Credit Joyce Dopkeen/The New York Times
Over the years, this column has offered up “3 Things Students Wish Teachers Knew,” “3 Things Parents Wish Teachers Knew,” and “5 Things Teachers Wish Parents Knew.” Recently, it was called to my attention that I have never written about what school counselors might like readers to know about their profession.
I’ve spent a great deal of time this year meeting and talking with school counselors, and I can attest that they have a lot of wisdom to share about how to keep students healthy, happy and successful.
School counselors manage the intersection of multiple, disparate priorities: students’ academic performance and their mental health, parents’ dreams for their kids and teachers’ requirements for their students, decisions about the present and plans for the future. As challenging as this task is, daily life in this intersection is also increasingly demanding. According to the recommendation of the American School Counselor Association, the student-to-counselor ratio should go no higher than 250 to 1. According to the latest data, however, all but three states, New Hampshire, Vermont and Wyoming, exceed the recommended ratio. Nationally, the average student-to-school-counselor ratio is 491 to 1, but the ratio hits a high of 941 to 1 in Arizona.
The view from this intersection may be chaotic and crowded, but because counselors are concerned with the mental, emotional and physical health of students, it also affords counselors a glimpse of the whole child, one that teachers, parents and administrators can’t often discern from their more limited viewpoints. I asked three of these professionals to describe their work and share their unique perspective on what students need in order to succeed.
First, Phyllis Fagell, a licensed clinical professional counselor and school counselor in Bethesda, Md., told me: Don’t call them “guidance counselors.” The proper title is “school counselor,” she explained in an email. “School counselors chafe at the outdated term ‘guidance counselor,’ a relic from the past that no longer reflects our role,” she wrote. The profession was vocationally oriented and counselors had inconsistent educational backgrounds and levels of certification until the Association of School Counselors of America published “The ASCA National Model: A Foundation for School Counseling Programs” in 2003 in an effort to standardize the field.
“Today’s school counselors have master’s degrees. We use evidence-based practices and maintain data to ensure accountability; we work with teachers, parents and other community members to support our students,” wrote Ms. Fagell.
School counselors manage many roles, but the one role they do not own is that of disciplinarian. Students need to be able to confide in counselors without worry that they will be punished, Ms. Fagell explained. “The divide between administration and counseling is incredibly important to understand and maintain if students are going to trust us to act in their best interests.”
Those best interests, Brian Turcotte, a social worker and school counselor in Barrington, Ill., wrote in an email, are not always the same as the goals parents have for their children. When I asked Mr. Turcotte for his best school counselor advice to parents, he wrote,
We cannot make our kids live the life we wish we had lived. Parents’ aspirations and dreams for their children may not be the aspirations or dreams children have for themselves. It’s fine to try to encourage or inspire children to consider a future beyond what they see for themselves, but ultimately, every person needs to be in charge of his or her own life.
Kelly Wickham Hurst, counselor at Lincoln Magnet School in Springfield, Ill., said in a phone interview that she believes parents and teachers need to do a little less telling, a lot more listening and forgive children when they mess up.
Ms. Wickham Hurst said she left classroom teaching to become a school counselor because she felt she had an opportunity to multiply her influence for her students. She is black and said she thought she had particular impact among minority students. “Often, when a kid arrives in my office sad or angry about how he is being treated, my job is to give him back his humanity. I tell him that what he is feeling is normal,” and that he may be being treated differently than his white classmates. “I listen, help him manage his emotions and teach him how to move through the world we live in today, even when it’s not fair.”
“We have to forgive children when they get in trouble,” she added. “The most powerful relationships I have with kids develop when I forgive them, and validate their feelings. Kids need the respect and the space to be human.”
Finally, Ms. Fagell emphasized the role school counselors play in teaching “soft skills,” like negotiation, compromise and planning. “School counselors care deeply about educating children to be whole, happy people with the social-emotional skills needed to navigate life. It’s not enough to be good at math or history. Students need to be problem solvers and innovators. They need to be able to work in teams, to manage change, to take risks and to lead.”
Children learn these skills best when teachers, counselors and parents work cooperatively. Ms. Fagell concluded her email to me with this very sentiment. “When parents openly share their child’s stories and struggles, counselors can be effective advocates, helping build teachers’ empathy and desire to engage in problem solving with the student and her family.”
School counselors may be overburdened and misunderstood, but for most, there’s nowhere else they’d rather be.
“These are my people, my tribe,” Ms. Wickham Hurst said. “I get to work in the magic that is middle school.”
Jessica Lahey is an educator, writer and speaker and the author of “The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed.”