Author: Christopher Baxter
North Carolina State University - Ph.D. Candidate
Remember Marvel versus Capcom? East Coast versus West Coast? Dr. Pepper versus Mr. Pibb? School Counselor versus Guidance Counselor? The latter may not be as familiar, but in the field of counseling, specifically school counseling, it is a major topic. What’s in a name? What is the difference between a school counselor and a guidance counselor? Does it matter what I call a counselor in the school? Why does it matter? These are relevant questions asked by school staff, students, parents and even counselors.
Thinking about School Counselors
My educational experiences are two-fold -first, as a child growing up and attending school, and second, my time as a school counselor. In reflecting on my role as a school counselor and my years spent in the public school system, I often wondered how my student experience may have been different had I known a school counselor was in my building. Honestly, during my elementary and middle school years, there may not have been a school counselor in the building; also, they may have still been called guidance counselors, an unfortunate term that still lingers in many school systems today. The first time I realized there was someone in my building with the word counselor in their title was my senior year of high school. I saw this person twice the entire year. Once for my schedule the first day of school and once at the end of the year for my transcripts. At no point during my senior year, high school career or any year during my K – 12 experience did I know a school counselor was in my building. In terms of assistance, however, I believe “technically” the counselor was helpful because I did need a schedule and transcripts, but the experience was literally handing me those items and sending me on my way. I received no assistance in the college application process (I was a first generation college student), no insights through 1:1 meetings or groups with my counselor, or counselors, about college, what it would be like, what to expect, what types of opportunities I would have there. In retrospect, and in hindsight (because it’s perfect vision), had I known there was someone in my building with specified mental health training, I would have absolutely utilized those services.
My experiences in K-12 have influenced me greatly as a school counselor and now as a doctoral student working towards becoming a counselor educator. Advocating for the APPROPRIATE role of the school counselor has become a large priority in my professional development and as a practitioner, it has become equally important to educate school staff on what being a school counselor looks like relative to their training, knowledge and skills. It has been difficult, but it must be done.
Abilities vs. Realities
Many times, when in consultation or collaboration roles with school administrators, I hear the question “If only we had someone who could provide support to students struggling with grief?” or “Who can we get to work with our students on appropriate and inappropriate responses to anger?” These questions leave me feeling like the Donkey in the movie Shrek yelling, “Pick me! Pick me!”
Throughout my school counseling experience, and from the stories of colleagues, school counselors are often tasked with arbitrary duties that seldom have anything to do with counseling. High school counselors spend days creating schedules for students to pick up and head to class. If they need a class changed, they return to the counselor’s office to complete a change form then head back to class. Some counselors are tied to hours paperwork with little time for small group conferencing or classroom lessons. High school counselors have the training to provide transition groups for freshman to discuss the many changes between middle and high school and the effect it has on human growth and development. These imperative sessions could facilitate relevant discussions to provide an easier transition for students into the new experience of high school. A group like this could assist in preventing possible behavior issues with students feeling the need to act out, or students feeling isolated because they are internalizing fear, worry and/or anxiety. Similar small groups could be held with sophomores, junior and seniors with topics being adapted to pertinent topics for their class.
While we want to do our “fair share” of duty (i.e. bus duty, lunch duty, morning duty, etc.) around the school, the school counselor must have the flexibility to attend to the needs of the student. Counselors are there to create an accepting, non-judgmental and safe environment for students. Crisis/trauma counseling supersedes standing in the hall, watching students go to the class or lining up to the buses for dismissal. Today’s school counselor should be working directly with students in both 1:1 and group settings. They should be encouraged to go into classrooms to deliver general large group lessons around various social/emotional issues.
Stay tuned for my next post as we dig into the challenges facing school counselors and the need for change in our educational system.