While problem-solving skills might be near the top on a checklist of attributes that student leadership advisers hope to develop in their students, those skills are also critical for the advisers themselves. Unique and thorny problems often crop up in these oversight positions, and the same strategy that helps teach students how to solve problems can often help advisers get some relief from them: student ownership.

That’s one of the approaches commonly mentioned by advisers when they review solutions to the various problems they have encountered with their leadership groups—groups that sometimes must tackle oversized challenges in a school atmosphere, where a lot of things are in flux and a lot of interests are in balance.

“I think in these organizations it is really important to establish rules and roles for everyone and make students responsible—then have them solve problems as they come up,” says Natasha Schaefer, adviser at Woodcreek High School in Roseville, CA.

Lay the Groundwork

Schaefer and other advisers say that problem-solving requires that they take a step back and first make sure firm rules and guidelines are in place, that students know their responsibilities, are coached in problem-solving, and then are given an opportunity to work through issues themselves.

For instance, Schaefer says, one of the biggest problems for advisers is lagging student effort or leadership on projects. She notes that she has learned to send gentle reminders (“Are you using my classroom for that meeting?”), but not step in. The project usually is completed, and if there are miscues or disappointments, those can offer a lesson. Other advisers agree that making plans, establishing roles and expectations, and stepping back are three key steps to solving many issues that might arise.

Problems can also be avoided with good planning up front, says Teri Smith, adviser at South Fork High School in Stuart, FL, who at the second officer meeting each year devotes time to discussing expectations and then carefully plans the year at a dinner meeting with officers.

Mark Skowron, coordinator of student affairs at Lancaster High School in New York says he has found that an adviser handbook he helped develop has aided advisers with solving problems for the 60 student organizations at the school. He also had advisers develop a job description for themselves, which can resolve issues by providing guidance about their responsibilities and roles, making everything clearer for everyone.

“Anticipate what problems might occur no matter how well your group has planned the activity, because you cannot—nor should you—control everything,” says Kirk Livingston, adviser at North Platte High School in Nebraska and a 28-year veteran of working with student leaders. “When glitches arise, stay flexible and don’t panic.”

For instance, in an incident likely familiar to other advisers, a Valentine’s Day candy sale was more successful than expected, and his group ended up 300 boxes short. He adjusted and then changed the process going forward.

“Students were in a panic, asking me ‘What are we going to do?’ I called the principal, and we worked out how we could delay deliveries for one day and have the student council officers explain the situation on the morning announcements. After that, for the future we moved the process up two days.”

When They Slip, Seek Guidance

Mary Falk, leadership adviser at Villa Maria Academy in Erie, PA, cites another problem many advisers face—the students in leadership positions are often juggling many obligations and don’t prioritize their leadership group.

“Coaches, in particular, are not helpful in allowing the students to attend a quick meeting before going to practice,” she says. “It makes it very difficult to plan activities for the school when we are missing a lot of members at meetings.”

To resolve the issue, she coordinated efforts with other advisers facing similar problems and developed a schedule that provides time during the school day a few times a month for a few well-coordinated meetings. “It has made a huge difference in our productivity as a club,” she says. Others have coordinated after-school schedules with other advisers or sat down with students to review their calendars.

Having had experience with officers not being active enough, Smith developed a policy addressing the issue. When the same problem came up last year, she and the group’s president followed the policy and sent a letter to the missing officer describing the duties of the position and specifically how the student was failing. “The student performed the duties religiously from then on,” she says.

Tracking participation also can be a challenge—from attendance at meetings to service hours or committee involvement—and in some cases, students have forged signatures for various documents. Many advisers use technology, from online spreadsheets to Google applications, to resolve this issue. If another adult is involved, he or she can be asked to quickly verify participation or give the student a way to contact an adviser, Smith notes.

And while student leaders in most cases can be trusted, sometimes more serious cases of misbehavior happen, and those incidents can be some of the thorniest.

William McIlwee, adviser at Eureka High School in Missouri, recalls that on one occasion a student in his group got in trouble with the police, and responsibility at the school became a concern. He quickly consulted an administrator, worried that the student might be punished multiple times by the administration and sports teams in which she was active. They coordinated the response: The student missed some time in her sports and was required to do more service hours as a consequence.

