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Counsel on Your Council

A Prince William teachers talks about why being a student council advisor is a good thing.


By Mark Shiring

A couple years ago, at my previous middle school, my assistant principal approached me and asked if I would revive and sponsor the student council, which had been dormant for several years. She evidently heard that I had been a longtime SCA sponsor while at another school.

Without hesitation, I politely but firmly told her no, that I was completely done with student council. She smiled and told me that elections had to happen within the month, and thanked me for agreeing to help out.

As she walked away I was dumbfounded, yet I shouldn’t have been all that surprised. So it goes when searching for an SCA sponsor; a seemingly endless, thankless job that no one seems to want. Yet, I must admit, by the end of that year, after having held elections, fundraisers, dances, assemblies, spirit days, Toys for Tots, a talent show, and other various projects, as well as taking our officers to the Virginia SCA state convention, I was really pleased that I had gotten back into the world of student council.


WHY YOU SHOULD CONSIDER IT
As I reflected back on that challenging year, I wondered why I hadn’t willingly accepted the offer, or why they couldn’t find anyone else to do it. Then, as I moved on to a new middle school the following year, I was once again asked to sponsor the student council. What was this? Was I just an easy mark? And, why is it that it is so hard to find teachers to sponsor student council? Maybe it’s best summed up by my current SCA co-sponsor, Shannon Eplett: “SCA, when done correctly, is a huge time commitment. If you want to make the year a memorable one for your officers, representatives and the student body, a lot of planning needs to be done outside of the school day, and sometimes outside of the school year.”

That being said, why should you seriously consider sponsoring your school’s student council?  There are is actually an upside – other than just making yourself indispensable to your principal! Here are just a few reasons why you might fill the role of sponsor: 

You will make a huge, positive impact on your entire school. Few other extracurricular activities can energize your school or do more good than SCA. Whether it be a talent show, spirit week, homecoming dance, selling Valentine’s cards or flowers, holding a canned food or used book drive, your students’ success can make a significant difference in your school’s overall morale and contribution to the community.   
 
You may forever change your officers’ lives in a meaningful way. Many times, I’ve had to encourage very talented students to challenge themselves and run for office. It’s something that’s often well outside of their comfort zone; they may doubt they’re capable of doing things such as running a campaign, winning an election and then leading the student body. It’s definitely difficult for many students to put themselves “out there” in such a fashion. But, after a year in office, the individual transformation can be quite dramatic. With your guidance, students grow by leaps and bounds in self-confidence, leadership skills, public speaking and the ability to see the world differently. You are developing “doers,” planners, problem-solvers, and risk-takers who will carry that attitude with them to college and beyond.

You’ll give your students valuable, real-life experiences. Your officers and committee chairs must learn to work successfully in small teams, much like the work done in many areas of today’s business world. The bulk of their job includes tasks such as assessing the needs of the student body and community, selecting and marketing their projects, event planning, pulling together outside resources to assist, carrying out each event, fundraising, evaluating past projects and managing a budget. None of this is done as part of some business or marketing class for a grade; this is the real deal. The money in their budget is genuine. If events fail for whatever reason, everyone knows it. There is never time to sit back and relax; the next project always looms on the horizon. It is a ton of responsibility and offers a kind of on-the-job training your students could not get anywhere else.

TIPS FOR A SUCCESSFUL COUNCIL
So, whether you’re now sufficiently motivated to volunteer as your school’s SCA sponsor or if you get “drafted” into the position, let’s look at some tips on how to maintain a successful student council:

Try to assess your particular students’ interests and the needs of your local community. Each school is unique; a project that may be very popular at one school may draw little interest in another. Just this year we scheduled a skate night at a local rink, including some special perks to make it even more exciting. Or so we thought. Instead, we sold only 22 tickets in two weeks and ended up cancelling altogether. Sometimes you can foresee what will work and what won’t; other times you are simply left scratching your head. The best strategy you can use is to know your student body and try to tailor activities that will appeal to them.

Make a solid effort to determine the strengths and weaknesses of each of your officers. You will need students with different skill sets – not everyone has to be a great public speaker, for example. Even though you will be working as a small team to accomplish tasks, the sooner you know their strengths the easier it will be to assign students to specific roles when approaching a major project. Hope that you have at least one student who is an exceptional “idea-generating/problem solver” as I do this year – that is an invaluable asset throughout the year.

Your biggest challenge will be finding ways to motivate and utilize your representatives. You will probably only have a handful of officers; you may have 20 or more representatives. In a school of over a thousand students you will need your representatives to help you get the word out about projects and make your events happen. This year we held an overnight lock-in back in September to try and energize and train our representatives, something we plan to continue into the future.

Be sure to join the VSCA (Virginia Student Councils Association). It’s very important for your students to know that they are part of a larger organization; they aren’t working in isolation. The VSCA also offers a monthly electronic newsletter, The Student Leader, with valuable information and lots of new project ideas. Encourage your officers to participate in regional workshops and definitely attend the state convention held in Williamsburg every April. Getting involved at the state level is another way to help your officers grow and work with other highly successful and motivated students. You can learn more at the VSCA website, (www.scaleader.org).    
 
Time management will be crucial to your success. The types of students that run for SCA office generally are very busy and involved in several other activities, too. Keep that in mind. Of course, being a teacher your time is also in short supply. At my current school, we now elect seven officers to a leadership board, giving us more flexibility and enabling more students to carry the load. If one of our officers is into their sports season or another activity, we can get by more easily than in the past with only four officers. Also, plan your year to spread out the major projects. Don’t make the mistake of –planning such an aggressive, loaded schedule that you barely have time to catch your breath between projects.

You cannot be successful without the support of your administration, office staff, faculty, custodial staff and parents. Be sure to give anyone involved lots of advance notice and take time to thank all that contribute to your success. Also, despite all of your dedicated planning, you must remain flexible. Often, circumstances beyond your control will dictate changes, and you just have to make the best of it. When the security inspector recently deemed that nothing could be hung on our classroom doors a week before our spirit week door decoration contest, we suddenly had a spirit poster contest instead.

So, the next time your school has an opening for a student council sponsor, give it some thought. Despite the time commitment, it may well turn out to be the most significant impact you have on your school and students all year!

Shiring, a member of the Prince William Education Association, teaches English at Benton Middle School.

 

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Student Council, By the Book

On the website of the Virginia Student Councils Association (www.SCAleader.org), educators who are student council advisors, or who are thinking about the possibility of becoming one, can order a copy of The Virginia Student Councils Advisor’s Handbook, a comprehensive desktop reference.

 In addition to offering lots of information, the handbook also includes forms that can be easily modified for your specific uses. Chapters cover a variety of topics, including the role of the advisor, how to run meetings, finances, officers, elections, and project planning and publicity.

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Time and Money

Student council members across the country were busy last school year, and their neighborhoods can’t help but be grateful. According to the National Association of Student Councils, student members contributed 877,755 hours of community service during the 2011-12 academic year, or about 2,000 hours per chapter. If you use the federal minimum wage ($7.25) as a gauge, that translates to over $6 million in contributions. The most popular activities were food donations and blood drives, although lots more project ideas can be found on the NASC website at www.nasc.us.
 


 


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