Students attending Ontario secondary schools are expecting a high quality education. A critical part of that experience is the interaction students have with those supporting their educational progress. Educational researchers have confirmed the quality of advising which is available to the students to be a major component influencing the quality of an educational experience. (Cuseo, 1994) The critical nature of the advisor system is stressed in the assertion that, "…advisors bring institutional accountability to the notion of individual attention" (Powell, 1996) "... children's lives today are more complex than ever before, and their needs require broader attention and support on the school's part." (Dilg, 1990)
For a number of years, Appleby College has operated an advisor system which provides individual students with support and advice. The system has enabled students to have a close tie with a faculty member who is responsible for overseeing their academic and social progress in the school as well as providing parents with the opportunity to have a personal contact point within the school. The advisor system provides a support network which allows students to develop relationships beyond the classroom experience. Researchers have concluded that faculty/student relationships outside the classroom are very important determinants in the success of students. Cuseo (1994) notes the opportunity for these relationships to develop as being a key factor in determining the quality of an institution. Van Hoose (1991) sums up the importance of these relationships in the following way: "The quality of the relationship between teachers and students is the single most important aspect of middle level education. Relationships between faculty and students based on caring, respect, responsibility and mutual understanding is the key ingredient."
The Advisor System at Appleby
There are many variations on the advisor system so a brief description of the setting may be useful. Appleby is a coeducational independent school of 535 students in grades 7 through 12 (OAC). Our students in grades 7 and 8 are assigned form teachers (homeroom teachers) as the students typically travel as a group. In grade 8, an advisor is also assigned but the expectation on the advisor is simply to start getting to know the student. Most of the duties remain with the form teacher. In grade 9, the student travels much more independently through the school and a form teacher is not a viable option. The advisor becomes the key figure in the support system for the student. While students typically stay with same advisor throughout their high school career, they may request a new advisor if they wish. At Appleby, advisors are typically assigned randomly but requests can be made. To ensure a relative balance in group sizes (at Appleby typically 8 - 12 students), when requesting specific advisors, students must provide three choices. In any year, with 450 student/advisor relationships, approximately 15 to 20 requests for advisor changes are received.
The Responsibilities of an Advisor
Each advisor at Appleby is expected to have a sense of how the student is adapting to life at the school both in and outside the classroom. While the relationships do vary advisor to advisor, the school has established a series of common expectations for each advisor to ensure the minimum expectations of the school, parents and students are met. It is stressed to faculty that the system is only effective if all personnel who deal with the students communicate with the advisor when difficulties arise and when good things happen. The responsibilities of the advisor include:
- reviewing the student's O.S.R. to identify critical information about academic strategies and conditions;
- arranging to meet with the student on a regular basis;
- contacting the parents of each student within the first two weeks of school opening, at least after each reporting period and as needed beyond that;
- monitoring the academic progress of each student in the advisee group;
- arranging any additional supports that may be necessary ( study habits, exam prep, extra help, etc.);
- being aware of the involvement of each student in the activity and athletic program and the overall involvement in the school program;
- collecting, proof reading and assembling report cards;
- referring any social or behavioral issues to appropriate Student Services personnel as required, regardless of grade level;
- maintaining a file of contact information for each student;
- communicating relevant information about students to appropriate people (Teachers, coaches, etc).
Characteristics of a Successful Advisor
While the effectiveness of the advisor is somewhat dependent on the personality of the teacher, professional development of the teacher as an advisor can help to increase the effectiveness of an advisor role. Counsellors can play key roles in the development of workshops and other forms of training to help develop successful advisors. Discussions in faculty workshops at Appleby have pointed out a number of characteristics believed to support or weaken the advisor - student relationship. Table 1 summarizes the top characteristics which the faculty felt strengthened or weakened this relationship. Myrick & Myrick (1990) found similar characteristics in effective teachers and guidance specialists noting that good guidance and teaching are closely related in terms of helping relationships. They stress that when students have problems, they turn to those who feel they are able to offer the best support. Surveys in schools have shown that adolescents first turn to friends, then relatives and then teachers. Often the counsellors who do not have the daily contact to develop close relationships with many students are less likely to be approached. A recent study at Appleby produced similar results and the advisors were rated more useful than teachers but less so than friends and family.
Table 1: Characteristics in advisor relationships
- Be empathetic, receptive and a good listener.
- Be an advocate for the student
- Be available.
- Establish regular communication with student and parent.
- Get to know the student. (Talk, read OSR, call parents)
- Establish a consistent routine.
- Help student with problem solving.
- Be supportive of the student's decisions.
- Be friendly
- Be consistent and fair
- Try to get to know family background
- Take an interest in the student beyond academics.
- Be proactive not reactive.
- Keep record of communications.
- Good communication with teachers.
- Insufficient time devoted
- Being intrusive
- Gender/age/culture insensitivity
- Irregular meetings
- Mismatch of interests (personality)
- Too much the bearer of bad news
- Lack of trust
- Lack of follow up by advisor
- Lack of an agenda
- Incomplete OSR or information from parents
- Breaking confidence
- Lack of consistency
- Knee jerk reactions
- Giving personal criticism
- Misunderstanding of advisor role
How does the Guidance Counsellor fit in?
A common criticism of an advisor system is the temptation of the administration to replace school counsellors with advisors. The intention of Appleby's advisor system is not to replace the school counsellor but to support the everyday needs of the students by providing an adult mentor who has a responsibility for overseeing their day to day progress in the school environment. It is a proactive system which attempts to provide an early warning system for students who may be drifting into academic or social difficulties. The system then provides an ideal referral system as the advisor can encourage the student to seek out the advice of the counsellor when needed. Critical educational decisions, social counselling situations and career counselling are referred to counsellors who have access to the most current resources and information. Teachers need to be cautioned from taking on specific counselling roles requiring the expertise of the counsellor.
It is important not to underestimate the impact of a strong advisor program. The advisor system has tremendous potential to provide students with a support system which is more personal than typical teacher - student or counsellor - student roles can provide. It can provide parents with a direct line of communication to the school presenting a clear overall picture of the student's progress.
Van Hoose (1991) asserts that a school with a successful advisor program "functions the same way as an exemplary school with one major difference: continuous caring about students is a core value of the school. The staff members involved in the program are advocates for their students across the entire day. They take special care of ‘their’ students. Their advisory group members are ‘their’ children. The teachers in this type of program relate to all students in a very personal way by demonstrating a quality described as "with-it-ness". Whether they like some students or not, they treat each individual student in a ‘careful’ manner. They establish rapport and share how they feel."
Cuseo, J., (1994). Indicators of institutional quality. National Association of College Admission Counseling annual conference, Chicago.
Dilg, M., (1990). A model for support program for students in independent schools. Independent School, National Association of Independent Schools, Spring.
Myrick, D. & Myrick, L., (1990). The Teacher Advisor System. Eric Counseling and Personnel Services Clearinghouse, Ann Arbor.
Powell, A., (1996). Lessons from privilege: The American prep school tradition. Harvard University Press, Cambridge.
Van Hoose, J., (1991). The ultimate goal: A/A across the day. Midpoints, National Middle School Association, 2.1.