Thursday, April 18, 2013

The Three Big Picture Items Counselors Need to Focus On

By:  Patrick O'Connor Ph.D

Spring is a busy time for school counselors.  Between state mandated testing, scheduling for next year, awards presentations, college decisions, and professional conferences, we might as well bring a sleeping bag to the office and request a meal voucher from the budget we don’t have.

If you can’t get to a conference this year, here’s a summary of the three big ideas that seem to be featured in counseling workshops across the country:

No one knows what counselors do, but they think they do. Everything from student satisfaction surveys to media portrayals of counselors suggest there is a huge misunderstanding of what counselors do, what they’re supposed to do, and how well they do it. It would be discouraging enough if this was limited to the students and families we serve, but this lack of awareness impacts our relationships with classroom teachers (who often see us as “the schedule changers who have their own office”) and our principals (who often see us as an extra administrator).

This confusion may not be new news, but the communication gap is taking on new importance.  As budgets get tighter and demand for higher test scores increases, it’s easier for administrators to reduce or eliminate counseling positions if there is no clear understanding or evidence of the difference counselors make in schools or in the lives of students.  This may not be a fair perception, but it exists.

It’s up to us to tell them.  Counselors I speak to eagerly agree that our work is misunderstood—but when I suggest it’s really up to us to fill those void, the agreement turns to frustration.  This is completely understandable; counselors come to work early, stay late, and rarely stop for lunch.  Add on evening programs and summer committee work, and it’s easy to relate to the resistance to the idea that, for as hard as we work, we have to do more.

But we do.  An education analyst I spoke with said it wouldn’t surprise him if school administrators aren’t already talking about distributing counseling services to social workers (for personal issues) and paraprofessionals (for scheduling and college/career issues).  In the absence of any protest or clarification from counselors, it’s easy to see why policymakers might view this as an economical alternative.  It’s also easy for counselors to see why this could lead to a loss of student support- but that’s the part others can’t see. 

We need to tell them in a way that has meaning to them.  Every counselor knows effective communication occurs when the speaker shares ideas in ways that make sense to the listener. Proving the case for school counselors is no different: if administrators understand data, we express our worth in facts and figures; if parents don’t know what we do all day, we share the results of a time-on-task analysis; if a school board wonders if we make a difference, we present all of this, along with videotapes of students willing to share their success stories.

If a client came to us and said they were suffering because someone else misunderstood them, we’d gently inform the client that they have to change.  As we consider the future of school counseling, it’s time for us to follow our own advice—reach out, seek to understand, and speak in a language others relate to.  We know we make a difference in the lives of our students, but the time has come for others to not just know that, but understand that.  In the interest of service to students, counselors need to reach out and offer that understanding, now.

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