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On becoming a better adivsor…

August 13, 2012

One of the things I love about my new school is that they have a deep commitment to advising. We are a 100% residential school, and so students form extraordinarily strong bonds with their advisees. It’s not uncommon for an advisor to have his/her advisees over for dinner once a week or more, for advisees to stay in touch with their advisors years after they graduate, and in the case of graduates who return to teach here, to talk in glowing terms about the amazing things their advisors did for them 20 or more years later.

One of the most visible commitments my school makes to the advising program comes from the expectation of communication with parents and students. 3 times a year, we are expected to write a 1-2 page formal advisor letter home to our advisees’ parents, summarizing each advisee’s academic and extracurricular progress and well as personal growth an challenges. Over the summer, we are expected to write letters to any advisees who are new students to the school, welcoming them to the community and describing our role as advisors.

One new thing advisors were asked to do this year is also write a letter to all of our advisee parents, and in that letter, ask parents to write us back a letter “reflecting on their child’s summer, and sharing on thoughts, expectations, hopes and even worries about the year.” I think this is a terrific idea, and am really looking forward to seeing how my new advisee’s parents respond.

I’ve also been reading the the outstanding new book by Madeline Levine, Teach Your Children Well. Though I’m only one chapter in, I strongly resonated with what Levine defines as essential questions for parents (and teachers and advisors, I’d argue):

Rather, the real questions are broader and more long-term. How do we create environments in which children thrive? How do we help them find, and keep, the sparks that kindle deep interest and real engagement with learning? How do we help them to live up to their potential? Advance their abilities to contribute? Find meaning? Develop their most genuine selves?

This has me thinking a lot about my role as an advisor, and so I decided to tweak the typical new advisee letter I used to write years ago when I was a teacher at this school, and instead try to encourage my advisees to think about seeking out a meaningful path through high school before they even arrive. Here’s what I came up with. Many thanks to Paul Price, Becca Schutzengel and Julianna Stockton for giving me feedback on this—how cool is it that with twitter I can get advice from a fellow teacher, a senior undergrad, and a college professor all within a matter of hours?

Dear Advisee,

I hope this letter finds you and your family enjoying this summer, and at the same time, eagerly anticipating the adventure that awaits you at St. Andrew’s. My name is John Burk, and I’m going to be your advisor—I am very excited to meet you and get to know you throughout the coming year.

At St. Andrew’s, I teach Honors Physics and Algebra II, and I advise the science club—we’re hoping to build a space balloon and trebuchet this year. I also advise the Social Activities Committee which plans all sorts of fun things to do for the weekend. We plan everything from canoe trips down the Brandywine river to video game tournaments using the big projection screen in Engelhard Hall, plus many trips to see incredible speakers in Philadelphia and beyond.

I’m actually returning to St. Andrew’s—I started teaching here back in 1998, and spent 7 years teaching math, physics and computer science, before leaving to teach in day schools in Washington DC and Atlanta. I’ve returned to St. Andrew’s because I honestly believe that the community of teachers and students working together is truly unique—in the six years since I’ve left, I found myself often longing for the sense of family that you can only find at an all-residential school like St. Andrew’s.

St. Andrew’s is a remarkable school because it allows students like you to unlock the potential to do things you never imagined possible—to truly change the world, often before leaving high school. But doing this requires hard work and initiative to try new things and reach out for help. To give you a sense of just what is possible and help you in your journey, I’ve included a brief article titled “An Open letter to Students on the Danger of Seeing School as a Trial to Survive.” I’m not sending this to you because I worry you might be seeing school a survival challenge. Instead, I’m sending it to you because I think it highlights a fulfilling and adventurous path through high school most students never see. At St. Andrew’s you’ll be surrounded by opportunities to seek out something deeper—real learning about who you are, the world around you, and how to live a meaningful life. The true secret is that by focusing on these things, you’ll achieve more than those stuck in the “trial to survive” rat-race could ever imagine.

I’ve also included the book How to be A High School Superstar, written by the same author of the smaller article. This book is one of the very best guides I know for how to live a meaningful life in high school doing extraordinary things, while having fun and minimizing stress. It’s short and very readable; I hope you enjoy it and look forward to talking to you about the ideas in this book throughout the year.

