VEA - A Helping Hand

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Virginia Journal of Education

A Helping Hand

School counselors fill an increasing number of roles. Here's some of what they do and how they can help.

by Suzanne A. Whitehead

I’ve worked as a school counselor for 14 years, the last five as the director of counseling at a middle school, and I’ve often thought about how our roles have changed during my time in the field. From the beginning, it’s been evident to me that, in a way, counselors have always been the “odd duck” in schools because of how our positions have been perceived by administrators and fellow faculty members.
Teachers frequently view us as part of the administration team; however, administrators typically view us as part of the support staff or faculty. At other times, administrators see us as “quasi administrators,” especially when it comes to helping design the master schedule, supporting and mentoring faculty members, helping discipline students, serving as test coordinators, and printing and distributing marking period and interim reports. In addition, our duties entail meeting with upset parents, helping to facilitate child studies and 504 meetings, scheduling all students, placing students in the correct academic levels, facilitating parent information meetings, coordinating open houses and back to school nights, sending out possible failure letters to parents, and selecting students for summer school attendance.

This is by no means a complete list, just a compilation of some of the typical duties of today’s school counselors. In addition, we are also handling individual and group counseling sessions, classroom guidance, registration, team meetings with teachers, setting up and attending parent conferences, conducting mediation sessions with distressed students, handling crisis situations, making referrals, and running the school counseling office. To say that our days are busy is indeed an understatement!

So where do we actually belong? Are we support staff, faculty members (we do have teaching contracts), or part of the administration? The short answer is…yes. We are actually all three things in school systems today. While that juxtaposition may be disconcerting to some, it speaks volumes about how very far our profession has come in the last several years. The time has come to shift the paradigm in our thinking and celebrate our increasing value and the integral, vital part counselors play in our schools.

A Lot on Our Plates
School counselors can definitely serve in a leadership capacity because we have the perfect complement of skills to be profound change agents. We’re trained in people skills, understand the importance of respecting and validating the faculty and staff, and also fully appreciate the necessity of utilizing research-based practices and obtaining data-driven results. We deal with everything: changing students’ schedules, making sure each has the correct number of credits to graduate, peer mediations, children with special needs, and problems with peers and teachers. We deal with children from broken homes, alcoholic families, parents who are deployed, students who bring weapons to school, and children who are beaten, abused, raped, self-mutilate, are pregnant, have life-threatening ailments, have eating disorders, and are contemplating suicide. The list goes on and on, and changes in a heartbeat every day. We are experts at multi-tasking, and we know how to take charge when a child is in crisis or a tragedy occurs in our school. While we are certainly not superhuman, we are most definitely many things to many, many people. As school counselors we conduct our duties with professionalism, calm reassurance, humanism and resounding patience.

Indeed, more and more of us have realized the expanding and far-reaching roles counselors play in schools. That’s why so many have joined the ranks of the Virginia Education Association. We realize that through our participation and identification with professional organizations, we can together accomplish amazing things. Together, we can provide the quality education, leadership and proven research methods and innovations that students in Virginia truly deserve.

How Counselors Can Help Teachers
How can the teaching faculty and school counselors most effectively help each other to encourage students to reach their highest aspirations? First and foremost, we have to know that we are definitely on the same team. I’ve found that through no fault of their own, teachers often do not really know all that counselors do, and what help we can provide. Most teachers know that school counselors typically conduct classroom registration visits with students, hold parent information meetings, input scheduling data, run psychoeducational groups, and see students individually for peer mediations, behavior problems in school, academic concerns, and family issues. However, this is where counselors often fall short. We need to do a better job of letting the teaching faculty know that we are there to help support their efforts in the classroom, and that we are very much in league with teachers’ goals, objectives, and outcomes for students.
On numerous occasions each year, I have teachers come to me concerned about classroom behavior issues. Attending teacher team meetings (or setting ones up ourselves) can be a very efficient way to initiate solutions for individual students and grade level concerns. During these meetings, counselors can offer suggestions, arrange classroom guidance lessons that may be warranted, devise student contracts and behavior plans, and educate the faculty about mental health and/or ongoing family issues that students are dealing with. Of course, confidentiality issues with students must be respected. In these kinds of cases, it’s best to have parents present and on board with what you’re suggesting. Despite their disgruntled attitude at times, my experience has been that all parents truly do love their children and are doing the best they can with the resources (including mental, physical, spiritual and financial) available to them. If counselors and teachers offer our support and empathy, more often than not parents are willing to attend conferences and be a part of the educational plan for their child. I can honestly say that I have never met a parent who did not want their child to be successful in school. Also, because many parents do not remember having the best experience when they were in school, attending conferences can feel extremely intimidating and overwhelming. Knowing this can drastically change our approach with parents and can greatly facilitate gaining their increased trust and cooperation. The school counselor can play an integral leadership role in helping to bring all stakeholders together and working toward obtaining amicable solutions.

