Sunday, December 11, 2011

Academic Advising vs. Scheduling

In looking back on my own high-school career, I remember the few times I had interactions with my guidance counselor.  She was definitely ahead of her time, wearing pastel-colored velour warm-up suits as "work wear," long before J-Lo and Juicy Couture made this look popular.  I would see her around once or twice a year, when she would tell me what classes I would be taking the following year, and then proceeded to plug them into a computer system which would generate a schedule.  The only other time I saw her was when she handed me back my ACT scores, said they looked good, and asked me if I was thinking of applying to college.  When I answered that I was, she lifted up her powder-blue velvetesque arm and pointed in the direction of a shelf groaning with the weight of large books about various colleges.  She said I could look through those whenever I wanted to get some ideas.

This, my friends, is what I call "scheduling."  And perhaps also "guiding." And by guiding I really mean "pointing."

Scheduling involves no in-depth conversation.  Scheduling is not about looking at the whole student--their academic life, extra-curricular life, family life, and future goals and aspirations.  It is about circling classes on a piece of paper and entering them robotically into a computer.  As modern day "school counselors," we have been highly trained in strong counseling practice.  Scheduling takes none of this specialized knowledge.

"Academic Advising," however, does.  What is the difference?

In academic advising, you are having a dynamic and collaborative interaction with your student. You are examining data from a variety of sources.  You are looking at the student from a variety of vantage points--school, after school, family and home, etc.  You are examining how the classes your student is planning on taking is going to help them meet their future goals.  You are making informed choices with your students and their families versus dictating the outcome.

As counselors, we spend a lot of time with academic advising.  I know that in my school, it takes up the greater part of February and March.  When I first began working as a school counselor, I was concerned because I felt that "scheduling" students for classes was not an activity that was going to best utilize my counseling skills.  I quickly learned that if done in a holistic way, "academic advising" is a process in which you are asking questions in order to gain information in a way to best help your client make important short-term decisions leading to a long-term goal.  Further, these sessions have proven to be an excellent "touch base" time with my students to discover other issues that may need to be addressed.  A student with a sudden downturn in their grades can often turn out to be the student whose family is on the brink of divorce, who has recently suffered a loss, or who is beginning to show signs of depression.  How do you make academic advising valuable for your students and for you?
  • Make sure that students are informed before they come into your office.  How are students getting information about the classes that are open to them for the following year?  Do you have curriculum fairs and/or curriculum nights?  Do you put information up virtually about course-offering for both parents and students?  Do you meet with your students in large groups to discuss typical course choices and options?  What information is made available to your students about how challenging the more rigorous AP and IB courses will be--the level of textbook, the amount of homework per night?  We have a curriculum fair at my current school, and as that program has expanded over the last several years, I find that many of my students come in making better informed choices about advanced curriculum and electives.  Further, in our large-group orientation meetings, we ask them to consider their course selections within the context of their whole lives, and again I find that I have more students who walk in having given this some thought.
  • Gather the data and check for graduation requirements.  What do I have on hand when I am meeting with students?  I have their transcripts including the most recent grades I can get in their current classes as well as their GPA's.  I have teacher recommendations.  My school system has open-enrollment, so the students do not need a teacher recommendation to get into a class as long as they have any required pre-requisite classes.  However, the thoughts of a current teacher about the student's success in the next level of class are a highly valuable piece of information during these discussions.  For example, if a child is getting a "D+" in Algebra 1, is this because the student doesn't understand the material or is it because they don't do any of the homework?  Different answers would lead me to recommend different choices for the future.  I also have all of the course information available to me to double-check any questions that may arise.  I have access to test-score data--how a student performed on a state end-of-course exam can give you important insight.  Additionally, I am always looking to see if they are on track for graduation, paying special attention when they are going into their senior year.  I would highly recommend developing a form, either one that your school uses or one for yourself, which you can review on your own and with your students to make sure those requirements are being fulfilled.  If they are missing courses, that will inform some of what they will need to take the next year.
  • Ask a lot of questions.  Why do they want to take particular courses?  What else is going on in their lives?  If a student is working 30 hours a week, they may not have the time to do the work necessary to keep up with six AP classes.  Likewise, if they are doing football in the fall, they may find their first AP history class to be a bit overwhelming as they try to balance an intense practice schedule with the reading and note-taking.  Is there a lot of change going on at home?  Having this information will give you a view of the student as a whole and thus allow you to better advise on how various class choices will fit into the complete picture.
  • Confront and challenge choices.  If they have gone to the curriculum fair and had discussions with their families, many of them will come in with very realistic course selections.  Some of them, though, will not.  A student who is struggling to make C's and D's in regular classes wants to take two AP classes next year.  A student who has never gotten more than a C in science classes and who is always in your office complaining about them suddenly wants to take three in their senior year.  The student who makes straight A's in AP and Honors classes now wants to take all regular classes their senior year.  One of the things we are trained to do as counselors is to point out the contradictions in our client's statements and actions--this is no different.  I do point these out to students and express my concern--you've never made more than a C in a regular level class and you want to take AP next year?  How is next year going to be different?  What are you going to change?  You've been an A student in challenging classes for three years and now you want to take all regular classes--how is that going to look to colleges?  I will often call the parents of the child during these sessions and include them in the conversation if I feel that this is really not in the student's best interests.  Now is a time to share more information--the level of rigor of the classes, what will happen if the class isn't working out, your school's schedule change policy, what college admissions counselors are looking for.  With open enrollment, ultimately the choice is left up to the student and the family, but by confronting and challenging some of the choices the student makes, you are helping to begin a dialogue about the situation and better inform everyone about the pros and cons of these decisions.
  • Tie their courses and academic performance into future goals.  From the time that they are in 7th grade through 12th grade, it is important to work with them on how the choices they make now will effect the choices they have when they graduate from high school.  Further, their course selection can often help them towards future goals.  If a student is convinced that they have to go to a highly-selective college like the University of Virginia, then they need to be taking multiple AP or IB classes and performing at the top of their game in these classes.  If a student has a strong interest in culinary arts or information technology or cosmetology, are their classes that they can take to further those interests and give them real-world skills and possibly certifications to take with them when they graduate?  If they want to be an engineer, are they taking the upper level math and physics courses that will help them when they set foot onto a college campus?  One of our roles is to help them begin to connect what they do now with what they will do in the future.
  • Connect them with resources and more information.  For students who are first-generation college students, are their programs within your school system that they should be made aware of to support them?  If they are struggling with loss and grief, is there a group at your school that they could be referred to?  If your school has a program to encourage minority students to sign up for advanced coursework, are you making those students aware of it?   If they are 11th graders, do they know how to register for the ACT and SAT?  What if they ask about prep programs?  A student wants to know more about gap years--where do they go?  You have 9th graders who need more support with study skills--what is available?  By no means can you have all the answers to all of their questions or be able to give direct services to the many needs that your students will have, but there are probably many other resources in your school and greater community to assist.  Having many of those at hand--flyers, a list, resource book, etc.--will help to connect students in need with further assistance.  
One of our primary missions as school counselors is to remove barriers to academic success.  As such, it is important to self-assess to determine if you may have preconceived notions as a school counselor about various cultural, ethnic, or socio-economic groups that could be a barrier to students' academic success.  If so, seek out supervision from your director or a counseling supervisor, or perhaps even your own therapy to address these concerns.

These academic advising sessions help us to determine if there are barriers so that we can help students and families eliminate or work around them.  With some advanced planning, access to data, and a list of resources, we can do a lot more than simply "schedule" students.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Parent Portals: Friend or Foe?

