Updated: Feb 2, 2020
I remember in high school thinking that I could be a "guidance counselor," it seemed pretty easy to sit behind a desk and call kids down to talk about college and careers. Heck, I can do that, what person can't? That was the impression that my school counselors left on me. Cut to my first school counselor position, and it is the exact opposite of everything my naive, high school mind thought it would be.
An outsiders perspective of what a school counselor does is quite critical, to the point that it can be comical. Nobody knows quite what we do, not even our bosses (unless they come from a counseling background) School counselors are misused which ultimately is a disservice for the students. The next generation is at a point in time where technology use is ingrained in them, or dare I say running our students lives; which is a contributing factor to the mental health crisis that we have not experienced to this level before. Knowing that there is a strong need for mental health professionals, it seems totally logical to use school counselors for bus duty, lunch duty, detentions, a disciplinarian, as a substitute teacher, last minute coverage for classes, master scheduler, point of contact for charity and staff events through the school, 504 coordinator, classroom teacher, and so on.... right? Yes, the sarcasm is real, that is only because I am passionate about what I do. But in all reality the list of inappropriate duties is truly endless. In a mental health crisis, the best solution is to use the counselors for what they are supposed to do, counsel.
WHAT NOT TO DO: Teach Classes: School counselors along with all other staff, have an important job to do everyday. Counselors cannot adequately provide effective services for students if they are teaching classes. Even if we are teaching a class on social/emotional well-being and coping strategies, it is still not nearly as effective as what should be their normal interventions. Also, if a student is melting down and the school counselor is assigned a class, they cannot leave. A regular classroom teacher can't leave a classroom to cater to a student that is need of emotional support, neither can a counselor when assigned to a class. This can be quite problematic.
What To Do: Small Group Counseling: Research has shown that classroom sizes impact how well a student learns. Small group counseling has proven to be one of the most effective interventions for students that need additional support partially because of the size, there is only supposed to be 6-10 students at a time. Also, small groups allows the counselors to be more flexible with students and their schedule. When counselors pull students for small groups, it is out of a class that is already assigned to students (lunch, related arts/electives), so if a crisis strikes and the counselor is needed, they are able to send the students back to class and make up the group a little later in the day or week in order to tend to the child in serious need.
WHAT NOT TO DO: 504 Coordinator: Being a 504 coordinator could be a full-time position on its own. The job is so time consuming and requires a great deal of attention. The time amount of time it takes for counselors to provide accommodations at a glance to teachers, review 504's, contact parents, set up meetings, have the meetings, collect teacher signatures, upload all documents, maintain a current medical record and contact log, give yearly reviews on a 504 to staff, and consistently screen for children that may need one is time consuming. Especially when you have a large portion of students that have a 504.
What To Do: Hire Someone for Everything 504: As I have already stated, being a 504 coordinator is a full-time job. The time counselors put into a 503 could be used to building relationships with students, support teachers, and provide interventions that will make an impact on students. It is astonishing how much time a school counselor spends on things that are not in their job description, 504 plans being one of them.
What Not To Do: Extra Duties: It is well known among school counselors that if there is a gap that needs to be filled in the school, it will most likely become unofficially a part of our job description. Such as covering breaks, getting a student that is in trouble from a classroom, running charitable events for the school or organizing staff parties, bus duty, lunch duty, and scheduling! Yes, scheduling is NOT in our job description when we are hired. In fact none of these things are in our job description, they are most often in administration, educational assistants, or aides job description. Counselors spend hours, even days of their school year and summers picking up the loose ends from others jobs, and they are still expected to complete ours in an effective, timely manner. School counselors are helpers by nature and often times they do not mind helping, but when it becomes more prevalent to do odd jobs rather than focus on the students, that is concerning.
What To Do: Give Back the Extra Duties: Now I am probably a novel counselor in the fact that I thoroughly enjoy scheduling, it is therapeutic to me to see the pieces come together. But at the end of the day I am not meant to be doing it for our students. It is a duty that counselors have unofficially acquired that I enjoy, but it is not making the best use of my time. If all duties, including scheduling were removed or mostly removed from a counselor, I guarantee you would see a drastic difference in the culture of the school, and the impact on the students. Alleviating counselors from miscellaneous responsibilities, creates more time to tend to the students social/emotional, academic, and career needs, which is what we are intended to do.
What Not To Do: Be Used As A Disciplinary: Removing a student from a class, processing referrals, walking a student to ISS, even writing referrals, etc. should not ever be a part of the counselors job. This is for one simple reason, when a counselor discipline a student, they run the risk of the student losing trust in the them.
What To Do: Be a Support: The ONLY time a counselor should be involved with discipline is to help a student with a melt down after they are being punished or if a suicide assessment needs to be completed. Our role in discipline should be to uplift the students, show our support through our words and gestures, and guide them to make better decisions, not to discipline them. In fact, there are times when a student will not feel comfortable talking to a counselor; thus, preventing the student from opening up because they feel like the counselor contributes to them getting in trouble. If a counselor cannot develop a relationship to support students due to repeated severed trust, then what is the point of having a school counselor?
There are endless amounts of examples, I could write a dissertation about them all. But the main point is school counselors are underutilized for what we are supposed to be doing, and over-utilized in filling in holes where there may be a need. I dream of a day when school counselors can come to school and do their job, not other's job. That is when you will see a change in the mental health crisis.