Friday, March 2, 2012

Advocacy

Who will you advocate for?

Dr. Erin Mason, Assistant Professor of Human Services and Counseling at DePaul University in Chicago, asked this question of her school counseling students via Twitter last week.  I think it is an important question upon which to ponder and reflect, not only for those who are in the process of entering the profession, but also for those of us who are currently practicing.  Who do we advocate for and why?

First, not unlike self-care, advocacy is an ethical mandate.  There are two substantial mentions of advocacy in the American School Counselor Association's Code of Ethics:
E.2.d   Affirm the multiple cultural and linguistic identities of every student and all stakeholders.  Advocate for equitable school and school counseling program policies and practices for every student and all stakeholders including use of translators and bilingual/multilingual school counseling program materials that represent all languages used by families in the school community, and advocate for appropriate accommodations and accessibility for students with disabilities.
E.2.d  Work as advocates and leaders in the school to create equity-based school counseling programs that help close any achievement, opportunity and attainment gaps that deny all students the chance to pursue their educational goals. (source: http://www.schoolcounselor.org/)
Further, it is also a part of the American Counseling Associations Code of Ethics:

A.6.a. Advocacy:  When appropriate, counselors advocate at individual, group, institutional, and societal levels to examine potential barriers and obstacles that inhibit access and/or the growth and development of clients. (source: http://www.counseling.org/)
Thus, it is actually an expectation that all counselors, school or otherwise, will attempt to stand up for their clients and challenge roadblocks in an effort to help them grow and succeed.  In school counseling, this mission is typically stated as working with all students to remove barriers to academic success.  For the most part, I believe as school counselors we do this.  However, the barriers are different for every student and every situation.  For some students, you are advocating for them by helping them to communicate concerns to their parents, teachers, or administrators in order to develop a plan to get them back on track.  For other students you are working through the special education referral process to help define and put into focus learning issues in order to gain additional supports for the student to be successful.  For still others, you are clarifying the college/post-secondary process so that a lack of information is no longer a reason that the student will not be able to achieve their potential as a student and reach their goals.  All students need us, some a little, and some a lot, and we can advocate for them either as individuals or as part of a larger group.  There are those groups of students, though, who probably need us even more, and they are always a focus of my work, each and every year. 

I advocate strongly for my English Language Learners and their families.  This group often needs help deciphering the American education system, as well as referrals to additional community supports.  Further, the students need help in planning a path to graduation, and then help in connecting them to post-secondary options.  For families that are not native to the United States, things that we take for granted as "givens," such as signing up for the SAT or going on college visits, are not always second nature to this group.  We can play an active role in helping them to succeed in school and guide them into productive paths once they graduate.

I advocate for my special education students .  I have found this to often be a bone of contention in school counseling circles.  There is a camp out there who believes that since special education students are receiving additional supports through the classroom and via case-managers, they are less in need of our attention.  For my part, I find that these students, many of whom have struggled for years in school with undiagnosed learning disabilities and concerns, often need as much support from school counselors as possible.  They may be in smaller-class settings and in resource courses, but they still benefit from additional study-skills groups.  Further, if students struggle with emotional disabilities, the school psychologist and social worker are not always available, especially if you are in a district where one of these professionals is split between multiple schools.  I truly believe that the more people that students can identify as supports in their schools, the better.  They can then always find someone who they trust to help them work through a problem or a situation.  Additionally, as a school counselor you are often able to have that unique perspective of the whole child--academics, home, work, goals, etc.  This vantage point is vital in IEP meetings, 504 meetings, etc.  By knowing about the student's whole life, you are often able to give valuable feedback and help make sound recommendations about what accommodations will best give them a chance at success.

