Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Define Me

"We must not allow other people's limited perceptions to define us."  Virginia Satir

Oh, Virginia Satir.  I've been studying her this past weekend as one of the major players in family systems theory as I prepare to take a final test in order to become a licensed therapist here in Virginia.  I know her more as a humanistic and communications family therapist than as a sage of words and quotes, yet the one above seems wildly appropriate.

Stay with me, people--I promise I'm zeroing in on the beginnings of a point.

You would think I was crazy if I came up to you and asked you to "define me."  You tell me what my value is in this world.  You tell me why I matter.  You tell me why I am important and what I am supposed to do with my life.

Shouldn't I be the one to answer these questions for myself?  Yes, feedback is important and the reflections of ourselves in the mirrors of others help us to continuously grow and change.  However, it starts with each of us, and how we view who we are, where we fit in, and how we can have the most value is of paramount importance.

Except, apparently, if you are a school counselor.  We have a huge identification problem.  I was recently at a meeting in my school district where we tackled these questions, and we kept coming back to the same spot.  One or both of the following tends to happen with school counselors.  First, we tend to be defined by what we do instead of who we are and the impact that we can have, and secondly, we let other people define both who we are and what we do instead of doing it for ourselves.  Additionally, there is no consistency from district to district, state to state, and from school to school, even.  What one school counselor does in one school is not the same as what a guidance counselor does in another state is not the same as what a professional school counselor does in another district.

In other words, we're a hot mess.

Teachers and principals do not tend to have the same issue.  Curriculum may change and class size may vary from place to place, but teachers "teach."  Everyone can picture that pretty clearly, and everyone knows the impact that they can have.  Administrators insure that schools run smoothly, manage day-to-day operations, and set the tone for a whole building--students, teachers, and the community-at-large.  We know who principals are and what their role is.  If you asked for a random sampling of people's perceptions of school counselors, you would get anything from people who discipline students to college recommendation writers to people whose job it is to file papers and drink coffee all day.

Something I will often talk about with my students is "control."  A student will be failing a class, and their reason, when asked, will be that the teacher hates them.  The teacher does not like them, therefore the student doesn't want to do any of the work or behave in class or study and decides they would rather fail the class.  The teacher has all the power over their grade and their future success.  What the student and I then talk about is the amount of control and power over their lives they have given to that teacher to chart the course of their life, and how they can get that power back.

As school counselors, it's time for us to reclaim our power and take control of who we are and where we are heading.

We're beginning to do it, and there is no better time than the present.  There are several things that are aligning right now that could have a huge impact on the value that is placed on school counselors and at the same time will help us to more clearly define our roles for ourselves and for the communities that we work with.  We know our skill-set--we know what we're trained to do.

First, the current national education administration is ready for educational reform, and college and career readiness is at the tip of everyone's tongue.  Arne Duncan, the Secretary of Education, wrote an op-ed in this past Sunday's Washington Post in which he stated:
"We all need to work together so that 10 years from now, America’s children will have the sort of federal education law they so richly deserve — one that challenges them to achieve to high standards, and provides them with the highly effective teachers and principals who can prepare them for success in college and the workforce." (source:
Additionally, in a November 26 article in the Washington Post, there is discussion on the new NCLB waivers that the current administration is making available:
"The U.S. Education Department is offering the waivers to states that adopt an “index” system of multiple measures that go beyond annual test results in determining school performance. These include test score growth over time, graduation rates and other evidence that schools have produced students who are college- or career-ready." (source:
Thus, there is a lot of discussion about "college and career" readiness in everyone's mind.  In November's School Counselor, the publication sent to members of the American School Counselor Association, there is an article about 21st Century Skills that was written by the Partnership for 21st Century Skills.  They state:
"Within the context of core knowledge instruction, students must also master the essential skills for success in today’s world, known collectively as the 4C’s: critical thinking and problem solving, communication, collaboration, and creativity and innovation....Comprehensive school counseling programs can make all the difference between students who are ready for college and careers and students who are not. School counselors play a crucial role in ensuring students know what will be expected of them in college and the workforce and provide a link between high school and the world at large for students. Knowing the emerging trends of workforce development can make school counselors invaluable allies and mentors for students and other educators in creating supportive learning environments in every school." (Partnership for 21st Century Skills, 2011)
They see that one of the key components in helping students to become ready for the 21st century world of work is school counselors and the blend of our knowledge of the world of work, post-secondary options and planning, and the individual strengths of our students, families, and communities.  Further, through our unique knowledge of our students, we can help to foster these skills of critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity.

