Surrounded by Support
The impactful outcome of Teacher Advisory Groups at BSS
Often when something important or interesting happens in Grade 12 student Chiara Picão’s life, one of her first thoughts is, ‘I can’t wait to bring this up at my TAG meeting.’ Together with her Teacher Advisory Group, she shares her ups and downs, seeks advice and escapes from the day-to-day demands of student life.
“In the beginning, I underestimated its significance,” says Chiara, whose TAG advisor is Jan Sullivan, Vice Principal of Student Life. “But our group’s connection happened really quickly. Over the years we’ve created a bond that I never expected, but am so grateful for.”
Every student entering the Senior School is assigned a staff member who will be their advisor throughout the rest of their career at BSS. The groups, which meet weekly, are based on House membership, with one TAG group of 10 to 12 girls for each grade. Chiara, who’s in Rosseter House, is part of the last cohort of girls who joined a TAG in Grade 7, before the program shifted to starting in Grade 9.
To lay the groundwork for the TAG experience, the Junior School has an Advisory Program and the Middle School has a Homeroom Program. All three focus on students’ social, emotional and character development, while fostering the attributes of the Signature of a BSS Girl. Students learn to form a relationship with a trusted adult in a non-academic environment while exploring issues that are relevant to their age and stage. Junior School girls delve into values and ethics, for example, while Middle School students also tackle the concerns of early adolescence.
The subjects up for discussion in TAG are driven both by an informal “curriculum” designed by the advisors and by students’ concerns and priorities. “We’re proactive in bringing up pertinent current events and social issues, and helping to prepare the girls for major school events and activities, but we’re also very responsive,” says Senior School business teacher Mary Ellen Moran, who advises a Grade 12 TAG at Acres House.
After more than five years together, the girls in Ms. Moran’s TAG have deep-rooted connections and loyalty to each other. Last year, on their own initiative, they designed and produced sweatshirts for the group as a public display of their cohesiveness. “Every group has different needs because they’re all made up of different personalities,” says Ms. Moran. “I’m not their guidance counsellor, but I’ll always go to bat for them when they need me. I like to think of myself not just as an advisor, but as an advocate.”
Chiara’s relationship with Ms. Sullivan reflects this unique dynamic. “I remember hearing that our TAG advisors would become our ‘school mothers,’ and I laughed it off,” says Chiara. “But then it became real. We all have a really strong bond with Ms. Sullivan because she’s transparent about everything, whether it’s student life or regular life. Her office door is always open to us between TAG meetings, and it’s comforting to know we have someone who’s there to guide us.”
For Grade 9 TAG, the first priority is for the advisor to get to know the girls while they get to know each other, says Sarah Dwyer, a science teacher in the Senior School and advisor to a Grade 10 TAG in Rosseter House. “We use games and fun activities, as well as formal questionnaires and surveys. But we also just get a sense of everyone through our ongoing discussions. Once the group is more established, I start every meeting by asking, ‘What’s up?’ It’s a way of finding out what’s on their radar, and where our conversation should go.”
Helping girls find their Voice in interactions with adults is one focus of TAG, says Ms. Dwyer. “We use role play to prepare them for difficult conversations with both students and adults.” Since the groups bring together girls who might not otherwise be friends, TAG also cultivates Self-Awareness and Curiosity about other points of view.
“It’s a powerful place for peer feedback on social dilemmas,” says Ms. Dwyer.
Chiara says her TAG has broadened her outlook while providing a unique source of support. “All the members are really different in terms of our lives, thoughts and experiences. During stressful times, like when she ran for Prefect, Chiara relies on the group for their honesty, diverse viewpoints and unwavering confidence in her.
With graduation on the horizon, Chiara feels confident that her TAG connections will survive beyond BSS. “My TAG will always be a group of people that I can come back to at my 10, 20 or 30 year reunion,” she says. In fact, many TAG members stay in touch, and advisors continue to hear from students years after they leave, says Ms. Dwyer. “It’s a privilege to watch the girls unfold and grow in front of me, and when they maintain a connection after graduation, it’s a marker of success for the whole program.”
Megan Easton is a freelance writer and editor with a focus on education and health.