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A Deeper Dive with Ms. Fichtner

A Deeper Dive with Ms. Fichtner

Upper School Advisory is a cornerstone of the RCDS experience in grades 5-8. School Counselor Sarah Fichtner, LPC, discusses the many aspects of the unique program including Student-Led Conferences and the positive impact teacher mentorship has on students.

What is Upper School Advisory?

The RCDS advisory program for Grades 5-8 is a home base to foster academic, emotional, and social growth. The idea is to create a setting where students develop a sense of safety, comfort, and trust with their advisor/homeroom teacher and with their peers. Students meet with their advisors in small groups multiple times each day. The goal is to learn and develop a range of skills that will help our students be successful not only academically but in every aspect of their lives.

How does Upper School Advisory work?

Upper School students meet with their advisors at least three times a day. In the morning they do a check-in, “what's on your plate today,” to touch base. RCDS students’ schedules operate on an eight-day cycle. Two days a cycle, there’s a 50-minute period dedicated to small group advising. This includes about 10 students per advisory group. The period can address a variety of things: emotional check-ins, conflict resolution, team building, or grade-wide assemblies. There is also a 30-minute conference period every day; students check-in with their advisor and can meet other teachers if they have questions about assignments or need extra help. At the end of the day, there’s a 10-minute checkout with the advisor. Students use this time as an opportunity to wrap up their day and plan for tomorrow. There are a lot of touchpoints. Students see or interact with their advisors over 175 hours each school year.

We also hold an Upper School assembly at least once a month. In addition to welcoming motivational speakers, each grade will get the opportunity to facilitate an assembly. The nice thing about student-led presentations is each advisory group has the opportunity to pick a topic of their choice, research it, and then present it to the entire Upper School. It might be on the career of a professional athlete they are interested in, or it could be a social justice issue. One group recently interviewed RCDS faculty members about their hobbies and interests outside of school and presented it at assembly.  

Why is relationship building among peers so important at this age?

Middle school can be a tough time. There can be a lot of social changes, the academics get harder, and students are preparing for high school. There can be a lot of conflict that happens during those years, so we work hard to equip students with the skills to verbalize what's bothering them, go to an advisor or a teacher and talk through their feelings or thoughts, and how to advocate for themselves. Adversity is something they are going to face throughout life, so we want them to learn how to work through issues.

Why are relationships with faculty advisors so important at this age?

Teachers who serve as advisors and mentors can really shape a young person’s experience at RCDS and beyond school. I think the relationships our advisors foster with their students are really unique here. Having an advisor that knows you, supports you, and understands you builds trust and helps make students feel comfortable and confident. Students aren’t afraid to approach their advisors to problem solve. They can rely on their advisors to guide them in making responsible choices and decisions.

Student-Led Conferences are a big component of Upper School Advisory and quite unique to RCDS. Can you describe the program?

Student-Led Conferences are held in March, about two-thirds through the academic year. They’re an opportunity for students to present a cumulative picture of their academic work at a conference involving themselves, their parents, and their advisor. The student is in the driver’s seat. They talk about their strengths, weaknesses, goals, and what they’re working towards. It’s a pretty cool experience to see students in this role where they're becoming accountable and responsible for their work and presenting it to their parents.

How do students benefit from Student-Led Conferences?

At this age, it's important to learn about the process of self-reflection, “What did I do well in this area?” or “Why am I struggling in an area and how can I focus my attention?” Taking time to think about your progress, study habits, and work ethic is a learning process. We want students to make mistakes now so they can learn better study habits, organizational skills, and how to balance the many parts of their lives. It’s easy for me to tell a student, “It looks like you are struggling with x, y, and z.” For them to come to that realization on their own, is much more meaningful.

In doing these self-reflections, do you find Upper School students are harder on themselves than an adult making these observations?

I think our students in particular put a lot of pressure on themselves in trying to always meet that next goal or expectation. Sometimes, they lose sight of how much they've grown, how beautiful their work is, and just how far they've come. Student-Led Conferences can highlight, “Wow. I’ve come a long way since September, and I still have some things I want to work toward.” It gives them good insight and perspective.  

What do you enjoy most about working with early adolescents?

Middle schoolers in general are at a place in life where you can shape their path. These years are so crucial and having impactful experiences with a mentor, teacher or advisor can change the trajectory of their life. You can really make an impact on who they are going to be.

Sarah Fichtner joined the RCDS faculty in 2021 as School Counselor. She is a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) who holds a master’s degree in Clinical Mental Health Counseling and bachelor’s degree in Psychology and Human Development.

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