Perhaps the most critical factor in your success at St. Andrew’s and beyond will be how well you can reach out to others, especially adults. Numerous studies of high school and college students have shown that the happiest and most successful students are those who feel they have many adults that they can talk to for advice, to share success and setbacks or to simply chat. You’ll find many adults at St. Andrew’s who are eager to build relationships with you, starting with me, your advisor.

To get started on this adventure, I ask that you write me back (email is easiest) and start a conversation. Tell me one question you have, one exciting story from your summer, or your reaction to the article I sent. In the meantime, I hope that you enjoy the remaining weeks of your summer to the fullest.

I would appreciate any thoughts or suggestions you might have, about this letter, or about how to be a better advisor to students.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. August 13, 2012 7:01 am

    Here’s my letter.

    Dear [New Kid],

    My name is Kelly O’Shea, and I teach physics at St. Andrew’s School. I am so excited to be writing to you as your advisor for the upcoming school year. It was a treat to be able to read your letter to me on your application, so I was eager to return the favor and to take the opportunity to introduce myself, tell you about the advising program, and to start a conversation before you arrive on campus.

    Every student is assigned an advisor who keeps close track of her (both academically and personally) and serves as a mentor, advocate, cheerleader, ride to town, etc. Our advising group is our small on-campus family: will have “functions” together (I have always thought this was a funny term because it makes me think of math), and we will also have a chance for regular one-on-one conversations. Our first function happens at the end of the first week when everyone eats at his/her advisor’s house instead of in the dining hall. I hope that you will continue to be a frequent visitor to my home throughout the year, and that you will feel welcome to come to me with any question or problem, big or small. I will also be a point of contact for your parents and for your teachers.

    [Paragraph that responds to something specific in her “Letter to my Future Advisor” that I read from her file.] Now, you are about to begin a very unique and challenging new chapter of your life. SAS can be a demanding, exhausting, strange, zany, fun, and truly excellent place. Reading about your passions and enthusiasm made me feel fortunate to be a part of your year.

    Finally, I should tell you a little about myself. This is my sixth year teaching at St. Andrew’s, and I feel very happy and lucky to be here. In addition to teaching, I also supervise study hall on a dorm, advise the yearbook editors and staff, and play an instrument with the school orchestra (because it’s fun and challenging). I like to read and to spend time outdoors. I live in an apartment near the health center with my two cats (Echo and Newton).

    In just a matter of weeks, you’ll be moving onto campus, meeting your new friends, preparing for your new classes and routines, and the big adventure will begin! I will certainly check in with you when you move in, but I would love to hear from you now. You can send me an email ([my email address]) or give me a call or text message ([my phone number]) to let me know you’ve received this letter, just to say hello, to relate some remarks about your summer reading, and/or with questions that you’d like answered (even ones that seem silly… I won’t judge!). I would love to start helping you in any way that I can.


    Ms. O’Shea

    The parent email was amazing. I got the most incredible responses from parents. Seriously amazing.

    • August 13, 2012 9:24 am

      I love this letter. I think it is very welcoming and will leave your advisees excited to meet you.

  2. Frank Lock permalink
    August 13, 2012 4:13 pm

    One of the most interesting things I did during my career was to have all of my students write about their science experiences since kindergarten. They were required to write 50 words per year, and if they could not remember anything about a particular year they had to write something about the teacher they had that year, including the teacher’s name. They were due the second day of school, hopefully making it easier for them to complete as they would have few assignments that day. I got some real insight about what my students were like and the science experiences they had.
    I hope all goes well John.

    • August 16, 2012 1:05 pm

      I think that even as a kid I would have had trouble with that one. Remembering a teacher’s name from eight years earlier—not likely. Remembering when I learned something that I’d “always” known—not likely. Besides, I learned almost all my science at home from my engineering father or from Scientific American, at least until high school. The incorrect assumptions built into the assignment would have frustrated me to the point of rebellion, which is probably not a good way to start a school year.
      This sounds like a homework assignment for parents, not students.

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