In last Sunday's Washington Post, an article ran about resistance to the "parent portal" from a school in Arlington County, Virginia.  The "parent portal" has many different names in school districts across the country, but basically it is a system wherein parents, students, and counselors can go online and see a relatively up-to-the-minute grade report for a student in each of their classes.  As the article points out, there are several different views that stakeholders take of this technology.  Students sometimes feel that it it involves their parents too much in their day-to-day academic lives--if they forget to turn in one assignment or do poorly on one test their parents may focus more on an isolated incident than on a larger picture of success over the long-term in a class.  Further, they feel that there is an:
"...inherent contradiction in a school that preaches personal accountability but gives parents uninhibited access to their grades and test scores." (source: www.washingtonpost.com)
Teachers can have mixed reactions--some feel that it prevents surprises and keeps parents more informed about how their child is performing, thus helping to start and support communication if a student is struggling.  Others are concerned about possibly unrealistic expectations on teachers for quick turnarounds in grading assignments:
"We have parents who want to know exactly how their children did on a test immediately after they take it,” said Wanda Perkins, president of the Arlington Education Association, which represents teachers. “At a certain point, it becomes too much pressure on the teacher and the student." (source: www.washingtonpost.com)

Parents, on the whole, seem to be fairly supportive.  In the Post article, an Arlington County spokesman states:
"This is a way for parents to see how their child is progressing beyond parent-teacher conferences and report cards.  Students need independence, but they also need support.” (source:  www.washingtonpost.com)
Further, as this article from Education World discusses, there is a view that if parents are kept more up-to-date on their child's academic performance and attendance in school, they are more able to support instruction from home.

I worked in a school system as a teacher that had a "parent portal."  There were definitely pros and cons.  As a teacher, I updated grades at least once a week, but oftentimes on a daily basis.  There was a time, though, where, because of my schedule (I was split between two schools preparing winter concerts) I did not enter grades for a week and a half.  A parent called my administrator and I received an e-mail admonishing me for not updating my grades in a timely manner.  I was able to explain the situation at hand, but with this technology comes a commitment to keep up with grading and postings.  The school system I was in ultimately set a policy of putting in a certain number of grades per week, which was helpful as it laid out for the entire community what the expectations were--teachers, parents, students alike.  On the whole, though, as a teacher I felt this technology was highly beneficial--students and parents always knew where they stood in my class, and personally I always welcomed when a parent called or e-mailed with questions or concerns about a certain assignment or grade.  It allowed us to come up with a solution and a strategy as a team to help their child get back on track.

I also did my school-counseling internship in the same system, and as a counselor I found the "parent portal" to be invaluable.  I ran a 9th grade Study Skills group for boys, and as a counselor was able to access the portal for all of the students in my group.  One of the reasons that I felt the group was successful was that I was able to print out a grade report for each of my students in all of their classes each week.  If we think about where middle and high school students are developmentally, they are primarily still in the "here-and-now" with regards to the orientation of time.  They neither look back a great deal to reflect on what they have done, nor do they think ahead too much for future consequences.  As such, many of them are genuinely unaware of just how many assignments they may have missed or just how much a low test grade has effected their overall performance in a class.  I found that being able to go over these reports with the students allowed them to take some personal responsibility and helped facilitate weekly discussions as to how they could improve.  We used this information as one of several tools to help them examine their study habits more closely and effect change over several months.  In the end, the group was highly successful and the students were able to improve a great deal and reduce their number of failing grades over the course of an academic quarter.

I think this is ultimately the answer that bridges the gap between concerns that these portals inhibit students from developing successful independent academic habits and the fact that they are a useful tool that help parents, teachers, counselors, and students develop a network of support around individual students.  As counselors, we can work with students and their families to learn how to use the information from the "parent portals" as a tool for academic success, building independence and strong academic habits, which in turn will help to support the educators in our buildings.

I'd welcome other thoughts on this topic--feel free to post a comment below.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

An Open Letter to NBC and "The Sing Off"

I love the television program, "The Sing Off."  Love may not be an adequate enough word, actually.  Perhaps "I am obsessed with 'The Sing Off'" or "I weep silent tears of darkness into my pillow if the DVR fails to record 'The Sing Off'"are better statements.  As a former choral/vocal music educator and a current professional ensemble singer, I am thrilled to tune in each week to a program that celebrates strong a cappella ensemble singing.  Nowhere else in mass-market media will you find this, and I am thrilled that NBC is willing to shine a light on this genre of music.

However, I am also a school counselor who works with high-school students on a day-to-day basis.  The issue of bullying within our schools is currently receiving a great deal of public attention.  Thus, I was very glad to see that the vocal group, Pentatonix, decided to work with The Trevor Project.  For those of us familiar with the organization and the issues of bullying and harassment, we know:
"The Trevor Project is the leading national organization providing crisis intervention and suicide prevention services to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning youth." (source: www.trevorproject.org)
This statement is at the very top of the homepage of "The Trevor Project," and quite clearly states that its services are geared towards LGBTQ youth.  Yet, when the segment was aired showing "Pentatonix" visiting and working with "The Trevor Project," there was no mention at all of the fact that the organization works with this very specific population.  The reason that an organization like "The Trevor Project" exists is because the adolescent LGBTQ community is at a higher risk of bullying and harassment.  In the 2009 National School Climate Survey conducted by GLSEN (Gay, Lesbian, & Straight Education Network):
  • 9.1% of LGBT students missed a class at least once and 30.0% missed at least one day of school in the past month because of safety concerns, compared to only 8.0% and 6.7%, respectively, of a national sample of secondary school students.
  • Nearly two-thirds (61.1%) of students reported that they felt unsafe in school because of their sexual orientation, and more than a third (39.9%) felt unsafe because of their gender expression. 
  • 84.6% of LGBT students reported being verbally harassed, 40.1% reported being physically harassed and 18.8% reported being physically assaulted at school in the past year because of their sexual orientation. (source:  2009 National School Climate Survey at www.glsen.org)
Further, there have been multiple suicides/violent incidences in the last several years involving bullied and harassed gay youth--Tyler Clementi, Jamey Rodemeyer, and Larry King are but three names amongst many that have lost their lives due in part as a consequence to repeated taunting because of their sexual orientation and/or gender identity. 

Thus, on the one hand, any exposure that an organization like "The Trevor Project" gets on a national platform is positive--it raises awareness that there are people out there working to help prevent future bullying and harassment within our schools and serving as a resource for adolescents who may be struggling with depression and thoughts of suicide as a result of the actions of others.  However, my concern is that by removing any connection between "The Trevor Project" and LGBTQ youth, there is again a message being sent that being gay or transgender is not something we talk about in an open forum, that it is something better left to be discussed behind closed doors.  Further, many LGBTQ youth who are bullied or harassed may feel that traditional resources for all bullied or harassed students may not apply to them--they need to know that an organization or a resource is specifically gay-friendly.  For example, an anti-bullying bill recently debated in Michigan was going to include a clause that would have exempted adult-and-student bullies alike from any repercussions if the bullying and harassment was based on a religious or moral belief of some kind.  That clause was ultimately removed, but I believe that it is understandable that many LGBTQ youth may be skeptical of just any anti-bullying organization unless it has some clear text or mission about working with their specific population.

While I do not know for sure what the discussion or reasoning was behind leaving out any mention of "The Trevor Project's" LGBTQ ties, I do know that on NBC's rival network, ABC, there was a prime-time show the same week that also featured "The Trevor Project" and "GLSEN."  Friday's episode of Extreme Home Makeover told the story of Carl Walker, a young boy who hung himself because of the harassment he was facing at school.  Some of the boys made fun of him and apparently told him to "stop acting like a girl" and called him "gay."  (source:  abc.go.com/shows/extreme-makeover-home-edition)  The show did not shy away from explaining this.  Further, when the large group of people came marching down the street in support of the Walker family and to help build their new home, "The Trevor Project's" banner, including its LGBTQ affiliation, were clearly able to be seen.  While this episode of "Extreme Home Makeover" also tried to focus on the issue of bullying at large, it also took moments to shine the lens on the LGBTQ aspects of this specific case.

I was a bit surprised, given that NBC was the network that in 1998 aired the show Will and Grace, only a few months after Ellen, one of the first major shows to feature a gay lead character, was cancelled due to poor ratings.  I was proud of NBC at that time for taking a risk that, whether intentional or not, was supportive of the LGBTQ community.  I feel that NBC and "The Sing Off" missed a similar opportunity in the instance of "Pentatonix" and "The Trevor Project."  With the specific issues of anti-gay bullying, suicide, and violence amongst our teenagers, including the fact that "The Trevor Project" works specifically with LGBTQ youth should have been a risk worth taking.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Online Education

I would imagine that most school counselors have seen online education options increase for their students over the last ten years.  Certainly I have seen this in my own school district--an ever growing number of courses offered, some taught by teachers within the system, some contracted to outside sources.  As I have watched this educational medium expand, I have continuously asked myself questions:  What type of student is right for online classes?  What oversight is there of these online classes?  Who pays for these courses?  Is this, in 50 years, going to be how more and more students learn versus being in a traditional classroom?

