School Counselors and the Challenges they Face
AUTHOR: CHRIS BAXTER
As with all career fields and other disciplines within education, school counselors face challenges that impact their work on both a micro and macro level. While there are many challenges, I will focus on a few of the challenges I experienced during my career.
On a micro level one challenge for school counselors is manageable caseloads. According to the American School Counseling Association the recommended ratio of students to school counselors is 250:1. Sadly, few states come close to this ratio as the national average is closer to 400+:1, with some being 800+:1. What this means is that for every counselor there could possibly be 400, 800, or more, students on their caseload and the expectation is that they provide their services to each of those students. This is similar to struggles faced by teachers when their classrooms are pushing 30 or 40 students. Similar to the issue of quality instruction to so many students, a school counselor struggles mightily to provide counseling services to every student on their caseload. As you think about those particular services and the domains a school counselor must work within (e.g., Social/Emotional, Academic, College/Career) it highlights how daunting a task it is.
In addition to extremely large caseloads, school counselors are often tasked with duties inappropriate to their true function in the school. One such example is maintaining student records. School counselors spend countless hours, and sometimes days, sorting through records, sending requests to, guess who?, other school counselors for records and pulling records at the request of teachers and administrators. As mentioned in my previous blog post, there is no class school counselors take in how to manage records and files. The reason for an absence of such coursework is because counseling is not about the physical maintenance of files in a cabinet. While it should be understood by admins and teachers across education that record keeping is not an effective or efficient use of the school counselors time, school counselors do use information housed in student records. Any type of assessment (e.g., academic, psychological) that may be in a student’s file can help the school counselor gain an understanding of student’s progress, past struggles, any external concerns that are impacting their day-to-day school functioning or diagnoses they may have. This information is used by school counselors as they work on their comprehensive school counseling program. This is a more appropriate function of how school counselors use records.
Another barrier, both micro and macro in nature, is the lack of understanding of the role of the school counselor inside the schools. The culture of education has existed within the narrative that students will only encounter two professionals in their school experience, the teacher and the principal. This is simply not true. For school counselors, the professional expectation is to collaborate with the teachers and administrators. It is written in the standards and requirements of for professional school counselors to work alongside these professionals, seeking their insights as you build comprehensive school counseling programs. While the primary goal for school counselors is the well-being of students, they are also there to support teachers and administration. The problem, what that “support” looks like from the perspective of the teachers and admins. Because there is a lack of understanding of what school counselors truly do, the expectation by teachers and admins creates barriers to the work of school counselors. Additionally, teacher and admins are working from decades of misconceptions from the guidance counselor era when the profession was more paper work and “guidance”. The school counseling profession progressed and moved forward, but the education culture stayed behind. There may be several reasons that have influenced this mindset, it could be the shift to a mental health focus is uncomfortable for other professionals so it’s difficult for them to “accept it” or understand it. Other professionals in the building may have a bias towards mental health issues and have not down enough exploration of that bias and worked through those to a point where they can collaborate with mental health professionals. Another “barrier within a barrier” stems from the last statement.
Collaborating with mental health professionals. Understanding that school counselors are mental health professionals and that teachers and principals are not and allowing the mental health professionals to do the mental health work in the school building is another barrier. Before I continue on this topic I want to say that literature shows that a student’s educational experience strongest influences come from their teachers. Teachers impact is strong and lasts a lifetime for many students and the connection between teachers and their students should be celebrated and acknowledged, always! But what I would like to acknowledge, though, is that while teachers encourage, support, give wonderful life advice and mentor students, counseling is so much more than those things. Counseling is a profession. There are specialized skills beyond giving advice and being a good listener that you learn and develop throughout ones career to be effective. In addition, there is licensing and credentialing that one must attain to legally and ethically call themselves counselor. I believe the burden of being a student’s “everything” has been pushed on teachers from many sources. Parents, administrators, society all expect the teacher to solve every problem, to “be and do better”, to take 100% accountability for every decision a student makes. This is a message that needs to change. Our school staff are diverse and 1). Should be allowed to be their authentic selves in whatever ways those present, 2). There are many professionals in the building with unique skill sets that impact student’s education and they all should be acknowledged, celebrated, appreciated and promoted. If we spend our time trying to build productive citizens for our future communities, why are we not modeling community in our work settings?
As we move from micro to macro barriers, the first place I want to explore is society. It doesn’t get more macro than our communities, cities and nation. While mental health is beginning to become more normalized and individuals are having more conversations around mental health issues, there is still work to be done. A large part of that work is understanding where our mental health supports are. For the school culture, one of your mental health supports is school counselors. Our job is literally the mental health support of students but often times society misses this message. Society believes the counselor handles records, they print transcripts, make schedules and help students with college applications (funny how this mirrors what the people in the school building believes about school counseling). As school counselors advocate for the profession internally at the school level, it is equally important to advocate at the community level. When there is an open house for the new school year, set aside time for presentations about who you are and what you do. Schools, when you make flyers for your open houses, don’t limit the professionals students can meet to just teachers and principals. Include your support staff (counselors, social workers, psychologist, etc.). If the school community can advocate and promote all of its professionals to the surrounding communities, perhaps we can change some of the old narratives around education.
A significant different I have seen in the training of counselors is the exploration of bias. Counselors are expected to explore their biases, seek out the appropriate education and training to work on these biases, and incorporate these changes to facilitate multiculturalism and social justice advocacies. I cannot discuss the changes others should make without doing internal discussion within the school counseling field. What is currently happening at a “counseling macro” level is this idea that school counselors are not mental health professionals, they are educators. No. No. School counselors are mental health professionals. Their course work is that of clinical counselors. School counselors learn and use the same theories and techniques that licensed clinicians use in their work. The specialized training of school counselors places them in a position to offer unique perspective to school dilemmas. Unique because it is outside of these traditional education cultured “norms” that have been incorporated generation after generation and have yielded limited change. School counselors need not “water down” their mental health professional identities to make others feel more comfortable about their work and what they do. Educate, advocate and promote.
In closing, we must stop inhibiting those professionals in education who want change. Too many professionals spend their time, money and effort pouring themselves into improving the educational experiences of students only to have their ideas marginalized, questioned and discarded. There are professionals in the school with community minded attitudes towards this work who want to incorporate every possible support from each person in the building to create a true community. A community that not only acknowledges diversity but celebrates diversity. Understands that diversity makes things better. Our unique cultures and lived experiences influence us daily and teach us in ways that should be promoted and encouraged. We must move past the idea that life, our cultures, our diversity and the things of this world cease once we, staff AND students, enter the school building. Our school spaces should afford students and staff the opportunity to be their authentic selves. Celebrated, loved and supported. We are diverse. Celebrate it!