The Fine Art of Advising

By Julie Alexandre, P’06,’08, ’11, ’13; Haverford, PA
In the next few weeks, your child’s advisor will call you to give you an update on how your child is faring at Deerfield. Be sure you know their contact information, for an advisor is an invaluable resource first and foremost for your child but also for you. For example, you may receive an emotional phone call from your teenager about an assignment, a class, teacher or friend. Or you may be worried about homesickness. It is perfectly appropriate to email or call your child’s advisor to get some perspective on his or her behavior and state of mind.

There may be something happening at home that you would like an adult who sees your child regularly to know. The advisor is the person to contact. During Parents Fall Weekend, schedule an appointment to meet with the advisor. In December and June, read your child’s advisor report carefully. It is filled with observations about your child’s academic, extracurricular and social activities gleaned from teachers, coaches and time spent together.

So who are these Deerfield advisors and how are they assigned to a student? According to Assistant Dean of Students Amie Creagh, the pool of potential advisors includes just about the entire teaching and non-teaching faculty at the school, including senior members of the administration. The advisor/advisee relationship is a fundamental part of the culture of the school.

Before your child steps foot on campus, the Dean of Students Office (DOS) works with the input of the Admissions Office to match new students with an advisor. For new boarding students, regardless of year, their advisor will be affiliated with his or her hall. This residential link means that the advisor will be either your child’s hall resident, living fulltime in an apartment on the hallway, or a dorm associate, overseeing the dorm one weeknight and alternate weekends. Day students as well are assigned an advisor, who is usually one of their teachers. The result is that by design new students have regular and frequent contact with their advisors either in the dorm or in the classroom.

All Deerfield students will have an advisor for their entire career at school. Most students do switch advisors, however, at one time or another. I did the math for my four children and calculated that during their twelve cumulative school years at Deerfield thus far, they have had nine different advisors. Their experiences range from one advisor over three years to four over four years. Why might a student switch their advisor? Within a particular school year, students may identify a teacher, coach, table head or some other adult whom they get to know and therefore want to consider as a potential advisor for the following year. Advisors and students tend to be honest about how well they are “clicking” and are open to change at the end of the school year. This does not mean that after the student’s first year your child is responsible for securing their own advisor. My “four in four years” Deerfield graduate let the DOS select his advisors during his first three years (they were all dorm affiliated), and then chose his own for his senior year. His experiences with all four were very positive and, because Deerfield is such a small community, he continued to cross paths with all of them as he moved around campus.

Becca Melvoin, a History teacher and hall resident, has ten advisees this year: three new freshman girls, four sophomores, two juniors (one of them my daughter) and a senior. During her three years at Deerfield, she has helped her advisees tackle a variety of academic issues. For example, she has met each Sunday before sit-down dinner with an advisee who has organizational difficulties to look at homework assignments for the coming week. If an advisee is having difficulties in a subject, she sets up a meeting with Peter Nilsson, the Study Skills Coordinator, and then makes sure that the student gets there. She has secured library passes for advisees who cannot study in their rooms so that they can take advantage of the library’s well monitored, evening study hall. Addressing social issues can be more challenging. For instance, if an advisee is not making friends, Becca may discuss with the hall proctors concrete examples of poor social interactions and gently bring them to the attention of the student. She may also suggest avenues for meeting other people. All the time she is listening to the student and staying in regular contact with the parents.

So what is an appropriate level of informal communication between advisors and parents? Becca tends to have lots of email and phone contact with parents early in the school year as children settle in to life at Deerfield. As the school year progresses, she might get one email from one parent in a week or four emails from four parents in a day depending on what is going on with her advisees. In addition to her advisor reports in December and June, she may write sporadic emails to parents to share fun anecdotes or accomplishments. Good news is always welcome especially when a child is living away from home.

Looking back on my four children’s Deerfield years, the times I have communicated most frequently with an advisor have been when a child suffered a major disappointment or a health crisis. Fortunately, these have been few and far between. Most of the time students’ daily Deerfield lives go pretty smoothly. But as we all know, plenty of things happen to teenagers and their families during a three or four year period. For my family, our first inkling of this was when our eldest son had a skiing accident in January of his junior year. During that winter and spring, his advisor helped coordinate his dental and doctor appointments, kept us up to date via phone calls and emails on his progress in and out of the classroom and, in our absence, did little things to get him back on an even keel, such as laundering his ski jacket. I have seen through this and other experiences over the years that the Deerfield community, with the advisor as point person, is excellent at helping students and parents deal with all kinds of crises, disappointments and losses. The corollary is for parents to enjoy those times when frequent contact with a child’s advisor is not required.

Clearly, the advisor system at Deerfield works well for students and parents, adding another layer of oversight, advice, caring and perspective. For the advisors themselves, the relationships they build with their advisees are a very fulfilling component of their own Deerfield experience? Both Becca and Amie are enthusiastic about the rewards of having advisees as a part of their daily Deerfield lives. For Becca “the best moments as an advisor are the little ones: a kid running down the hall to tell you about a good grade, or a student who calls crying after a bad breakup and then is so grateful when you call back later to check in on how she is feeling.” Amie relishes seeing her long-term advisees grow from “young freshmen to articulate, self aware seniors. I have two biological children but the connections with these kids and their parents are wonderful.”

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