The Sun Also Rises: How Everyone Belongs in Advising

(Guest Blogger: Emily Tymus Ihrke, October 2021)

This is the first year in fifteen that I am not an Upper School advisor. I’ve been given a one-year reprieve, as faculty sometimes are, after a group of advisees graduates. And I feel like I’m missing a limb.

Last June my eleven kids walked across the stage. They had been mine for four years. Came in as the sweetest of creatures: 9th graders. And left just as lovely but oh-so-different: graduates. Ready to take on the world. A bit uncertain, sure, a bit nervous, but every bit as ready to light the world on fire as I was at the age of 17. And I am thrilled for them. Heartbroken for me. As their parents are, of course. A bit dark, we’re feeling, as if the sun has set.

This place is not the same without them. The first days and weeks of school I thought I saw them everywhere. I thought they’d knock on my office door any second, as they had for the previous four years, or show up in that chair in the familiar corner. But no–now they’re gone. Off living their lives, as they should be. And as the previous groups before them have done.

This last group was my fourth. I have loved them all.

University School of Milwaukee’s four-year, co-ed advising program is one of the “selling points” for our Upper School; it is a “market edge” for our rare independent school in this region of the Upper Midwest, in a sea of high-quality, suburban public schools in metro Milwaukee. It separates us from the competition, and it’s certainly highlighted at our open houses and on the tours for prospective families.

For me, though, and for many–if not most–of our students and families, it’s so much more than just a selling point. It’s real, and it is a key factor in creating a feeling of true belonging in our school community.

How does that happen, though? How does the advising experience help students feel that they belong?

It does so by doing three key things: by creating a close-knit community of peers, by offering a caring adult with whom the student has a relationship for four years, and by providing academic advising.

The peer-to-peer relationship probably takes the longest to build, but in some ways is the most critical. Over time the advisees learn to trust each other, to truly have each other’s backs, to know who prefers Flamin’ Hot Cheetos over Takis Fuego. They know when birthdays are, they look forward to celebrating–with a vengeance!–Secret Snowman each December. It’s not only fun and games (Scattergories was this last group’s favorite, Mafia the group before them), though. Historically, through our weekly check-ins, it takes until sophomore year for my groups to build enough rapport and trust for the kids to believe in each other to the point of demonstrating consistent care about their families, their school lives, and their ongoing health and well being. They don’t need to hang out together on the weekends–although some typically do; they just need to be a cohesive advising group to belong to each other.

The rest comes naturally, I find. My love for them is like the sun rising and falling. It happens. Always. They become my school kids. I learn their strengths and challenges, and they learn mine. And before very long at all, through one-on-ones and conversations with their parents and group advising, I belong to them, and they belong to me. ‘Twas always thus.

As for the academic advising element to University School of Milwaukee’s four-year advising program, advisees and their families work with advisors to plan their course load each year, and at spring conferences the groups meet to discuss plans and programs. Also throughout the school year, advisor and advisees regularly check in both informally and formally about how classes are going. Midterms and grading periods are appropriate times for such conversations, but so too are periods of successes and “failures.” When Ella was having panic attacks about chemistry, the amazing Dr. Bakkum and I met with Ella frequently. When Asher was loving AP Art History, Ms. Titus and I had impromptu celebratory tete-a-tetes with him in the hallway. And then when things ultimately clicked for Ella in chemistry, she, Bakkum, and I could all proclaim victory together. We belonged to Team Ella. Indeed.

The sun did rise.

One of my greatest joys of working in an independent school these past fifteen years-I taught in public schools the ten years prior-has been being an advisor. In fact, it’s one of the most important ways that I’ve felt a sense of belonging. I have loved it. I hope the kids have, too.

A three-time graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Madison (Phi Beta Kappa), Emily Tymus Ihrke is a recipient of the Senator Herb Kohl Teaching Fellowship, the Wright Family Distinguished Teaching Award, the Best Buy TEACH Award, and the WEMA Media & Technology Award. She has been a speaker at the national and state levels for the past 25 years, as well as a gcLi Scholar, a faculty consultant to the College Board, and the President of the Wisconsin Council of Teachers of English. A published writer, full-time English teacher, Co-Coordinator of University School of Milwaukee’s PK12 Ethical Leadership Program, and recent graduate of the joint program in School Management and Leadership between Harvard Business School and Harvard Graduate School of Education, Emily loves learning at least a little something new every day, with her students, colleagues, and 9-year-old daughter.

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