Advisor/Teachers: The Heart of Open School

By Arnie Langberg, principal of Mountain Open High School, 1975-1986

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I got my first teaching job because my old geometry teacher was going to become a full-time guidance counselor.  Up until that time, 1956, she had “done” the girls and the principal had “done” the boys.

What we at JCOS call “advising” is what many teachers did before the creation of a new professional class called “guidance counselors.”  I was unable and unwilling to limit my functioning to the academic domain and refer the personal to the “experts.”  I believe this would still be true for many of my colleagues if it weren’t for the explosion of expectations in the academic realm while the numbers of students also increased significantly.

So when we started Mountain Open High School in 1975 we decided to go back to the general practitioner model (which will also become central to the reforming of our medical system).  Instead of one professional being responsible for more than 300 students, which is patently absurd, everyone on the staff was responsible for 16 students.

“Advising” is probably a misleading word because it suggests one-way communication.  Listening is the primary role of the advisor.  It takes time to listen.  It takes caring to be willing to take the time to listen.  And it takes rethinking of the structure of the school to find the time without adding it to the already overburdened teacher’s schedule.

At the first meeting of the entire staff of what was initially Mountain Open High School (MOHS), after we took as much time as we needed to introduce ourselves to each other, I suggested a model for how we might divide our time among our many professional duties at the school.  I felt that we needed a common structure at the beginning to provide some calm within the chaos that would probably occur in such a radically different school environment.  Based upon my five years experience at the Great Neck Village School, I recommended dividing the tasks into three approximately equal allotments of time and energy.

First, and of primary importance, one-third of our time should be devoted to advising, with each of us responsible for 16 students.  (I arrived at that number by dividing the total number of high school students in the entire school district by the number of certified high school teachers!)  The district allowed us a half time “guidance counselor” but she functioned in the same manner as the rest of us, although she was able to provide help to her colleagues in areas where she had more experience than we did.

Second, one-third of our time should be devoted to teaching in our specialties, sharing the enthusiasm, point of view and knowledge that were the reasons we became teachers.

Third, one-third of our time should be divided between two activities.  One of these is what I called “informal teaching,” by which I meant learning with the students in areas that we were not experts.  The other activity was sharing in the administration and governance of the school, which would enable me to take a more complete part in the developing culture of MOHS.

Most of the teachers said that they didn’t think they would need so much time for advising.  It didn’t take very long after meeting their students before they were suggesting that advising should be half of their assignment!  This was especially true as we realized that we were “building the road as we traveled.”

As that first year progressed we settled into a schedule that had one three-hour block of time each week for group advising in addition to regular individual sessions with each advisee.  Maintaining a balance between these two has always been one of the most difficult aspects of our Open School model.  Although group advising is more difficult for most of the staff than individual advising, because most teacher training had been for controlling groups rather than facilitating them, it has tended to be easier to schedule than the individual sessions and the balance (unfortunately, in my opinion) has shifted away from the individual sessions.

One of the causes of difficulty for the conventional large high schools, I believe, is the anonymity of many of the students.  At Open, every student has an advocate, an adult who is there for her or him, and who also serves as the main link between the parents and the school.  Open begins with some advantages over the conventional schools in that it is small and everyone is there by choice, but it is the advisory system that capitalizes on this by creating an authentically personalized learning environment.
As it became evident to us just how important this role is for the teachers as well as for the students, we changed how we advertised for candidates when we had a staff vacancy.  Instead of “teacher/ advisor” we listed it as “advisor/teacher”!

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