Advisory, Bored

Lack of teacher, student buy-in make advisory in its various versions a tough sell

Chandler Roberts, Copy Editor

Freshman James Gardner has barely finished his first year of high school, and like most students at Branham, he is already tired of advisory.

“It just seems like a waste of time,” Gardner said, echoing what hundreds of students have written to the Bear Witness in a recent survey. “I feel like my teacher understands that it’s pointless. She doesn’t really expect anyone to listen, and no one really does.”

Walk around Branham’s advisory period on any Friday, and you can see what Garner describes in many classrooms: Teachers on computers at their desks, and students on their phones, or doing homework.

But it’s not the only scene that you’ll see. On a recent Friday advisory, Link Crew leaders engaged with their freshman class in an outdoor activity, others held a discussion circle. One teacher took her students on a stroll around campus because it was a nice day out.

Still, many teachers don’t teach their advisory lessons, which a

re written and distributed by Principal Cheryl Lawton and a small group of teachers.

According to a Bear Witness survey of more than 1,000 students, over two-thirds polled believe that advisory is currently ineffective. But they aren’t alone, 40% of teachers don’t find advisory necessary either.

Through a dozen interviews, it’s safe to say that no one really likes advisory — at least in its current version.

The concerns of students and teacher are being heard and advisory is changing to best fit what the school population needs.

“When it’s done well, it’s great,” Lawton said. “The problem is we don’t have the capacity to do it well right now.”

Classroom pains

Now in its eighth year at Branham, advisory has long been a sore spot among teachers and students. Its aim has been to help teachers develop a closer bond with their students through regular check-ins and developing grade-appropriate skills such as time management and college application help.

The concept of advisory was based on research that students perform better academically if they have an adult on campus with whom they can have a conversation. The reality and logistics of the advisory, however, has been far messier.

First, advisory is technically not a contractual obligation for teachers, though, except for part-time teachers, it is an expectation for them. Lawton said some teachers oppose advisory based on the language of their contract.

“Teachers have a right to push back and say, ‘That’s not part of my job,’” she said.

Even though teachers may know their advisory students, they say the 30-minute periods rarely give them time to make any meaningful connection with their group of students.

“If you put 35 kids in my room, and I have them once a week, I have less than one minute per student per week,” said social science teacher Brett Johanson, who uses his senior advisory mainly for tutorial. “You do the math. It doesn’t work.”

Advisory on occasion does work, Johanson said, when lessons can be broadly applied to the class, such as the college application process. It falls short when it tries to become a source to help students better their lives, he said, pointing to a lesson where students were asked to meditate to relieve stress.

“As soon as you ask the kids to meditate in front of 35 students, guess what? You’ve lost them,” he said. “That’s when I lost my group this year. I got up front, tried to do it. It was a disaster.”

Science teacher Juan Fernandez, who used to write advisory curriculum, places part of the blame on teachers who are not convinced of its effectiveness and do not try to fix it.

“There are glitches (in advisory),” he said. “Not everything is perfect. Instead of trying to overcome the glitches, some teachers just give up and use it as a free period – tutorial.”

Teachers and students also say that there is too much advisory, which meets every Friday, except on minimum days. This means that the advisory curriculum writers Lawton (sophomores and juniors) and teachers Diane MacKinnon (freshmen) and Nick Cortez (seniors) have to provide advisory lesson plans that to some teachers seem uninspiring, or forced, and do not meet the students’ needs.

“They’re saying, ‘how much time we have to fill?’” Johanson said. “And so the lessons, in spite of people’s good efforts … are oftentimes not very useful.”

Teachers who write these lessons often struggle to find meaningful 30-minute lessons every week, which makes for a weak and diluted advisory period, said science teacher Kevin Kalman.

“Advisory isn’t the problem,” he said. “The logistics of finding good, meaningful half-hour lessons every week, or every couple of weeks, or every month — that’s the main problem.”

Sophomore Adam Murphy said that he has taken several personality quizzes during his advisory classes, which can get stale after a while.

“They just feel a little useless,” he said. “I don’t think that should be something we should be spending school time on.”

According to teachers and staff, there is not buy-in from the school. When there is a bloated curriculum that teachers dismiss, and when students feel that their academic needs are not met with personality quizzes and infrequent check-ins, there is an argument for a complete revamp.

Proposed fixes

For science teacher Kevin Kalman, in his third year at Branham, the problem with advisory is a lack of buy-in from the staff, and the lack of quality advisory lessons. His problem isn’t whether there is or isn’t an advisory, it’s that since most teachers have to teach it, it needs to be effective.

“If we do it, we need to do it right,” he said.

Kevin Kalman has spent part of the past two months after school meeting with a small group of teachers to talk about the problems with advisory and how it can be fixed. The group has come up with three options, all of which reduce the number of advisory periods in favor of more tutorial periods.

The first, called Themed Advisory, is the biggest departure from the current advisory, and has teachers choosing their topics of interest to teach each semester, and for students to select them. These can be focused on employment, SAT prep, and others subjects of interest.

Lawton said that graduating students have often asked for more lessons on life skills such as credit scores or buying a car.

“We keep hearing from students who graduate, ‘I wish they would have taught me this I wish they would tell me that,’” she said. “We tried to change the concepts as we’ve gotten feedback from students every year.”

The second and third advisory options reduce the number of advisories that teachers cheat, one with two advisory classes a month, and the other with only one advisory a month, with the rest being check-in tutorials, where students still meet with their advisory teacher, but it takes on tutorial.

Most students (58%)  and teachers (51%) chose the once-a-month advisory option as their first choice. Because this was the most popular choice, the committee has decided to go through with this option.

The results of both the students and teacher surveys allowed the committee to choose a schedule. A lot remains uncertain, as the committee is planning how to implement the new advisory into the schedule and also plans to address issues during tutorial.