Reveal ceremonies, paddles, nicknames and pairings: Those are the things people most often search for when they type any combination of “fraternity” and “big brother” into a Google search. These relationships should be more than that.
I was not a particularly good big brother, although I met the “criteria” to have a little brother three separate times. Perhaps the reason “What does a big brother do?” or “How do I create a better big brother program?” are not searched as often as paddles and nicknames is the big brother/little brother tradition is merely a shell of its original purpose back when fraternities were less centralized.
Fraternity leaders and fraternity/sorority professionals seem to prefer standardized “New Member Education” curriculums lead by elected or appointed “New Member Educators.” Many require that chapters submit those curriculums for review and offer training to new member educators. My fraternity is among those which emphasizes lesson plans and learning outcomes among other best practices.
That leaves chapter big brother programs as largely ceremonial, irrelevant elements of the new member process, even though they could be so much more.
What if we reworked our ideas of New Member Education away from the lecture and classroom influences of pre-internet education and toward the essential use of big brothers as educators and mentors? What if we took a page out of the Montessori education philosophy – where students from higher grade levels help mentor younger students, providing an educational advantage to both the student educators and the learners?
Listed below are some ideas to consider if we were willing to take a leap of faith to make chapter big brother programs a centerpiece of a more personal, friendship-driven new member education/orientation experience.
Think “Orientation” Rather Than “Education”
Fraternity men have four or five years to get the most out of that fraternity experience. Initiation should indicate that one is ready to participate fully in the fraternity experience, not that they memorized fraternity trivia, creeds and songs.
Don’t separate your new members from your initiates for 8 weeks and just tell them how things work – involve them in everything the chapter does, even if it means you must have some chapter meetings without ritual (though, honestly, they wouldn’t understand it anyway). It should be the duty of a big brother to accompany his little at chapter meetings, IFC meetings, committee meetings and chapter events until initiation.
He can help explain to the new member what’s happening, and then the new members can collectively discuss what they learned at their weekly meeting with the New Member Educator – who can help prepare them to learn or memorize whatever they need to learn or memorize for the initiation ceremony itself.
Schedule time for deeper dives into history and to analyze the ritual after they’ve been initiated. After all, you want new members to contribute to your chapter’s success, no? Teach them what is essential to the operations of your chapter before diving into the fun stuff – that should be a post-initiation treat.
Your New Member Educator Should Be Like A Guidance Counselor – The Big Brothers Are The Educators
Let’s take that a step further. . . In most cases, chapter elect or appoint a New Member Educator ( “Pledge Master” for the less politically current chapters). These educators typically pair big brothers with little brothers and lead weekly meetings modeled after a classroom lecture. Sometimes they meet more than weekly.
Many select a committee or appoint assistants to help with the classes and curriculums – the influence of education and higher education on the fraternity system is strong, even if it’s not always beneficial.
Instead, require that Big Brothers meet with their little brothers throughout the week to teach them whatever lessons are meant to be learned that week and that big brothers then attend new member meetings where they can discuss the preceding week as a group.
It is important that initiates attend new member meetings because that instills an understanding among new members that initiation is not an achievement, but a commitment to the chapter. Whether or not you leave the teaching to the big brothers as opposed to weekly lectures, every successful organization requires their members/employees participate in annual (if not more often) orientations.
The downside to this is that fewer members can be big brothers, which won’t win any immediate fans. Many members may not want to commit to the expectations and those in executive board positions will likely be unable to commit to the expectations, but the positives outweigh the negatives.
The positives are that big brothers take their role as seriously as an executive position, that new members are better mentored, that new members learn at a personalized pace and in a personalized way. Big brothers may mentor several little brothers at once, and so those who cannot commit to the expectations in any particular year can still establish a strong “family tree” if they can participate another time.
Focus Your Traditions On Families
Despite my lack of attention as a big brother, my “family tree” is pretty strong. Many chapters have strong internal family trees, with unique traditions and expectations of their own.
After new member orientation is complete, and once new members are initiated, introduce them to their chapter family as a celebratory measure. This is often done via “reveals” prior to initiation, but it is the initiation of a member we should celebrate, as that means that a permanent member has been added to a family’s lineage.
The benefit of focusing on families, and waiting until after initiation to do so, is that your new members will spend several weeks being mentored by a big brother and meeting with other new members and big brothers. Their bonds will be strong.
Then, after initiation, the focus shifts to the new initiates forming bonds and ties within their “family.” It’s a natural way to expand their connections within the fraternity and family trees are an already existing way to group members together. Rather than creating separate systems for members to hold one another accountable or to complete certain projects, simply emphasize that members of a family work together and keep each other on track.
You may get to a point where a new member interested in recruitment is paired with a big brother with connections to recruitment officers in the chapter within their family tree. After initiation, the new initiate can begin to specialize his focus toward his real interest within the fraternity, and has a network ready to support that continued education.
Depending on the size of your chapter, each family can then have one or two “big brothers” participating in the orientation process, who then introduce them to the wider family in the same way many chapters currently plan “big/little reveals.” You may then have more ceremonial, less educational, relationships established after that point.
By treating new member education as an orientation and more deeply involving big brothers as mentors, your chapter can set a better tone for new members to take their orientation seriously and to more fully participate in the life of the chapter once they’re initiated.
Who your new members “like” or who they enjoy drinking with at a party should have nothing to do with their learning how to be a fraternity man, and big brothers should be expected to offer more than a nickname and a shot of whiskey.