“It is important in cases like that to work with an administrator, particularly if a legal matter is involved,” McIlwee says. He and others note that sometimes they find their administrators don’t support their position, and that’s when it pays off to have comprehensive rules in place that are understood by members and accepted by others in the school. However, advisers should realize and become comfortable with the fact that administrators have the final say.

Jennifer Roberts, adviser at Hallsville Junior High School in Texas, and other advisers have seen clear evidence of inappropriate behavior, and, again, having definitive guidance about consequences has made handling the problem easier.

“Soon after one incident, the faculty council and members decided to amend the bylaws to include a more deliberate ‘character clause,’ ” she says. “One student was then found to have been drinking at a prom and was removed from membership very quickly, with no fuss from the student, parents, or the administration.”

Collaborating with a principal or another faculty member early when problems like these arise can be helpful, says Laura Mullen, adviser at Murphy Middle School in Texas, because that person can provide an objective view and, perhaps, knowledge about and support for a position if the issue lingers. Others use a faculty advisory group to resolve certain issues if they believe they are too close to the issue or can’t be objective.

Student Power

Schaefer says she also allows student officers to determine their course over disagreements, which typically are presented as a problem for an adviser to handle. “You often have six officers with six different opinions,” she says. “That’s when you have to sit back and let students figure it out—and it usually works out well.”

Surveys of the members or student body—now easy to do online with tools such as Survey Monkey—can quickly resolve a dispute if parties agree to abide by the results. When one student wanted to change the constitution for the group concerning eligibility to run for president, Holly Shih, adviser at Grayson High School in Loganville, GA, had the council debate and vote on the issue.

Surveys can also help when students have to decide what projects to undertake or how to spend funds. Advisers have had members determine how to involve students from ESL or special education programs (adjusting membership rules slightly or asking those groups to elect a student) or how to recognize teachers.

Get Technical

Technology can cause a major problem with student attention, advisers note, and groups sometimes have all members leave their phones in a common, secure area during discussions and have firm rules about off-task use of technology.

However, technology also has many benefits. Students and advisers can collaborate and communicate quickly in an emergency and efficiently put out reminders to resolve issues. Another matter advisers often mention is the “What can we do that would be new?” conundrum, and students can find an endless stretch of ideas online when they want to try something new or adjust steps in a project.

Advisers use text messaging, email, Facebook, and often the Canvas application or their school’s platforms to solve communication problems. Google Classroom, in which documents can be shared and stored, is very popular (though sometimes one student should be made responsible for keeping the documents organized and updated). The Remind application also is helpful for alerting students and parents.

Schaefer has access to sophisticated technology purchased by student leadership groups at her school that allows organizations to record student participation in projects and events by scanning an ID card. She also puts technology to use to manage the problems that develop in her 150-member NHS chapter and communicate with its members. But, she asserts, the key is often more basic.

“It comes down to recognizing that there will always be problems for student organizations and their advisers,” Schaefer says. “But it is good for the members and good for us if we have sound systems for handling problems and, whenever possible, allow students to learn how.”

Jim Paterson is a writer based in Delaware. 

Sidebar: Steps to Solutions

Problem-solving is a key part of an adviser’s job. Here are five things to keep in mind to make the process easier.

  1. Rules rule. Have specific guidance in place, be familiar with it, and when there is an issue that falls outside the boundaries of those rules, develop a new one. Then, explain the rules and stick to them. Give students specific responsibilities and hold them accountable.
  2. Be informed and fair. Whether it is a personal problem or a structural one, if you have to make a decision, do it with as much information (and as little bias) as possible. Get all the information. Get all views. Pay attention to your biases and ask others to evaluate them. Be sure to periodically include students through surveys or informal discussions.
  3. Be resolute. Be understanding and empathetic about problems, but stay firm. You do a disservice to student leaders if you don’t teach them that the rules and responsibilities they accept are important and should be valued. Clearly explain how and why you resolved a problem as you did (or why you turned it over to them).
  4. Collaborate. Often, advisers are too busy or too involved in an issue to be objective, or they find it difficult to solve a problem because they don’t want relationships with those involved to be damaged. While an adviser might simply need to confront the issue personally, having a reliable colleague or parent to turn to is helpful. In addition, advisers should consult students and administrators when appropriate. Get advice, or if necessary, have them solve the problem.
  5. Evaluate. In busy schools, this is the one step that is overlooked but is often the most important. When a problem arises, consider how it occurred, and with students leading the way, develop a better approach. At the same time, consider the problem-solving process.