These are all questions that I feel have been coming to a head in the last year, at least in my world.  This was confirmed today by a very in-depth front-page article in the Washington Post entitled Virtual schools are multiplying, but some question their educational value, written by Lyndsey Layton and Emma Brown.  In the article, they state that:
"...virtual education has evolved into an alternative to traditional public schools for an increasingly wide range of students--high-achievers, strugglers, dropouts, teenage parents and victims of bullying among them." (source: Layton and Brown, www.washingtonpost.com)
As the authors discuss, there is quite a range of students between high-achievers and dropouts.  Does an educational medium that is traditionally self-paced and that requires a great deal of independent motivation and work the best choice for all of these different populations?  While many students may access an online class or two here or there, the article seems to be mainly discussing students who enroll full-time at these public online schools, meaning they are never in a traditional classroom.  Additionally, in the article the results for online education are decidedly mixed:
"We have no real evidence one way or another, said Tom Loveless, a brookings Institution scholar who served as a paid consultant to K12 in its early years." (source: Layton and Brown, www.washingtonpost.com)
 "On measures widely used to judge all public schools, such as state test scores and graduation rates, virtual schools--often run as charter schools--tend to perform worse than their brick-and-mortar counterparts" (source: Layton and Brown, www.washingtonpost.com)
The article goes on to give examples of the graduation rates of virtual schools in Colorado and Ohio, both run by K12, the nations leading provider of online education.  These rates are 12 percent in Colorado as compared with 72 percent for the state overall, and 30 percent in Ohio as compared to 78 percent for the state overall. (source:  Layton and Brown, www.washingtonpost.com)  If those of us in traditional public schools had the same graduation rates as these online schools, we would face serious consequences under No Child Left Behind

Further explained in the article is the funding of these programs.  K12 has been able to set up virtual schools in states in large part due to heavy political lobbying as well as contributing a great deal of money to various political campaigns in these states.  In Virginia, the Virtual Virginia Academy is run by K12 (note the web address for Virtual Virginia) and is based in Carroll County.  Students in Caroll County receive $5,421 per pupil in state funding.  Here in Fairfax, students receive $2,716 per pupil in state funding.  However, when a student in Fairfax County enrolls in Virtual Virginia, K12 receives the compensation for that student based on Carroll County's numbers, thus making more money.  It should be noted that K12 is a private company, made $522 million dollars last year with a net income of $12.8 million, with its CEO making $2.6 million dollars (source:  Layton and Brown, www.washingtonpost.com)

This topic is important for school counselors for several reasons:
  • Know which students would truly benefit from online instruction.  Not every student will be successful in an online class or online school.  Remember that this instruction tends to be independently done and independently paced.  Thus, high-achieving students who perhaps want additional classes or higher level classes that are not available in some way through your school or school district might be strong candidates.  Other strong candidates might be seniors who need just a few classes to graduate, who are fairly self-motivated, and who have a clear plan for what they will do with the extra time, whether it would be to start college classes or to work at a job.  However, students who struggle or drop-out may not be as successful--in fact, these are the types of students who generally need more contact time with teachers, school counselors, mentors, supportive peers, etc. in order to achieve.  My students that are successful with online classes are typically those who are electing to take one or two classes online as part of their overall traditional curriculum.
  • Think and talk through all of the pros and cons, educational options, and short and long term goals with students and families before deciding to enroll in an online school full-time.  In the Washington Post article, there is discussion of students who are bullied benefiting from full-time online school enrollment.  Every individual situation is different, and there may indeed be some students who ultimately benefit from an independent program of study.  However, is there not a way for the school counselor to mobilize the school community to better support that student within the school?  Again, every situation is different, and online education may be an option, but there is also a lot of value in safely working through that situation with the students involved and helping the community to build strong empathy and coping skills.  Further, sometimes school anxiety is a reason that is brought up for enrolling students in online campuses on a full-time basis.  Again, every individual situation is different and this may indeed by a strong option for some students, but therapeutically the ultimate goal would be to work with the student, therapist, and school staff to help that student transition back into a school environment, perhaps starting on a part-time basis but hopefully working back up to a full-day.  If the online instruction does not work, what options does that student and their family have to return to a traditional school?  Given state standards and curriculum, there may be a risk of that student losing credits for the full year of the online school option does not prove effective.
  • 21st century skills include problem solving, collaboration, communication, and social and cross-cultural abilities.  In the November/December issue of School Counselor Magazine, there is an article, A Critical Combination, written by the Partnership for 21st Century Skills that discusses the need for these highly-social skills in order for students to be college and career ready for the up-and-coming job market.  While online learning certainly has interactive components, it is highly unlikley that a full-time online education can replace the day-to-day social education of a school.  How do you work with someone you may not particularly like?  How do you interact with people from multiple cultures and find common ground?  Where do you learn the importance of showing up to work on time, confronting difficult situations in productive ways, and being flexible when everything does not go according to plan?  Thus, online education for part of a student's academic career may be useful, but there may be some significant educational gaps for students that are in full-time online programs.
  • Know where the online education is coming from, the effectiveness of the program, local school regulations, and the funding source.  The first place to consult is your school system--what are their policies with regards to students being in online programs?  If statistics are available, it is important to make sure that you are aware of them in order to make sure that students and families have all the information so that they can make an informed choice about their education future and options.  Is the program being run by your own school system?  Is it outsourced to a private educational company?  Does the family have to pay for the program?  The school system?  Can that student still graduate from your school even if they are doing some or all of their education online?
Online courses and schools, for better or for worse, are going to continue to be a part of the conversation about the future of education, and it needs to be, as for some students and situations it really is an option that can help students be successful and reach their goals.  We, as school counselors, need to make sure that we continue to stay abreast of these discussions, both in order to better assist our students and their families in planning a course to be career and college ready for the new 21st century models as well as to be part of the conversations as policies are developed around this medium.

The following work cited is available to members of ASCA at www.schoolcounselor.org:
The Partnership for 21st Century Skills.  (2011).  A Critical Combination: School counselors play a vital role in integrating 21st-century skills and training into the school environment.  School Counselor (November/December 2011).

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Bullying: Prevention versus Reaction

No charges will be filed in the case of Jamey Rodemeyer, the young teen who committed suicide in September after being bullied in New York state.  In the article linked above, there is discussion about the frustration that there will be no harsher punishments for those who may have contributed to the harassment that ultimately caused Jamey to take his life.  That does not, however, mean that there are no consequences for community at large.

I wrote a lengthy blog entry about this and other cases of LGBT students being bullied and harassed and the impact that school counselors can have in their communities about this issue.  Certainly, in the aftermath of a crisis such as this, we have a role to play in helping a school to heal, but I would also challenge that we have a role to play in helping the school community to learn from this experience.  There may be no punitive criminal consequences for the alleged bullies, but the hope would be that there are consequences for the greater community at large, such as:
  • A strong bullying and harassment prevention and education program for students, including a focus on cyberbullying.  This article from September discusses the impact that the website, Formsprings, which allows people to comment anonymously, was having on Jamey.  In the latest issue of School Counselor Magazine (published by ASCA), there is an article by Renee Hobbs entitled Digital and Media Literacy that discusses the importance of having conversations with adolescents about ethics and technology. 
  • Starting with the adults in the building, the creation of a school-culture where it is understood that bullying and harassment will not be tolerated.
  • Clear ways to report bullying, including anonymously, with clear consequences for such behavior.
  • Counseling support for both those who are bullied and the bullies themselves.
  • Education for faculty and staff on LGBT issues and the vulnerabilities specific to that population. 
If you yourself, as a counselor, are unaware of the issues that LGBT adolescents can face , seek out professional development opportunities, either through your school system, a professional conference, or through an area university or college.  There is a great opportunity for school counselors to take leadership in bullying and harassment and help to develop strong prevention programs so that there can be less need to react to these devastating situations in the future.

