While the “job” might technically be theirs, top National Student Council (NatStuCo) advisers know that in order to empower and stimulate students in NatStuCo, they must let the younger set lead. For Susan Waldrep and Lisa Whirtley, guiding students to embrace diversity and promoting student voice has led to award-winning councils, and now these two women are receiving accolades of their own.

Named after National Student Council founder Warren E. Shull, Adviser of the Year awards recognize two student council advisers of exemplary character, leadership, and commitment to young people. At the 2019 National Student Council Conference in Plymouth, MN, Waldrep earned the title of 2018 Warren E. Shull National High School Adviser of the Year, and Whirtley received 2018 Warren E. Shull National Middle Level Adviser of the Year honors.

Meet the Winners

Lisa Whirtley, Blennerhassett Middle School, Parkersburg, WV: Striving to give all students a voice through student council, Whirtley coaxes them to express and implement their ideas. Her students coordinate activities such as a teacher spelling bee at school and step out into the community to honor veterans or sing carols for nursing home residents. As an educator, she has been named Teacher of the Year for her school and school district. She also serves as executive director of the West Virginia Association of Student Councils. Her student council is a past winner of the National Gold Council of Excellence Award.

Susan Waldrep, Texas High School, Texarkana, TX: Waldrep’s council has grown from 50 students to more than 400 annually, and student members have won several state offices. Members partner with a local food pantry to prepare and distribute meals, fundraise by performing in an annual Dessert Theater, and conduct activities that include students with special needs in student life. After a 2008 National Student Council Conference, student council members reinvented the school’s orientation as Tiger Camp, introducing freshmen to student traditions and tips for success. The council has consistently earned the National Gold Council of Excellence Award since 2008.

Lisa Whirtley: Giving Students a Voice

Lisa Whirtley was known as “the bailout queen” during her first year as an adviser. “Whatever the students didn’t get done, I was running around to pick up the slack,” says Whirtley. “Then I thought, ‘What am I doing? This is not Mrs. Whirtley’s council. This is student council.’ ”

Whirtley, now a math teacher, entered the profession in her mid-30s, encouraged by teachers who were impressed with her volunteer efforts in her own children’s classrooms. Early in those years, the principal approached her about stepping into the student council advisory role.

“I had never, ever done student council, which is kind of ironic,” she says. “I tried to run for student council in my eighth-grade year. I was a new kid at a new school. It was the most nerve-racking thing I ever did. I lost and never ran again.”

Despite that long-ago defeat, Whirtley embraced her adviser role (which began in 2006) and learned quickly that “advisers are the most sharing people in the world.” The adviser at her daughter’s school—a cross-town rival—“immediately started sending me things, and helping me out, and giving me advice.”

After attending LEAD Conferences that first year and all the years since, Whirtley continuously learns more about making student council a student-centered experience. “I still feel like a newbie when I attend workshops and roundtables,” she says. “I get so many ideas.”

At the beginning of every school year, Whirtley’s student council members brainstorm ideas under her guidance and she gives them the freedom to plow ahead. She knows that while developing self-sufficiency, they also learn from failure. The effort helps them understand “the challenges they might face in representing a student body,” while preparing them for further leadership when they reach high school.

“With middle school students, they’re just now learning,” she says. “They’re not going to be these perfect leaders. We’ve got the wins and the losses to help them grow.”

A supportive administration is “extremely important” to cultivating a fearless student council culture, she says. One principal, who has since passed away, was “gung-ho” about student ideas, even if it meant he would be duct-taped to a wall.

Some of Whirtley’s council members gain momentum by attending LEAD Conferences with her. There, they “share and discuss ideas with kids from so many different states and different countries.”

Members apply and are elected by the full council, usually numbering about 20 to 30 students. This year, Whirtley has seen more boys joining, raising the gender breakdown to about 50-50 and bringing “a whole new energy and new ideas.”

“They might have a paper airplane-flying contest,” she says. “It’s really good to get a large group of diverse opinions and perspectives, so we’re thinking of how to bring energy to the rest of school.”

The seeds of independence planted by Whirtley have blossomed into thoughtfulness directed her way. When she was undergoing cancer treatments in 2008, her students raised money to vie for the privilege of shaving her head in front of the school. “It was my way of taking control and letting the kids see real life,” she says, and every member of the boys’ basketball team shaved his head alongside her.

While recovering from car-crash injuries in spring 2018, colleagues stepped up to share her duties, but her students operated largely without oversight, producing teacher appreciation week and the year-end school dance largely on their own.

As she watches her students progress toward high school, Whirtley feels like “a proud mama.”

“The fact that they are energized together and they get motivated together brings on more ideas to help the school,” she says. “It also inspires them to want to stay together. I’ve watched my council grow through the years.”

Susan Waldrep: Diversity Inspires Inclusion

Susan Waldrep strives for a diverse council, wanting to actively represent every segment of the student body. When some freshman athletes seemed reluctant to engage, she recruited an alumnus who was playing football at Texas A&M University. As their idol, he ordered them to get involved, and they did!

