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.
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.
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.