The greatest suggestion I can offer for the teaching faculty is not to be afraid to ask your school counselor how you can both complement what the other does. Ask how you can work together to help a child be successful. In truth, many of us assume too much, and have unrealistic and false expectations of each other (thus, so many of our relationship issues in the world and why counselors will never be out of a job). And, even though we try very hard, we may not be the best communicators at times. All of us fall short on that on occasion. I try to keep in mind that I alone do not have all the answers for a child and that two, four, or even 10 minds can offer solutions that one alone can not envision. Sometimes the very best leadership role is in knowing that you are not always in charge.

Counselors as Leaders
It’s definitely time for school counselors to expand our horizons and embrace our emerging roles as leaders in our schools. This change has come as a natural evolution in testament to our skills, talents and extensive training in a variety of areas. Counselors by nature have not necessarily felt comfortable standing in the forefront or advocating for ourselves. We’re often the “warm fuzzy” types who seek neither the spotlight nor the glory. While that may be admirable, we must be careful that it doesn’t take away from our capability to be extraordinary leaders. Our opinions are valued, our input is sought, and our knowledge is respected by our peers. We stand in perfect step to assume many leadership roles in schools and it is up to us to realize that capacity within us.

In my present roles as a middle school director of counseling and president-elect of the Virginia School Counselor Association, I see our profession evolving and changing in profound, influential ways. I have also experienced firsthand the growing numbers of highly talented, creative and enthusiastic counselors advocating for our profession in their schools, districts, local associations, on the state level and nationally. They conduct cyberlobbying efforts on their students’ behalf; call their local, state and national political officials; write letters to congressman and senators; and visit political figures during legislative days. It’s inspiring to watch and encouraging to be a part of. The times we’re in require it, and the benefits to fellow counselors, the education profession, and to the students we serve are of paramount importance.

Professional school counseling associations across the United States are profoundly affecting the direction of the profession and the school experiences of those we serve. Counselors conduct local and regional trainings throughout the year in most states on such topics as understanding ethical and legal concerns in working with students and families, how best to follow the American School Counseling Association model for school counseling programs, drop-out prevention strategies, and research-based approaches to counseling and improving student academic progress. In addition, counselors often volunteer to conduct workshops at local businesses and for parents regarding topics of concern, such as substance abuse prevention and helping students deal with stress.  

Leading Beyond the School Building
School counselors can also be very influential leaders in their communities (The term “servant leadership” comes to mind.). Many of us volunteer at places such as food banks, churches, cancer Relay for Life teams, and for the American Red Cross. In June 2008, the Red Cross declared that school counselors have the background, expertise and experience to qualify for their training to become disaster mental health counselors. For those of us who were already trained and volunteered during Hurricane Katrina in 2005 along the Gulf Coast, this decision was extremely anticipated and welcomed. Working in an emergency shelter for 15 days was truly a life-changing event for me, and it’s gratifying to know that our contributions as school counselors have been recognized and appreciated. Tragically, disasters happen all the time. Fortunately, most are not of the magnitude of Hurricane Katrina. Yet, there are tornadoes, floods, house fires, blizzards and ice storms in our communities. School counselors who are trained through the American Red Cross help deliver immediate aid all across the United States, and utilize their training and leadership skills to comfort those in need during local disasters. School counselors also display their leadership when the unthinkable happens during the violence of school shootings. They were there to help when the inconceivable tragedy happened at Virginia Tech, and their leadership and compassion were incredibly valued.

As counselors, we can be tremendous assets to the administration, faculty and staff members in our schools (to say nothing of our students and parents!). We work in consort and collaboration with all the numerous stakeholders of our schools. In part, we only need to realize how very much we have to offer to allow that leadership potential to flourish. We already volunteer to teach in-service trainings, facilitate after-school clubs, conduct fundraising events, write grants, mentor new faculty members, coordinate student award celebrations, conduct parent information sessions, help with community events, and serve on numerous committees. It’s up to us not only to relish the position of leadership that has been entrusted to us, but to actively pursue it. Through our example, encouragement, fortitude and resilience, the leadership potential in those we serve will also be fostered, and for that there can be no greater compliment or lasting reward.

Whitehead, a member of the York Education Association, is the director of counseling at Grafton Middle School and the president-elect of the Virginia School Counselor Association.


VEA Solidly Behind School Counselors
The Virginia Education Association, in its mission to support and advocate for public schools, students and staff members, has long been a supporter of having qualified professional counselors in our school buildings. Counseling services are a vital facet of preparing young people to face the challenges and opportunities they face and will grow to encounter.

 “I have worked in numerous schools over the course of my 33 year career, and I cannot imagine a school without the school counselor as an integral part of the faculty,” says VEA President Kitty Boitnott. “Not only have the counselors with whom I’ve worked counseled numerous students through every situation from broken homes to difficulty with class work, but I have gone to them myself for advice on how to deal with certain behavior issues or to share concerns about changed behaviors that I’ve observed in particular students. The school counselor is an invaluable resource to teachers and students alike, and the influence of a good counselor who is dedicated to the faculty and students of a school is incalculable.”

Since 1999, the Virginia Education Coalition, an umbrella group representing education and service organizations in the commonwealth, has helped present a united voice for K-12 public education. Both the VEA and the Virginia School Counselor Association are charter VEC members.



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