The following article cited is available to ASCA members at www.schoolcounselor.org:
Hobbs, R. (2011) Digital and Media Literacy.  School Counselor (Nov/Dec 2011)

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Sexual Harassment

In last Sunday's Washington Post an article ran that discussed just how widespread sexual harassment has become in middle and high schools in the United States.  In 2010-2011:
  • 48% of 7th through 12th graders experienced sexual harassment either in person or through electronic media
  • 56% of girls and 40% of boys had gone through at least one experience of being sexually harassed
  • Half of these students did nothing about the harassment, and only 9% reported the incidents to school officials (source: David Crary at www.washingtonpost.com)
Sexual harassment has grown from the days when it was simply inappropriate and suggestive comments and notes in the hallways.  Now, through modern electronic media, we find that it is pictures sent from cell-phone to cell-phone to a social-media website where all the world may view it.  It can be relentless explicit e-mails or comments posted to Formspring, an anonymous social-networking website.  Thus, in the past these pictures and comments, while certainly inappropriate and upsetting, would have probably been contained to a small number of individuals.  Now, we find that in a matter of minutes these hurtful and offensive missives can be seen by anyone in cyberspace.  The impact on a student can be quite heavy.  In the article, students who are sexually harassed report that the harassment
"...made them feel sick to the stomach, affected their study habits, or fueled reluctance to go to school at all." (source:  David Crary at www.washingtonpost.com)
 Thus, sexual harassment can have a strong impact on the academic success of our students.

It is important to note that unlike bullying (which has some protections on a state-by-state basis), sexual harassment is against federal law and is part of Title IX.  In fact, many schools and school systems have mandated counseling lessons on sexual harassment that are often combined with bullying prevention.  The Department of Education defines sexual harassment and discusses proper procedures and interventions if a case comes up on their Office of Civil Rights website. Sexual harassment is defined there as
"...conduct that is sexual in nature, is unwelcome, and denies or limits a student’s ability to participate in or benefit from a school’s education program." (Source:  www2.ed.gov)
Please note that gay and lesbian students are also protected under Title IX if they are being sexually harassed, but it does not cover discrimination based on sexual orientation.  As school counselors, there are several things that we can do in the areas of prevention and intervention to assist our students with this issue:
  • Prevention:  We can help to educate all students about what sexual harassment is, as well as educate them on what to do if they feel they are being sexually harassed by adults or peers in the building, in addition to the consequences of participating in harassing behaviors.  There are many different lessons that are available online, such as here and here, so that you do not have to re-invent the wheel.  Chances are also high that your school district or school have plans available as a resource.  The Equal Rights Advocates website has a great set of strategies for those who feel they are being harassed (saying no, reporting the behavior, documenting the behavior, not blaming themselves) as well as other pertinent information that you may find helpful as you are planning a prevention program.
  • Intervention:  Interventions can vary widely, depending on the situation.  We may at times simply be a link between the student and school or school-system administration.  We may be providing counseling support, both for the victim of the harassment as well as the student doing the harassing.  For those who are being victimized, you or another staff member may consider running an assertiveness or self-esteem group.  Likewise, for students who are sexually harassing other students, a small psycho-educational group that focuses on defining harassment, the consequences of the harassment, as well as the impact their behavior has on others may be necessary depending on the scope and scale of the problem within your building.  As always, one of our primary purposes is to serve as a student advocate and support them through these difficult situations.
There are several ethical considerations that may come into play with the issue of sexual harassment in the schools.  School counselors should not be the staff members who are themselves investigating claims of sexual harassment, and we walk a fine line between being supportive of our students without being judgmental of the others involved.  Consider the following:
  • What are your own biases and experiences with regards to sexual harassment?  If you have yourself been a victim of sexual harassment in the past, how does this effect your work with students on your case-load who may be accused of harassing others?  It is important to notice your personal reactions if a student comes to you who feels he/she is being harassed, as well as your reaction if you are asked to work with a student who may be harassing others.
  • If the person being accused of sexual harassment is another staff member, how will you walk the line of being a student advocate as well as a collegial staff member?  Your primary responsibility is to your student, but you will have to consider how to maintain a working relationship with this other staff member as they may teach other students on your case-load.  Confidentiality about the situation is an absolute must within your building and amongst your colleagues.  It is important to note again that it is not your role to investigate a claim of harassment or to pass judgement--there are other entities within your building or system who will manage that.
  • What will you do if both the accuser and the alleged harasser are on your case-load?  Is it a conflict of interest, especially if the claim is fairly serious?  Always check your own personal feelings about the situation as well as discuss with a colleague or counseling superior whether it is in the best interests of both students for you to work with them.
I would also refer to the ethical decision making model found at the end of the ASCA Ethical Standards for School Counselors.  It is important that you consult, consult, consult if you feel at all that your work with any of the parties involved may be compromised.

For further information on legal and ethical considerations, as well as prevention programs and interventions, check out Sexual Harassment and Student Services Personnel, available in the ASCA bookstore.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

VCA Conference 2011: Reflections

You've fielded your 10th phone call from an angry parent for the day.  Yet another student wants to talk to you about a class change because they don't like the teacher.  You've received 5 e-mails in the last 3 hours from a teacher wanting you to address problems he/she is having with a student.  You have three classroom lessons you are supposed to lead about 9th grade transition at the same time you are supposed to be immediately responding to all of these other situations because the people involved all simultaneously believe that their concern is the most important.

Calgon!  Take me away...

Sometimes it can be a challenge to think about the big picture when you get caught up in the day-to-day workings of your job as a school counselor.  Who has time to think about marketing their school counseling program or pulling together resources for a much needed grief-group?  Half the time you are just trying to make it through the day by addressing the needs of your various stakeholders and making sure you have things ready to tackle the next day's challenges.  This is why professional development and conferences are so important--they give you a much needed break to recharge your batteries, provide inspiration, and connect you with resources to help better serve your population. 

This was definitely the case with the Virginia Counselor's Association conference this past week in Portsmouth, Virginia.  In two days I was able to gain some new insights into several topical areas, make some wonderful new professional connections, and have time to ponder ways to implement some of these concepts in my own program.

Marketing Your School Counseling Program

I attended a session on how to get the word out to your stakeholders about what you do as a school counselor, led by Donna Dockery from Virginia Commonwealth University.  If you want to get everyone on board, you have to educate your community on several things.  First, your role as a school counselor--what is it?  What is it not?  This seemed to me to be key, and was one of the biggest takeaways I had from the whole conference.  Dr. Dockery talked about how counselors, administrators, and teachers do not necessarily fully understand each other's roles, and how this can have an especially negative effect on counselors.  Thus, she did a study at VCU in which teachers-in-training were given a short video and some information about the role of the school counselor as defined by ASCA.   When compared to teachers-in-training who did not receive the same information there was a significant difference in their perceptions of what school counselors do.  If our administrators and teachers do not have a clear idea of the appropriate duties of school counselors, is it any wonder that we are asked to discipline students or supervise in-school-suspensions?  Perhaps there need to be meetings or in-services before the school year begins or right at the end in which all three school entities--teachers, administrators, and counselors--sit down and discuss their various roles, both the similarities and the differences.  The adults in our buildings have grown up with the idea of the old "guidance counselor," so even while our students often see that we are actively engaged in working with all students in the areas of academic, personal/social, and career/college, our teacher and administrative peers may not have that same understanding.  Try getting time at faculty meetings, department meetings, subschool meetings, etc. to give some brief information about our role and how it benefits all people in our communities, not only our students but our parents, teachers, and administrators.

