory program in place, don’t be afraid to revisit it. You should do this annually as a program, but at least quarterly to adjust to what your kids need and what your staff are seeing as emerging needs, says Brist.
In the end, he acknowledges that advisory isn’t the panacea. But it is a key component of a successful middle school. “Post-pandemic we’re living under a rock if we don’t realize that our kids are hurting emotionally, if we don’t realize that they have social and emotional needs.” And advisory is one research-backed way of starting to meet those needs.