Four years later, one of those boys—a student council leader—challenged the freshman class: “Think about where you want to be in four years. Do you want to be a leader in your senior year and running the school, or do you want to be sitting in the back row?” Amid dead silence, Waldrep could “see the ninth-grade football players sitting up a little bit straighter.”

“It’s not so much what I do,” says Waldrep, a leadership teacher at Texas High, who began as assistant adviser in 1999 and became lead adviser in 2002. “It’s the opportunity to let my seniors really make a difference, especially with the freshmen.”

The engaged student council infuses school pride throughout the building, she notes. When student council leaders decided that special education students needed a Tiger Strong field day, they invited all school clubs to participate, and “it was one of the coolest things ever.” The foreign language club taught dances. Twelve organizations ran games. Theater students provided water.

“It was a unifying event where it didn’t matter what club you were in,” says Waldrep. “We had 200 kids out there working to make sure this was a great day for someone else.”

Waldrep instills the purpose of leadership in her students. When they understand why they’re working at a food pantry or sharing Christmas gifts with underprivileged classmates, “it’s a whole different deal than having to put in two hours of volunteer work.”

“Once students figure out the ‘why’ of any little thing, it changes their mindset, their concept of how they see school and see leadership,” Waldrep says. “The seniors take ownership, and they want to make sure that they’re teaching the freshmen what needs to be taught, so the traditions don’t die out.”

Texas High School’s particular claim to fame is “Room 49.” It started with student council members visiting the special education classroom—room 49—for activities. In time, the concept of services and events for students with special needs became so ingrained in the school’s identity that the room number traveled along when the classroom moved to a different complex.

As a result, students with special needs join the student body at events. One boy who has autism wears a headset to block out crowd noise even as he cheers on the football team. A student who is deaf broke out of his shell and rides the bus to games with student council members. Another student who has autism has “overcome leaps and bounds” to become a student council officer.

“It’s a bonding time,” Waldrep says. “When student council members help with Special Olympics, they know that the student athletes represent our school. They know each other. When they see somebody in the hall, it’s a friendly face.”

Managing a large student council requires some creative structuring. At the first meeting of the 2018–19 freshman component, 100 students divided into groups of six via the “ships and sailors” game (like a pirate-themed version of “Simon says”). Led by a senior member, they felt comfortable brainstorming new activities. The idea to recognize a beloved custodian came up. When it actually happened during a pep rally, the ninth-graders were so excited, Waldrep says.

“When they can see those ideas come to life, it changes the way they think,” she says. “What they think going in is, ‘It doesn’t matter what I say.’” But they soon learn that they do have a voice.

As Waldrep prepares students for adulthood, she demands that they graduate knowing how to do two things. The first is taking a project from start to finish—from planning and budgeting to execution. The second? That “they to learn how to line dance and how to two-step” (important skills on the Texas-Arkansas border, she professes). When students come home from college, she says they tell her she was right—that “nobody knows how to take a project from start to finish, and nobody knows how to two-step.”

Student council members at Texas High School also conduct an annual dessert theater fundraiser (the original dinner theater grew too big to serve dinner) dreamed up by Waldrep. Working together, the self-motivated students develop 30 entertainment numbers to present on stage; Waldrep convenes a student council band to perform. And the students do it willingly. “There’s no grade involved,” Waldrep says. “There’s nothing I have to hold over their heads.”

Waldrep has seized the opportunity to shatter some boundaries of her own through involvement in the Texas Association of Student Councils. She’s been able to lead workshops, sharing lessons and best practices with adviser colleagues statewide. She learned, too, that her students should be proud of the unique entity they have created.

Every high school must figure out what is important, find common ground, and strive to improve, she says. “Students can take the idea of why an action is important, and why they should do community service, and why thinking together is better, and they can apply all that to the situations in their school and community to find solutions.”

Diane McCormick is a writer based in Harrisburg, PA.

Sidebar: Pearls of Wisdom

From Susan Waldrep:

  • Advisers don’t have to recruit in order to create a diverse council. At Texas High School, word of mouth assures that each team or club has a student council voice. Swimmers, for instance, “know there has to be a Tiger Shark.”
  • Encourage each student council to establish a theme as each school year begins. For instance, Texas High’s theme is “Ignite to Unite” for 2018–19. The theme becomes a navigational guide, assuring that all pursuits point toward the same goal.

From Lisa Whirtley:

  • Remind student council members that their peers are watching how they behave and act. For middle level students, being seen as example-setters is a new concept.
  • Letting students take the lead, for good or ill, helps them discover and develop their personal leadership styles. Even if they’re not serving on a committee, “they’re still searching for some kind of thing to do for the school or their community.”
  • Encourage students to attend NatStuCo and LEAD Conferences. Whirtley’s students love learning new icebreakers, which they bring home and introduce to their schoolmates.