Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Cry for Help, or Pity Party?

By: Patrick O'Connor

I once—and only once--- received a compliment about my dancing.  My wife and I were invited to a square dance, and the caller guided the group through sets of dances, each one a little more difficult than the last.  At the end of the third set, the caller motioned to us, so we walked over to him.  “You two are picking this up pretty quick” he said.  “Tell me, what do you do for a living?”

“We’re teachers” we said together.

With that, the caller took a couple of steps back, and turned ashen.  “No”, he said, “you can’t be teachers.  I’ve called dozens of square dances for teachers, and they never get past the first set before they start arguing with each other.  You can’t teach nothin’ to teachers.”

This episode came to mind when a counselor told me they felt isolated in their work.  Isolation is easy to understand; whether we’re classified as teachers or administrators, school counselors are in fact neither.  We really feel this when we’re having a bad day, because no one knows what we do, but they think they know what we do—and that doesn’t engender a lot of sympathy.

I suggested the counselor form a Counseling Advisory Committee. Established by school counseling guru Norm Gysbers, CACs are designed to help counseling offices review and implement their curriculum.  CAC members are picked by the counselor, and usually include teachers, the PTA president, representatives from the business and religious communities—people who care about kids who need to know what counselors do.  By combining their efforts, CAC members keep in close touch and create an atmosphere of support that’s the cure for counselor isolationism.

The response was understandable, but less than I had hoped for.  “Great idea, but I don’t even have time to do my job.  When am I going to have time to put this committee together?”

And that’s when the square dancing story came to mind.

There is no question school counselors are overworked and underappreciated, and there is little hope that any economic relief is in sight to solve that problem.  As we so often tell our students, when outside resources offer no sign of help, it’s time to help ourselves—so,  just as we tell our students, if we want something different, we have to do something different.

As trained school counselors, we know change has a price.  You have to find an extra hour to organize a committee; not everyone will want to serve; you may end up with the wrong mix of people, and you’ll have to start over, all while considering the number of students you could have seen during the hours you put in to a failed committee.

It’s certainly true there are no guarantees of success—but there are two things to keep in mind.  First, you may, in fact, succeed.  One school counselor used her PTA as a Counseling Advisory Committee, and told them the college counseling curriculum would really be enhanced if she could just get some funding to attend a national conference. The PTA sponsored her, she went to the conference, and the college choices for students soared—as did the scholarships they earned.

The second thing to remember is that if nothing changes, nothing changes.  This isn’t easy to hear, but important to remember when you, a well-connected adult with multiple college degrees, tell a sixteen year-old to be the change they want to become.

Good counseling is all about humility, empathy, and leading by example. The time for dysfunctional stasis is over--so grab your partners.  

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