Additionally, I was unable to attend any of his sessions but I did meet Neil McNerney, LPC, an adjunct professor in the graduate counseling program at Virginia Tech, Northern Virginia Campus, as well as a counselor with a great deal of experience working with adolescents and their families.  He was kind enough to give me some great handouts, including tips on how to boost attendance at your parent presentations.  However, I think that his ideas are not only applicable to parent presentations but also to helping to establish your counseling program with your school's parents, in general.  I'm not going to publish all of his information here (I would recommend attending a session of his or e-mailing him if you want more information), but basically it's not just enough to do the robo-calls and the blast-out e-mails.  We need to be engaging influential parents to help guarantee that people are attending the programs we spend a lot of time and staff putting together--have them go out into the community and work their parent-connected magic.  Further, we need to let parents know what the benefit will be to them for attending our programs--what ideas, tips, or information are they going to be able to take away and use immediately from that presentation?  In a busy world many parents need to know that it will really be worth their time to attend that session on homework help, substance abuse issues, or college-application preparedness.  Neil does presentations to schools and parent groups in the Northern Virginia area--I would recommend checking him out.

LGBT Considerations

Edward Andrews, LPC, NCC, CT is an up-and-coming expert on LGBT issues in counseling.  He practices both with Kaiser-Permanente as well as in his own private-practice in DC and Alexandria, Virginia.  What I found fascinating about his workshop was that it was looking at recently released health-data that now includes LGBT statistics.  I won't go into all of the details, but the one I found the most interesting is that most health professionals (doctors, nurses, counselors, psychiatrists, psychologist, etc.) do not ask about clients sexual orientation, history, etc. when working with their patients.   You're probably thinking, "We're school counselors--how does this really effect us?"  It makes me wonder how comfortable school counselors are in working with their LGBT students?  If students are struggling with their sexuality, how comfortable are most school counselors, in general, discussing this?  Is there enough training being given to the issues specific to LGBT youth (higher incidences of bullying, higher incidences of suicide, more difficulty socializing and making friends) so that school counselors are not only able to address the concerns when they happen but be proactive in helping their schools be welcoming and comfortable environments for this population?  Worth some consideration.

Grief

Ed also did a workshop on grief counseling, focusing on making meaning with a loss.  There were two things that I think would be helpful considerations for any school counselor looking to do a grief group.  First, he gave an example of a group run using narrative therapy, all online, that in a study proved to be highly effective.  Perhaps using Blackboard or some other similar program, would it be useful to have an online-component in a school group?  Students would answer prompts and post these narratives, perhaps inviting feedback from other group participants.  Secondly, there are a great many kinesthetic techniques that can be used to help facilitate working with the process of grief--personal journals, letters to the lost, biographies, musical memoirs, memory books, poetry.  I think that often we go to our comfort zone as counselors--talking.  For many kids (and adults, for that matter), talking may not always be the most comfortable mode for them to be able to express deep emotions.  Just as teachers try to teach to different modalities when presenting classroom information, we should try to hit on several ways for students to be able to work through grief--consider having them create items such as memory boxes or collages, or have them write stories in an online format.

Overall, it was a wonderful conference--I cannot recommend enough getting involved with national and local professional organizations and making a point of attending conferences, even if it is only once a year and local.  We all need the time to meet with colleagues from other schools and collaborate on ways to better serve all of our students.


Monday, November 7, 2011

College Anxiety: Cost, Part III

In this November 8th Wall Street Journal article, this discussion centers around whether it is worth it to attend an Ivy League school and amass debt or instead attend a less prestigious public university and graduate loan-free?  I discussed this in a previous blog entry, but according to this article more and more students are choosing to go to state schools even if they are accepted to Ivy League or schools with comparable reputations.

The considerations, according to the author are:
  • Ivy League schools tend to have more aggressive recruiting from employers, even during recessions--they may not make it to a public university.
  • The connections one makes at more prestigious schools can help to advance one's career after college or help a student get into a more prestigious graduate school.
  • Students can be denied enrollment into over-crowded courses at some state schools, causing their graduation sequence to be delayed or for important courses to be missed entirely.
All of these might be food for thought for any student trying to decide between Harvard and the University of Virginia, but there are ways that students who have chosen the path of smaller debt totals can counteract these concerns:
  • Apply for and seek out strong summer or capstone internships that can help to add prestige to a resume and also foster influential connections
  • Take on leadership or research roles in your institution, again adding strength to your future applications as well as assisting in connecting you to important people in your field
  • If your school has an honors program or honors college, apply--you will often be connected with other focused and academically strong students and also may be able to get first crack at registering for courses each semester
Money is not the only factor, but it does play a role in where students and their families ultimately decide to go to college, regardless of where they may have been accepted, especially in a tough economy.

Trends: STEM Careers

Over the last six months I have found it almost impossible to not step out of my apartment every day and trip over a news story about STEMs.  No, not the things that flowers are attached to.  Rather, the acronym "STEM"s refers to careers and college majors in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.  Education, policy, and economics are all buzzing about this topic.

Part of this stems (no pun intended) from the rising tuition costs and thus, the rising student loan debt of the current generation of college students.  You can check out my previous blog entries here and here for more information.  Parents and students want to know exactly what they will be getting for those $40,000 in loans they have to pay back for the undergraduate degree.  Will they get a job?  Will that career be relatively secure in the future?  Will they make a comfortable living over their lifetime in that field?

Some of the debate has centered on whether it is worth it, in today's economy, to get a liberal arts education encompassing the humantities:  philosophy, history, English, music?  Some would say, yes.
"After all, advocates of the humanities argue, it’s precisely because technology is fundamentally transforming our world that we should teach students to be broad systematic thinkers capable of absorbing the bounties of knowledge that arise from new wellsprings of discovery in fields like genetics, artificial intelligence and robotics." (source: www.pbs.org)
In the interests of full-disclosure, I hold an undergraduate degree and a graduate degree in music, and I always reveled in my humanities classes.  However, it can be hard to argue with numbers, and a recent study published in this last year was able to link earnings over a lifetime to college major.  In this May article in the Washington Post, the author discusses how those who majored in the humanities, counseling, psychology, or the arts made significantly less money than those who were, say engineers.  The article does go on to say, however, that some of it is a value choice--those who major in, say, counseling, probably knew that they were not going to make as much money as a computer scientist.  However, the argument is made that colleges should link future job prospects and earnings to majors so that students and families can make wise choices about their chosen paths.

Which leads us back to careers and majors in STEMs.   These careers are trending up, and in a big way.  The US Commerce Department released a report this summer that details that STEMs jobs are growing at a much faster rate than non-STEMs careers, and that those workers in STEMs are earning 26% more than those in non-STEMs fields.  This blog post appeared last week with some pretty stark statistics about how those with associates and bachelors degrees in STEMs fields are making more than those with masters or doctoral degrees in non-STEMs careers:
"It’s become less about the degree level, and a lot more about what you take.  The whole structure that we all grew up with has essentially broken down.” (source: www.washingtonpost.com)
The issue then becomes about the training for these careers and how the American education system is preparing students for this quickly expanding field.  The author of this article discusses how, even though the job opportunities will continue to grow in STEMs fields, a great many of our students are not prepared for them, lacking the higher level math and science knowledge to major in these areas in college and then find employment in these fields.  He feels that both educators and business partnerships have a responsibility to help mentor students into STEMs fields so that they can be successful and innovative in a 21st century economy.

What does this mean for us as school counselors?
  • Be up on the trends.  This has really been a big topic in the last year, so you can bet that our students and families are aware of it.  They will have a lot of questions about what possible careers there are in science, technology, engineering, and math.  They will want to know what colleges have strong programs in these fields.  They will inquire about what courses in high school they should be taking if they want to explore some of these areas.  For all of them advanced math is a must, and courses like computer science, engineering, and physics.
  • Encourage students to take the necessary upper-level math and science courses.  Some of our students need that encouragement and support to tackle what can be some very challenging coursework.  Yet, with a little patience and a focus on end-goals and the future, many more of them can probably be successful in these classes then they think.
  • Link those who are interested in these careers with support and enrichment.  I get quite a few e-mails each year from organizations like the Virginia Aerospace Science and Technology Scholars who have summer programs, although there are many others in every state.  Check out area universities, especially those known for strong STEMs programs--they almost always have some sort of summer camps for interested students.  These programs give them an opportunity to network with other students who have their similar interest.  Further, the science and math teachers in your building are a wealth of information with regards to resources and can also serve as formal or informal mentors to your students.
  • If you have a career day or career event, make sure that STEMs careers are included.  Since these are trending careers and growth is expected to continue in this field for quite some time, try to find people in one or more of these fields to come in and present if you are holding an event.
Not every student is going to want to major in a STEMs area or seek out a career as a software engineer, and there will always be plenty of students drawn to the humanities and the arts.  However, this is an ever growing field with many creative and interesting career paths that our students can pursue with a little help from their counselors.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Follow-Up: Salaries and Level of Education Go Hand in Hand

I recently wrote a post about salaries and the level of education.  There are some that would argue that some of the most brilliant minds of our generation did not have a college education, such as Steve Jobs or Bill Gates, and yet they have made or continue to make a great deal of money over their lifetimes.