I advocate for LGBT students.  I have multiple blog entries about how best to assist LGBT students as well as diving into the issues that many face.  LGBT students are more likely to miss school, more likely to have lower grades, are less likely to graduate, and significantly more likely to be bullied and harassed in school (source: http://www.glsen.org/)  Further, there is social oppression left and right.  The messages they hear day after day in the media are about how they are "sick" and that there is something "wrong" with them.  They see the battles around the country for LGBT men and women to have the same rights as everyone else--marriage, serving in the military, not being fired from a job based on sexual orientation or gender identity--and while there are times where these efforts are successful, they also see the many times where they are not.  Repeated oppression of a social group can lead to a concept known as "cultural dysthymia," where a whole subgroup is more prone to low moods and feelings of hopelessness.  These students need to be able to identify adults who will not judge them but rather accept them and support them for who they are.  These students need adults who are aware of the challenges faced by LGBT adolescents as well as the specific developmental struggles that they will face.  They need connections to supportive resources, whether that is a community center or a list of college considerations.  With so many LGBT students taking their own lives, this is a population that now, more than ever, needs the work and skills of school counselors to serve as supports and advocates for them and their well-being.

I advocate for school counselors.  We are a profession still in search of an identity.  We are still often one of the first places where school budgets are cut.  I belong to multiple professional organizations, as they are able to supply me with information to assist in my advocacy for school counselors.  When there is federal or state legislation that impact either us or our students, I write, e-mail, or call my legislators.  I blog to share ideas and thoughts about ways for us to help our stake-holders as well as ourselves.  I collect data on interventions and share it with anyone who will listen.  I serve as a leader within my school counseling department and I coach, teach, and  mentor new counselors in my school district to help them have successful years and continue their development in the profession.  I go to conferences to help build relationships with my colleagues, as two voices together are stronger than one.  In a similar vein, I use technology as a means of staying connected with my colleagues and major educational organizations so that I am abreast of trends or issues of concern.  We are a humble people, we school counselors.  We know the truth--that we are active and vital parts of our school communities.  However, if we do not get out there and shout it from the rooftops, no one else will ever share in that knowledge.

This is a list of some groups that I advocate for, but it is by no means all.   Advocacy takes a lot of groundwork.  The stronger your relationships are with other stakeholders (within your school, your community, with your legislators), the more people will then listen to you when you need to speak up in support of a student.  Further, as I'm currently reading about in the book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can't Stop Talking, you must be mindful in both your approach to advocacy as well as to its frequency.  If you are fighting a battle with administrators or teachers every single day for every single student, your voice will lose its strength and effect.  Consider each and every moment of advocacy carefully as well as the means by which you hope to effect change--quiet conversations one-on-one will usually get you farther than loud confrontations in public.  How you approach your interactions on the behalf of students or your profession is just as important as the reason behind needing to advocate in the first place. 

So, now I ask you:

Who will you advocate for?

4 comments:

  1. Such a great post to read and thanks for the mention Darrell! Timing is good since we just returned from a Day on the Hill in Springfield IL where 30 participants (counseling students, counselors and counselor eds) learned to lobby their legislators on school counseling, mental health and education related issues. Advocacy is at the core of what school counselors do.

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    1. Yes, I watched you all on Twitter (#Learn2Lobby) as you went down to Springfield and took charge. I think many states do that (they have a VCA and VSCA day in January here) and it can be so important as legislators put faces and names together with issues. If you show up often enough, legislators might actually seek you out when they want to gauge how certain bills will be received or what additional pieces of the puzzle they may be missing. Even if you are unable to show up in person, writing, calling, and e-mailing are also quite effective. As school counselors, a lot of people depend on us to speak for them--it is indeed at the core of what we do.

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  2. Thanks, Darrell for pushing us as Counselors--to be midful, reflective, and quietly proactive and diligent as we advocate. I love this statement of yours-- "How you approach your interactions on the behalf of students or your profession is just as important as the reason behind needing to advocate in the first place."

    I recently wrote a post on advocacy which was inspired by Dr. Mason (She seems to be everywhere!) Here is the link to that post,
    http://thiscounselorsjourney.blogspot.com/2012/02/advocate.html

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    1. Thanks, Marty, for your kind words. So much groundwork must often be laid before we can truly advocate for our students. I say this time and time again, but the relationships that we form with our administrators, parents, colleagues, and other students are the foundation for the work we are then able to do.

      I look forward to reading your post--thank you for sharing!
      Regards,
      Darrell

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