Classroom educators know better than anyone else how much of learning is built on the strength of relationships in the room. When students like and trust their teacher, they learn better. That’s why large class sizes and a focus on standardized test scores -- to the exclusion of other things -- frustrate many veteran teachers. They know those factors often hinder teachers’ ability to form relationships. But a slow shift may be coming as some school leaders are starting to recognize that the health and happiness of teachers, students and staff depend on making space in school for relationship-building.
Advisory programs are a popular way school leaders are trying to shift school culture toward relationships. Advisory programs set aside time in the week for a smaller group of students to meet with an adult mentor in a casual setting and with the intent of building relationships. While that sounds like a good idea, too often advisories are glorified study halls; that time isn’t used well because content teachers aren’t always comfortable in the role of adviser. Leading a productive advisory takes thought and training, just like teaching, and strong relationships don’t magically form without work.
'It was born out of a question about how you get students to develop a sense of purpose in their lives, which for the most part high school doesn't really do.'Patrick Cook-Deegan, co-director Project Wayfinder
“There’s not a lot of resources for advisers that work well,” said Patrick Cook-Deegan, co-director and lead program designer of Project Wayfinder. Advisers are usually teachers with many other demands on their time, so some advisory support goes a long way to gain their buy-in. On the flip side, prepackaged curricula can feel canned and inauthentic, the worst possible combination when asking students to be vulnerable about their life, worries and dreams. Cook-Deegan and his co-director, Kelly Schmutte, think about their Project Wayfinder tools as a supportive structure for open-ended conversations. The focus is on helping adolescents find purpose.
“Project Wayfinder was born out of trying to make advisory more meaningful,” Cook-Deegan said. “And it was born out of a question about how you get students to develop a sense of purpose in their lives, which for the most part high school doesn’t really do.” Cook-Deegan believes purpose is a critical component of adolescent development that is utterly lacking from traditional high schools. His theory is based largely on the work of Stanford psychologist William Damon, who says a sense of purpose is “the long-term, number one motivator in life.”