David Drew, chair of the school of educational studies at Claremont Graduate University in California, takes this on in a Washington Post guest blog-post. One of my favorite quotes is below:
"College provides access to careers that simply are not open to non-college grads. The American dream has always been that the poorest children among us have the opportunity to succeed.  A college education has always been the principal vehicle for transformative change: for moving from poverty to the middle class — and to the upper-middle class. College prepares the leaders of tomorrow." (source:  www.washingtonpost.com)
He makes the argument that while there will always be those exceptions to the rule, a college education is still the safest bet for a solid financial future.  Definitely worth a read--check it out here

Academic Interventionist

Have you seen the show Intervention?  Basically, there is someone with a substance or addiction problem whose life is spiraling out of control.  Through the help of an interventionist, family and friends confront their loved one.  Parts of a typical intervention involve letting the person know how much everyone loves and supports this person, sharing the consequences of inaction, and the offer of extra services that will help this person turn his/her life around.

Let me be clear--in no way do I mean to compare our students to the people who are struggling with larger issues on the aforementioned show.  However, many students have academic problems, and, at least here in the Washington D.C. metro area, report cards are going out either now or in the near future in area school systems.  If students have serious academic problems, what do you do?

You call in the "Academic Interventionist," a.k.a. the school counselor.

One of the three domains school counselors cover, as stated in the ASCA National Model, is Academic.  The other two are Personal/Social and Career.  Our stated mission is to remove barriers to academic success.  Where do you start?

You start with data.  What students are not performing well academically?  Most schools nowadays have computerized databases from which you can pull the names of the students and classes that they have low grades in.  For example, at the end of every quarter I pull the names and courses of all of the students in my case load that are failing classes.  I look at all of them, but I am especially looking at students with multiple course failures in core-classes (math, science, English, and social-studies) as well as seniors failing classes they need for graduation.  Next, you go back to the data.  Are any of these students also struggling with attendance?  If so, that could be having a direct impact on their grades.  Are any of these students also having discipline problems?  Suspensions, time out of class and instead with the assistant principal or security, fights in the hallways, etc. can all be a part of their struggles with grades.  If these students are new to you, you can also look back at past test scores--there may be indications there about their ability to handle the level of class or classes they are in.  For example, the student may be in an Algebra 1 class, but if they are failing and their math test scores from their previous school were low, maybe a placement in an extra math support class or an Algebra 1, Part 1 class would be warranted.

Okay, "Academic Interventionist."  You've gathered information and data.  You are now ready to swoop in with your interventions.
  • Meet with the student.   This is probably the most important step after you have assembled the data.  What is their perception of why the grades are so low?  There is a big difference between "I don't do any of my homework" and "I am working really hard, turning everything in, and I still fail every test and quiz."  One implies that you will need to work with the student on internal motivation, time-management, and study skills.  The other implies that this student may need to find extra help, either from another student, the teacher, or an outside tutor, or perhaps they are in the wrong level of class.  The next set of questions is usually about the plan of attack.  What is the student going to do to differently to improve their grade in the next marking period or quarter?  Stay after with the teacher?  Do their homework every day when they get home?  Check the class Blackboard, School Fusion, or class website every day?  Have them be specific in this plan--it is too easy to say, yes, I'll stay after with the teacher and then never actually do it.  What day of the week?  Every week for a month?  Let's put it in your planner.
  • Bring in the support of parents and teachers.  After I've met with the students, I call every parent of my seniors who are failing classes for graduation to inform them of my concern and to remind them of the consequences of not passing the class.  You do not want there to be any surprises come May or June.  For students with multiple course-failures, starting with seniors, I call parent-teacher conferences.  These are not the one-on-one conferences that parents and teachers have pretty regularly on their own.  Rather, these are conferences that I set up in which all of a student's teachers, their parents or guardians, possibly their administrator, the student, and I get together to discuss the overall problem.  By having all of these people together you are able to get a more holistic view of the student, which makes you better able to find and address the specific barriers to academic success.  In cases where it is just one class, I might bring the teacher and student together so that the two of them can discuss the issue and come up with a solution, or I might recommend to the parent that they call the teacher to discuss the issues further about that specific course.  Again, the focus is on coming up with a specific plan, complete with benchmarks to be met and deadlines that will be checked.
  • Connect the student and/or families to additional resources.  After you have met with the student and facilitated communication with parents and teachers to further diagnose the issue and come up with a plan, it may be time to look at additional resources to help the student, and hopefully your building is full of options.  For some students, small group counseling may be highly beneficial in the areas of study/test-taking skills/organization, attendance, anger management, or grief and loss, to name a few.  Other students may need referrals to your school's substance and wellness counselor.  There will be some students who may need additional help looking ahead to their futures--groups or organizations that work with minority students or first-generation college students can assist in broadening perspectives and providing resources to aid in a pathway to college.  For some, the current educational environment may not be one in which they can thrive, and an alternative placement, either within the school system or outside, may need to be discussed.  Some students and families may need support from local social services or outside agencies, in which case they may want to meet your school social worker.  Still other students may need to be referred to a local screening committee to ascertain if there are learning deficits or processing issues that may be impacting their academic success.  In most schools there is usually a wealth of resources and staff support--you do not have to do it all alone.
There are two things to keep in mind as you go about intervening with your students and families:
  • Keep records.  I write down conference dates, phone calls, and generalized intervention plans directly on my F-list that I print out.  If I call conferences or meetings, I then keep notes from those meetings in my personal student files that detail what was discussed and the plan to move forward.  These can be helpful as reference but also demonstrate how the school has tried to assist this student and family in being more academically successful.
  • Follow up.  It is great to come up with a plan to help the student, outlining the student's responsibility (he/she should have the most) and any additional responsibilities by you, the parent/guardian, or the teacher.  However, it may all be for naught if you do not check in with the student and/or the teachers and/or the parents at least a couple of times through the quarter.  This is especially true of those students who are struggling the most.  Change does not happen over-night, and they are going to need reminders of the plan, as well as someone helping them to check in through the quarter or marking period.  If your school has interim grades, you can use these as a good benchmark to see how the plan is working and if there need to be modifications or additional interventions.  Most important, though, is that students need to know that there is someone in the school who genuinely cares about them being successful--it is the relationship you build with these students that can often be the biggest instrument of change.
What I have found over the years is that I end up utilizing my counseling skills a great deal through this process, as you begin to uncover the causes of a student's academic struggles.  What may start out as a data/paperwork process quickly moves into a humanistic endeavor.  This is what we spend years and countless hours of class to do--work directly with our students to effect positive change.  Through your work as an "Academic Interventionist," you can have a large impact on the lives and futures of your students.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Salaries and Level of Education Go Hand in Hand

Census data yields all kinds of interesting patterns, including inspiring my last blog entry .  Another set of data that has recently come to light is the financial value of post-secondary education.
 
In this report, the average annual salary in today's society for someone who did not graduate from high school is in the low $20,000 range.  If someone's highest level of education is an associate's degree, they are averaging in the low $40,000 range.  For someone with a bachelor's degree it is just under $60,000, and for someone with a professional degree (M.D., J.D.) it is over $100,000 a year.

What does this tell us?  That education matters.  The report discusses how the education level is the most important factor, by far, over any other--culture, race, and class.  This is not to say other variables do not play a role--women make less than men, and Hispanic men and women make less than other cultural groups.  However, it is the highest level of education attained that is the primary factor.

