Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Building Relationships: The Importance of the Counselor-Principal Partnership

When I was in high school, all of the counselors were crammed into a very small room that was divided into about five small offices.  Seriously, there was no such thing as confidentiality--you could hear everything going on in all of the extremely small boxes.  The two school principals were off in their own offices, and then the two Deans of Students were off in a completely other part of the building.

If any of these groups wanted to communicate, they either used flares, morse-code, or carrier pigeons.

Flash forward a few years, and I did my high school internship in a school where, again, the counselors were all in the same office suite.  Their offices were much bigger and nicer, and for the most part when you closed the door, you couldn't hear the conversations--a vast improvement over 15 years.  Still, the Assistant Principals were in subschool offices all over the building--literally islands amidst the sea.  The Principal for the entire school would come and eat lunch with all of the counselors about once a week, but other than that it was pretty rare to see an administrator in the office suite.  It should be said that I greatly enjoyed my internship, was given an abundance of opportunities, and learned a great deal.  However, I never really developed a relationship with any of the Assistant Principals in the building.

In my current school, the high school is split into subschools--counselors share office suites with administrators, spread out over the building.  In fact, you share office suites with the adminstrators that also work with your kids (we are all divided alphabetically by the last names of our students).  I need not have worried that this mix of two strange cultures--the administrators and the counselors--would yield possible "Big Brother" or "Survivor" scenarios.  Rather, I quickly came to understand that this set-up was, in my opinion, the absolute ideal to best serve the needs of all of our students.

I work mainly with two assistant principals, as I have students in my alphabet that are divided between the two of them.  At this point in my career, I cannot imagine being able to effectively do my job without having the close, collaborative, and respectful relationship that I share with these colleagues.  We are the ying to each other's yang, and so much of the work that we do with students and their families overlaps or crosses over.  For example, if a student gets into a situation where they end up being disciplined with their administrator, I can follow up with that student to process the event and attempt to come up with thoughts and a plan to avoid the situation again in the future.  If I have a student who is repeatedly being bullied in school, not only will I continue to work with this student to empower them, build up their self-esteem, advocate for their needs, and help them with coping skills, but we will also consult with their administrator to discuss possible consequences and interventions for those who are perpetuating the bullying and harassment.

In a fairly recent study (Janson et al., 2008),  the scholars (one of whom is a counselor educator, one of whom is an education leadership professor) determined that there are four types of counselor-principal relationships:
  • Working Alliance--This relationships is characterized by free and open communication, a great deal of trust, and a mutual respect for the job characteristics and roles of each other's profession.
  • Impediments to Alliance--Counselors and principals in this type tend to not be involved in each others work, lack communication, and do not really understand the foundations of each other's jobs.
  • Shared Leadership--In this view, counselors are seen as school leaders, and tends to involve collaboration on both sides.
  • Purposeful Collaboration--The principals and counselors here tend to come together for specific and meaningful purposes such as the school plan or closing the achievement gap.  This style not only has a high degree of open communication, but there is also a shared purpose. (Janson et al., 2008, pp. 355-356)
The authors here felt that the strongest relationship is the Puposeful Collaboration relationship, as it promotes the most consistent collaboration and communication between the pair and utilizes the strength of this bond to bring about systemic change and bolster student achievement.

This ties in to a later ASCA web article (Janson, 2011) in which the authors of the previous study go further and list the characteristics that make a strong counselor-principal relationship.  They are:
  • Trust
  • Mutual Value
  • Shared Belief in Interdependency
  • Awareness of the Other's Repertoire
  • Open and Reflective Communication
  • Purposeful and Focused Collaboration
  • Collective Enterprise
  • Stretched Leadership (Janson, 2011)
This mirrors a 2009 survey done by College Board on this topic in which they identified four elements in a strong counselor-principal relationship:  Communication, Collaboration, Respect, and Shared Vision.

I'm pretty sure they are on to something.

I find all of these characteristics to be true in my relationships with the two Assistant Principals I work the most closely with.
  • There is a fundamental level of trust between us--trust that we are there to help students, trust that we will always do our utmost to support the others' efforts, trust that we are allowed to make mistakes, apologize for them, and then together learn from them.  
  • We value each other a great deal, not only the specific roles that each of us play in the educational lives of our students, but also as individual educational leaders and what our various backgrounds bring to the table.  
  • We believe we are interdependent--you never miss each other more than when you most desperately need the other one and they are off that morning at a meeting or out sick for a day.
  • We are aware of each other's skills, backgrounds, trainings, and levels of expertise and thus can play to each other's strengths or feel comfortable consulting with the other if we are unsure.  
  • Probably the thing I value most is our open communication--because there is mutual respect, we can take risks with each other in what we say without fear of reprisal.  We don't always agree, and sometimes its because of some of the minute differences in our roles with students.  However, we can discuss the situation and agree to disagree and then move on.  
  • Our collective enterprise is working together for the academic success of our students.  For example, when it comes to working with at-risk seniors for graduation, we are united in our purpose and in our interventions--we conference with those students, parents, and teachers as a team and together work with everyone to come up with a realistic plan for success.  
  • Finally, we share leadership with each other, with the parents, with the other teachers, and even with the students, working with them to take the head role in their own lives, academic and personal.
 Here are some ways you can develop a stronger relationship with your principal: 
  • Meet regularly as a team.  If you are in a subschool, collaboration is easier--you bump into each other a lot more often.  However, even if you are in a different space in your building from your administrators, you can try to set up regular meetings to discuss and focus on pressing student issues.
  • Share information.  The more each of you knows about the work you are doing with specific students and families, the better able both of you will be able to address the whole child.  If you have concern about sharing information with administrators, look over the ASCA Ethical Guidelines, especially C.2.e for some parameters. 
  • Discuss your view of each others roles as well as your personal philosophies about working with students in education.  These can be conversations over time, but the more you know about how you view your own and the other's roles and purpose, the better you will understand each other.
  • Collaborate on projects, conferences, and other leadership roles in the school.  Together you might see some achievement gaps, either within your own student population or perhaps the school at large.  By working together to address these concerns, you will bring two departments together, which means two separate areas of expertise with a larger wealth of knowledge and ideas that can have a greater impact.
The following sources cited in this entry are available for membersthrough the American School Counselor Association Website (

Janson, C. (2011, July 1).  Eight Elements of Effective School Counselor-Principal Relationships.  Retrieved from

Janson, C., Militello, M., & Kosine, N. (2008). Four views of the school counselor and principal relationship: A Q methodology study. Professional School Counseling, 11(6), 353-361.

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