An Open Letter to My Advisory

This is the narrative evaluation for all of my advisory students for this past quarter. I usually write individualized evaluations (you all belong to a highly individualized school, after all), but because of our day-to-day conversations, I think all of you know what I would write about your individual strengths and challenges, and we can discuss those with your parents/guardians at your Learning Plan meetings.

Instead, I’m giving our advisory a group evaluation.

We’ve gotten away from our identity as an advisory this year. The reasons are obvious. With only eleven students in our program, separating into two different advisories can sometimes feel unwarranted. I work just as closely with the students in Stuart’s advisory as I do with you, and vice-versa for Stuart.

But the fact remains, we are an advisory. That advisory includes four students who come to school every day and one student who has yet to make it to school this year (though that student is working with me online). It also includes students who have come and gone over the years, students who have graduated, transferred to other schools, or even dropped out. If you’re still in contact with me on even a semi-regular basis (and yes, Facebook counts), then you are still part of my advisory, and I will always be here for you.

What does it mean to be a part of our advisory? Let me set the scene. A few weeks ago, some of our members (but not all) were sitting down in the new cafe for the last block of the day. We were joined by a couple of students and a staff member from the Therapeutic program, all of whom were waiting for a meeting to take place after school. I was working on my laptop, designing a new template for our Learning Plans. Two of our members were documenting their work for their Phase Level Expectations; another was helping me build the Learning Plan, serving as a sounding board for my ideas and asking insightful questions as to how the plan would be used.

There was a vibe in the room that afternoon. Even the people who weren’t part of our advisory could feel it. It was a relaxed vibe, but also productive. We were all making forward momentum on something. There was also a kind of joyousness to it. Everyone was friendly to one another, and when one of us needed help on something, someone else provided it without allowing themselves to get distracted from their own work. I loved it. But it wasn’t just me. Everyone in the room could feel it.

Even if you weren’t in the room that afternoon, you know that scene. As a current or former member of our advisory, you’ve taken part and contributed to that vibe, and you know how good it feels.

That’s what it means to be a member of our advisory. It means forward momentum, accompanied by a joyous commitment to support one another.

Despite that wonderful afternoon, our advisory has had some challenges this year (not the least of which was the loss of one of our former members to a gunshot wound — but I don’t want to talk about that right now). Outside of that tragedy, our biggest challenge has been in creating cohesion and connectedness as a group.

As you know, we have a new student who has not joined us at school this year because they suffer from severe anxiety. As I mentioned above, I am working with this student online. I’ve also sat with this student’s parent a number of times and am working closely with an entire team of people to help the student join us on a semi-regular basis in the Spring. In addition, some of you have emailed this student, introducing yourself and trying to make them feel welcome at our school, and I think that is just awesome.

But I wonder if all of us could be doing more? If we were a connected advisory, we would have made our attempts to reach out to this student a regular thing. We would have sent them packages in the mail to let them know we haven’t forgotten them. We’d think of them less as the student who doesn’t show up and more as a member of our advisory who can’t come to school because they’ve been sick for a long time. We should be — and we can be — doing more to help this student connect with our school in the same way that rest of us have, to feel like this is truly a place where they can feel safe and supported as they figure out how to pursue their passion.

But that’s not the only place where we’ve had challenges. We have another new student who is part of our advisory, and this new student, while making strong bonds with the members of the staff, has yet to make strong bonds among the members of the student body. When I think back to our original three members — the first three students our school ever had — I remember that two of them arrived as best friends and the third arrived as someone they kind of knew but weren’t really friends with. Within weeks, all three of them were best friends. Those connections happened because the two who were already best friends made a concerted effort to bring the third student into the fold. They made plans for after school. They ate lunch together. They worked at becoming friends. That’s what I would like to see for every new student who joins our advisory. There’s no reason any single member of our advisory should feel like they don’t have any peers whom they can trust.

For the rest of this year, I’d like us to make a commitment to one another. Every other day, we are scheduled to spend the last block as an advisory. We often blow this off, choosing instead to stay with the rest of our classmates in a single room; again, because our program is so small, this feels natural, and it’s also helped us forge connections with the other members of our program. But doing so has done us a disservice as an advisory.

We need to use this dedicated time to check in as a group. When it’s the eight, nine, or ten of us all in the same room, it’s easy for one or two of us to separate off and spend the time essentially alone. This is not good. So let’s make a commitment to each other to meet as an advisory and use that time to not only check in as a group, but to offer whatever kind of support is immediately needed.

Let’s also use this time to expand our concept of our advisory. I mentioned above that every student I’m still in contact with is part of our advisory. That group includes world travelers, successful professionals, and college students. Let’s use part of our advisory time to become pen-pals with these people. They’re out in the world doing real things: paying bills, getting jobs, working on initiatives, figuring out their next steps. Let’s not only seek them out for advice, but also offer our support.

Let’s also use our advisory time to do community service as a group, whether doing activities that support the wider community of Poultney or the Rutland region, or activities that benefit our school (did someone say “yearbook” or “dinner and auction”?).

By doing these activities together, by connecting with ALL of our members, by being there for one another on a regular and committed basis, we will develop the cohesion and connectedness that we all want in our advisory.

So that’s it. That’s our evaluation. Now let’s get to work.