Thus, students dropping out of high school are being set up to have limited resources throughout their lives.  To start, what can we do to help prevent students from dropping out?

In a May 2010 article in ASCA's School Counselor magazine entitled "Mission: A Drop in Dropouts," Robert Rothman discusses the components of a school-wide program to help prevent students from dropping out:
  • Literacy Instruction:  As school counselors, we can advocate for elective classes in literacy if your school does not already have them.  In Fairfax County, there are several course offering for students to assist them with building reading and writing skills.  These students receive elective credits for these courses that count towards their graduation requirements while helping them to build skills that will help them in their other required courses.  
  • Data Systems:  In our work as school counselors we tend to have access to the data to identify students most at risk of dropping out--current and past grades, test scores, and attendance.  After identifying those students we can then develop interventions--groups, individual counseling, family components--and track student progress, reviewing the data from time to time to determine how effective our programs are.  
  • Personalization:  School counselors can play a key role in personalizing the school with at-risk students.  By meeting with these students, checking up on them with their teachers and parents, and celebrating their successes, we are letting them know that someone cares about their academic success and thus their future.  We are giving them at least one person in their school to trust, rely on, and connect with.
Further, what this census article tells us is that not only that it is important for students to get a high-school diploma, but it is also important for them to get some form of post-secondary education.  The plan will be different for every student, but there are enough options out there for all, whether it be a community college or technical school, or a four-year university.  Many schools and school districts have developed planning and goal setting materials, or they utilize a computer program such as Naviance which provides valuable career, goal, planning, and post-secondary resources and an ability for students, parents, and counselors to track this information throughout a student's entire career in their own individual accounts.  Regardless of how it is done, meeting with all of your students to help them develop and realize their post-secondary goals is one of the most important aspects of a school counselor's job.  As I often tell my students, there is a lot of variation with what education students will get after high school.  Some will go to school for the next 10 years and become medical doctors, others will do a two-year associate's degree at NOVA and go straight into the workforce as an auto-mechanic. The point is that they need to have some post-secondary training of some kind to give themselves a fighting chance--and now we have the statistics to back that up.

The following work-cited in this article is available for members at the American School Counselors Association website:
Rothman, R.  (2010).  Mission:  A Drop in Dropouts.  School Counselor (May 2010).

Monday, October 31, 2011

Diversity: Coming to a Neighborhood Near You

The cover story of Sunday's Washington Post is entitled "The New American Neighborhood," and details the changing demographics of the Washington D.C. area over the last 30 years.  The basic premise is that majority white neighborhoods are becoming a thing of the past, with more areas welcoming a mix of ethnic, religious, and cultural diversity.  This does not just apply to the city, but even to the far reaches of the suburbs of Loudoun County, Prince William County, and Montgomery County.  The county that I work in, Fairfax, is no exception.  You can read the full article here.

Additionally, the story discusses the way that children today are having different experiences than in past generations:
"The multiculturalism is shaping the way children interact in ways that even their older siblings did not experience.  When Lisette Pozo, 25, was in high school, most of her friends were Hispanic, like her. Her 12-year-old brother, Michael, hangs out with neighbors in Ashburn who are Middle Eastern and Indian. They have sampled his mother’s arroz con pollo and lomo saltado, and he has been to their houses for flat bread and chicken, and other spicy dishes whose names he doesn’t quite remember." (source:  http://www.washingtonpost.com/)
Children and students today, at least from my observations, have much more diverse groups of friends, and are more relaxed and willing to experience and learn more about their peers' cultural backgrounds.  In fact, it is projected that within the next 30 years, non-hispanic whites will be in the minority in the United States.  Across the country we can already see this transformation as the latest census data is made known. What does this mean for us as school counselors?

I happen to love working with diverse populations--I find people, in general, fascinating, and I enjoy learning about the cultures and backgrounds of my students and families.  In fact, the diversity of my school is one of the things that really spoke to me when I was in the interview process.  Hopefully, all counselors are now receiving some form of training in multicultural counseling--it was a strong component of my degree program.  It is important to develop an awareness and empathy for cultures other than your own and/or the dominant culture in the society, and at the same time avoid assigning broad labels to groups--this is one of the possible pitfalls of multicultural counseling. Rather, the strength of counseling from a multicultural perspective is that you are able to take each client, couple, or family and view them within their own unique culture.  That being said, please note that in the following paragraphs I am only speaking in general terms--every individual situation is different, and I do not propose any of them as more right or wrong than another.

In traditional American culture, for example, there is generally a strong belief in the rights of the individual to chart their own destiny, make their own decisions, and prioritize their own needs above the needs of the group or others.  An ailing mother may need her child to stay at home in order to help take care of her when he graduates from high school, but she may encourage him to leave and go away to college, working to make other arrangements to support herself when he is gone.  However, in some cultures, the needs of the family and the group are seen as being more important than those of the individual--it might be unheard of, in the same situation, for that child to go away to college leaving his mother to fend for herself.

Same situation, different cultural situations.  What do you, as a school counselor, do?

If the student is from the more individualized culture, it might be important to work with him on setting up ways to stay in touch with his mother on a regular basis, and on helping to connect him to resources in the area that might be able to assist.  You can work out an emergency plan with him in case his mother becomes truly debilitated.  You can help him to think about who is in the area that could also assist and check in with his mother so that she has people watching out for her on a regular basis.  Are there siblings?  Family friends?  Neighbors?  Can he work out a car-pooling system for regular visits home on the weekends?

In the case of the student who may be part of a culture that places a strong value on the family and the group, you might want to work with him on finding a pathway to college that would allow him to remain in his house.  Perhaps he needs to attend a university that is close to home?  Maybe he needs to take a reduced class load in order to help out with his mother's care?  Perhaps a two-year college is a good place for him to start with flexible class times so that he can share in the care of his mother with other family or siblings and still find time to begin his college education?

The place to start, though, is in confronting your own cultural biases.  If you read the above example and felt more sympathy with one scenario over the other, does that color your judgement when working with your students?  You probably are going to feel more comfortable with one path versus another--that is normal and to be expected.  Our own values are a part of who we are.  However, what is important is being aware of these predispositions so that you are able to prevent them from hindering your work with students and families who may have a different life-perspective.

There are many resources available to gain more skills in working from a multicultural perspective.  The Association for Multicultural Counseling and Development has resources available on their website, and the list of multicultural competencies is available on the ACA website.  If you are interested in reading further into working with diverse populations, I would recommend taking a look at two books.  The first is edited by one of the gurus of multicultural counseling, Courtland Lee at the University of Maryland, entitled Multicultural Issues in Counseling.   The second book is published by ASCA and is Multiculturalism and Diversity by Sharon Ravitch, Ph.D.  Both of these publications are filled with resources, strong research, and case studies.  Moreover, there may be classes, workshops, or in-services available through your school district, local universities, or professional organizations to help develop your multicultural counseling skills.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Self Care: Who is your most important client? You are.

I distinctly remember that throughout my graduate program there was a lot of discussion about self-care.  A lot.  I, however, had been a teacher for many years and had worked in two different residential-life programs with high-school students.  I was sure I could easily manage any demands that were put upon me from my future job as a school counselor, and I was so excited and enthusiastic about getting to work and eager to see one kid after another and assist them with their problems.  By the end of the program, I thought that maybe there was some overkill with regards to the whole "self-care" thing.  How hard could it be?

Two months into my first job, exhausted and overwhelmed,  I realized that it was probably the most important thing we could have covered in my degree program.