Finally, there is NOSCA--the National Office for School Counselor Advocacy.  This organization is only about five years old, and is part of the College Board Advocacy and Policy Center.  If you are like me, you got a survey from college board last year asking school counselors about the profession of school counseling.  They released the results from this survey this past fall.  Highlights include:
  • 89% of counselors felt that the mission of the education system should be to ensure that all students, regardless of background, have equal access to a high-quality eduation, while only 38% believed that was actually the reality in their school.
  • 85% of counselors felt that the mission of the education system should be to ensure that all students complete the 12th grade ready to succeed in college and careers, while only 30% believed this was actually the case in their school.
  • 92% felt that the mission of school counselors was to advocate for all students, while only 54% felt that was the reality in their school
  • Large majorities of school counselors (83% and above) felt that the mission of school counselors should be to inspire student to reach goals, address problems to help students graduate, ensure that all students earn a high school diploma ready to succeed, and help students mature and develop skills for the adult world.  Only 49% or less of school counselors felt that this was the actual reality in their schools (source:
There is clearly a disconnect between what school counselor believe the mission of schools and school counseling should be, and what in reality, it is.  This concerns me, as clearly we know, in a large majority, what it is we are meant to do and what our purpose is, yet for many of us this is not our reality.  The report goes on to say that the "most significant challenge for school counselors rests in the ongoing debate over role definition." (NOSCA, 2011).  There are other important kernels of knowledge to take away from this document, but for the purposes of this discussion this is paramount--all signs are pointing to school counselors taking an active role in helping students to become college and career ready in the 21st century, a century in which our current students are training for jobs that in many cases do not exist yet.

As school counselors, we are in a very unique position--we are able to get a picture of the whole student including school, home, work, sports, clubs, community, and goals/aspirations.  We have the knowledge of the child to help open doors and point them to resources that will help them be academically successful in school as well as successful in life.  Further, we are in the position in our schools in which we have the view of the students, the teachers, the administrators, the parents, and the community.  We know who we can ask for assistance and how best to help students navigate the larger system in order to find their path to post-secondary training and future careers.

NOSCA as an organization has made available tons of resources in order to help school counselors become linked with this idea of college and career readiness.  It starts with the Eight Components of College and Career Readiness--by clicking on this link, you will find definitions as well as resources to help you begin to assist your students.  Further, I would highly recommend joining their Own the Turf Campaign which will connect you with e-mail resources as well as an online community to bounce ideas off of and from which to receive further resources.

Our mission, as defined by ASCA, is to remove barriers to academic success.  By strengthening the idea of helping students to be college and career ready and giving it more focus, we are only enhancing our mission, but more importantly we are beginning to define, for ourselves, what our purpose in the educational system is.  We, as a group, were left out of the initial development of No Child Left Behind.  With the conversation beginning to center around post-secondary planning and skill building, and with ASCA and NOSCA becoming stronger voices and allies to our profession, we will not be left out of the next go around.  As school counselors, we have a unique and valuable perspective of the whole student, the educational system, and the world of colleges and careers--we just need to define that perspective as a profession and then share it with the world.

The following work cited is available to members of the American School Counselor Association via their website,
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).  

Many thanks to the following people for your conversations over the last several months that have helped to form the ideas in this post:  Valerie Hardy, Judy Hingle, Marcy Miller, and Elissia Price, all from Fairfax County Public Schools.

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