I am working this year with all of the new school counselors in my county, and true to form about a month or so into the school year there were signs of stress:  long hours, extra hours on nights and weekends, a never ending barrage of parents, students, teachers, and administrators coming at you via e-mail, phone, or in person.  We tend to get into this job because we are nurturing--we want to help others.  However, as I and others quickly learned, in your role as a school counselor you are being asked to "give" constantly.  The counseling relationship is indeed a relationship, but it is a one-sided relationship.  Unlike friendships where you give emotional support to your friends and they also give emotional support to you, the counseling relationship is all give and no take from the counselor's perspective.  All of our energy goes out to the students with very little coming back to us.  Further, in order to empathetic we must be willing not only to be open to feeling and understanding a student's joys, but we must also be open to understanding their pain (Shallcross, 2011).  Additionally, as school counselors we can often end up in situations where we are assigned many non-counseling duties, leaving us with less time to help our students, families, and staff members.  Combine this with large case-loads, throw in a lack of support from other counselors, a director, or your administration, and you can find yourself melting down fairly quickly (Falls, 2010).  Thus, this is the reason that good graduate counseling programs regularly talk about self-care--it is important for new counselors to already have some ideas and structures in place that will assist them in taking care of themselves.

Think about it.  If you are impaired and emotionally drained, how can you hope to help others deal with their own problems and feelings?  In a 2011 article in Counseling Today, Lynne Shallcross discusses how on airplanes, the instructions are always to place your own oxygen mask on yourself before helping someone else with theirs.  Why?  Because if you've passed out from a lack of oxygen, you will be unable to help anyone.  She quotes counselor and doctoral student Sandra Rankin:
"If you're gasping for air, you can't help other people.  Counselors who neglect their own mental, physical and spiritual self-care eventually run out of 'oxygen' and cannot effectively help their clients because all of their energy is going out to the clients and nothing is coming back in to replenish the counselors' energy."
Moreover, self-care is an explicit ethical mandate for school counselors.  In the ASCA Code of Ethics, E.1.b, Professional School Counselors:
"Monitor emotional and physical health and practice wellness to ensure optimal effectiveness. Seek physical or mental health referrals when needed to ensure competence at all times."
It is also in the introduction to Section C: Professional Responsibility of the ACA Code of Ethics:
"...counselors engage in self-care activities to maintain and promote their emotional, physical, mental, and spiritual well-being to best meet their professional responsibilities."
Thus, it is not only helpful but ethical and a best practice to develop a plan and a structure that allows us to replenish our physical and emotional energy so that we are truly able to help our students and clients.  I compare it to singing.  As a singer, my whole body is my instrument--if I am tense in the wrong place or sick or exhausted, I am unable to produce the best sound possible for my conductor or my audience.  Similarly, in the art of counseling, we are also the instrument.  If we are physically and emotionally exhausted, how can we hope to be able to empathize with our clients or stay focused enough on what they are telling us and showing us in order to best assess their needs and devise a plan to help them?

How can you tell if you or a colleague is beginning to fray a bit at the edges?  You might not do well with a crisis, you might find yourself being ever more cynical about students and your job, you might find yourself taking more and more "mental health days," you might withdraw more and more from family, friends, and co-workers, your personal relationships may be suffering, and you might become extremely defensive with any constructive criticism about your job performance (Williams, 2011).  Additionally, there are some great questions from Gerald Corey to ask yourself if you are concerned about impairment or burnout:
  • Is my personal life satisfying and rewarding?
  • Are my relationships where I want them to be?
  • To what degree am I taking care of myself, both physically and emotionally?
  • Would I be willing for other (school counselors) I respect to know about my professional conduct and decisions?
  • Am I willing to express my vulnerabilities through consultation or peer supervision?
  • Am I generally consistent in my practice? (Williams, 2011)
Your answers to these questions should help to guide you in determining how much impact your work is having on your whole life.

It may seem counter-intuitive to make time to take care of yourself, but in this job the e-mails, phone-calls, and needs of all of our stakeholders will never stop--there will always be something else you could be working on or "one more thing" you could do before you leave the office.  I am someone who has perfectionist tendencies--I like to have everything done right, every "I" dotted and every "T" crossed before I leave the office.  However, I quickly had to realign my thinking once I began working as a school counselor.  Here are some tips and ideas about how to either remain well or find your way back to wellness:
  • Work to accept that you will never have everything done at the end of the day--this job simply does not lend itself to that concept.  It is okay to leave work at the end of every day.  While it is normal to need to stay late on occasion or to come in every once in a while on a Saturday, this should not be an every day or every week occurrence.  If you are staying late every single day, limit yourself to staying late only two days during the week.  If you come in every Saturday, limit it to one Saturday during the month.
  • Set boundaries for yourself.  It is okay if you do not want to have a parent conference at 5 p.m. on a Friday and instead offer an alternative day and time.  It is okay if you are trying to leave on-time at the end of the day and ask a teacher to come back and talk to you about a non-emergency topic in the morning.  It is okay if you do not check your work e-mails after you leave work at the end of the day or over the weekend.  For example, I know that if there is a pressing crisis in the evenings or on the weekend with regards to work or my students, I will get a phone call from my boss.  Anything else can probably wait until the next morning when I am at work.  If you do not set some reasonable boundaries for yourself, people will expect to have access to you and your skills 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and it is important that you have time to recharge so that you can best address their concerns.
  • Schedule time for healthy habits.  Find time to cook and eat a good meal.  Get as much sleep each night as you possibly can.  Go the gym, yoga class, or take a walk with a spouse/partner/friend/child each day.  Schedule these into your week and make them priorities.  I make sure that I hit the gym or do yoga at least 5 times a week for an hour at a time.  Oftentimes I am able to work out frustrations from my day on the treadmill or center myself through the healing breath of a sun salutation.
  • Develop a list of pleasurable activities and schedule at least one or two per week.  We do this so often with our students who may be a bit down--find out what they enjoy doing, whether its attending a ball-game or going to the movies with friends, and then help them to make it happen.  We need to take our own advice--when was the last time you went out with your girlfriends and laughed yourself silly over drinks with chips and guacamole?  When was the last time you went to a basketball game with your guy friends?  When was the last time you attended one of your kids' school-programs that you weren't in charge of making happen?  Not only do these help to recharge us, but they also tend to be great "perspective-checks"--there is a world and a life outside of our jobs.  I am a singer and often have one to two rehearsals per week and also take private voice lessons--I find it to be a wonderful way to force my mind to focus on something wholly unrelated to my job on a regular basis.
  • Engage with friends and family. I have always thought that everyone who works in schools--teachers, custodians, counselors, administrators--need to have friends outside of that school to talk to.  This is especially true of counselors, as so much of what we deal with is confidential information--it's not really appropriate to share our frustrations with a parent or the intimate details of a student's life with anyone in our buildings.  It is important to maintain those relationships with our friends, partners, and spouses and allow those to replenish us when we are down or emotionally drained.  I make it a point to find time to have dinner or brunch with friends or attend a party, even if I'm exhausted or feel I don't have time--in hindsight I'm always glad I went.
  • Consider supervision--either formal or informal. This is probably worth a separate blog entry, but in short, as interns we have this amazing support network--our on-site supervisors, our university supervisors, and a whole lot of peer supervisors who are in our classes.  Then we suddenly get into our first job and a lot of that goes away.  Hopefully you have a mentor, other counselors, or a director who you can go to for help or additional perspectives, but many counselors are alone in their buildings a great deal of the time.  It is a great idea to consider joining a formal supervision group, especially if you are thinking of pursuing state licensure as a therapist, but if not even getting together with some other counselors in the area on a regular basis to share cases and check for best practices.  It can make you feel a lot less isolated, help to validate the good work you are doing, and give you great ideas for situations you may be struggling with.
  • Seek out your own therapy if needed.  Sometimes, even with our best efforts, it is still too overwhelming.  Sometimes we get that case that strikes a little too close to home and counter-transference gets in the way.  Sometimes what is going on in our personal lives begins to effect our day job.  Thus, sometimes it is necessary to get therapeutic help ourselves.
In this way, with your oxygen mask firmly in place, you can continue to help others put their own on for years to come.

The following work cited is available for members on the American Counseling Association website:

Shallcross, L.  (2011).  Taking care of yourself as a counselor.  Counseling Today, January 2011.

The following works cited are available for members on the American School Counselors Association website:  
 
Falls, L.  (2010)  Fan the flame.  Retrieved from http://www.schoolcounselor.org.  
Williams, R.  (2011)  The importance of self-care.  Retrieved from http://www.schoolcounselor.org.