Sunday, June 10, 2012

Mirror Mirror: The Importance of Reflection

Judging by my completely unofficial tally of Facebook and Twitter, most schools are now out for the summer.  My friends and colleagues, teachers and school counselors, are all reveling in having wrapped up their school years and are excited about their upcoming summer plans.

Unless of course, you are me, in which case you still have a week left of classes and finals, and then graduation the following Monday.  But really, I'm not envious or anything.  No sir, not at all.

However, even though you may be done with your official duties for the year, and even though you may have one foot (or maybe two) already on a beach or at a campsite, you're not quite finished yet.  During the actual school year, we are usually running around at the highest rate of speed possible.  We are implementing preventative programs, gathering data, and dealing with in-the-moment crises of all sorts, large and small.  If we are lucky, we have some time to examine data on our programs and interventions to determine their effectiveness as well as to decide upon any possible changes for the next year.  Usually, though, we have very few moments during the year to look back and really reflect upon what we have done, determine if it was effective, and what our goals might be for the next year and beyond.

Remember graduate school?  Ah, those halcyon days of yore.  Reflection was mandated as part of the curriculum.  Supervision, both at your internship sites and your universities, was an essential part of helping you to grow as a school counselor.  Some of you had to write up case notes.  Some of you had to journal about your experiences.  Most of you had to have conversations with experienced professionals inside and outside of the schools on a regular basis that helped you to determine the effectiveness of your interventions and also assisted you in thinking about how you could change it here, tweak it there, or take it to a place of more depth.  Once you finished your degree program, you were declared knowledgeable and sent off into the world, but those supports that helped you to look back on your work and examine it more closely may not have followed you into the professional arena.

Thus, it becomes incumbent on us, once we are working in the schools, to make sure that we are including reflection as a vital part of our work.  As mentioned before, during the year you have probably had some time to look back on your work on a micro-level: this program here, a classroom lesson there, a six session group in the middle of the year.  Many of you trained in the ASCA Model have gathered data on your delivery services and have analyzed that information as each of your individual programs came to their conclusion.  However, now is the time to take all of these mini-reflections and look at them in the larger, macro context of the entire school year.  With the school year complete, you are now able to take all of the pieces of your year--groups, lessons, individual counseling, crisis interventions, career units, etc.--and fit them together to get a complete picture. 

Your end-of-year reflections can be formalized, at a given time and place, or they can be more laid back over time as the summer goes on.  They can be something you do with your immediate supervisor, with your team of counselors if you are part of a larger group of counselors, or on your own.  Some of you probably prefer to sit down with paper and pen or a computer to write or type your thoughts, and some of you simply want a quiet space to contemplate and think.  The beauty of this reflection time is that you can do it anywhere at any point, such as at the beach or by the pool (a suggestion I heartily endorse).  Here are some thoughts and questions to help guide your musings:
  • Start with what went well.  Start with your successes.  This is vital and important.  Take some real time to look back and relish in the moments, the programs, the groups, and the conversations that went well.  We are way too quick to immediately jump into everything that went wrong and then into how we can fix it.  We allow the negative to become our focus, glossing over or even ignoring the many, many things that were successful and the amazing impact we are able to have on students, families, and education.  It is a long school year, and we, like the other members of the educational community, work very hard and put a lot of ourselves into our jobs.  Take that time to be proud of what you have accomplished and to celebrate it.  Only then should you move on to the rest.  That being said...
  • Prevention:  Most classroom lessons, large group presentations, and programming that has a set calendar date fall into this category.  Many of your groups may also fit in here.  First, on a micro-level, were each of these programs necessary?  What was the impetus--school district or school mandate?  Was there data that demonstrated the necessity of the program, or was there just a popular push to have it?  After they were complete, did data (attendance, grades, discipline referrals, surveys, interviews, etc) support their effectiveness?  If the answer is no, is this a program that should be continued?  Altered?  Timed differently?  There is no point in continuing to invest your time and effort into a program that is not effective and for which there may not be a real demonstrated "need."  If any of these programs did not have a great impact, it may be time to consider eliminating it, changing-it up, or moving it to a different time in the year when perhaps that particular issue is more prevalent and on the forefront of peoples' minds.  Additionally, is it a program that is relevant to school counseling?  If it takes up a lot of your time and yet falls into the category of non-counseling duties, perhaps it is worth having a conversation with your administration about it being given to another person or group, or whether there is a way to streamline it so that it has less of an impact on your schedule.  Further, look at all of these on a macro-level.  Do you find that there is a good spread of programs throughout the year, or are there times when you (and the students, parents, teachers, and administrators) are trying to deliver and support six different and time-consuming interventions over a two-week time span?  It may be that this is unavoidable and that the programs are necessary within that window, but it is worth asking that question.  Even if they are all important at that specific time, are you able to perform at your best if you are stretched that thin?
  • Reaction: Here is where you want to examine those situations that just seemed to "pop" up as the year went on.  You may have even chosen to run a group based on the growing needs of your students on a particular issue.  As concerns about students came up, did the referral system within your building work effectively so that you were able to intervene?  If not, what were some of the pitfalls?  How could you make it better for the next year?  As large crises came up, did you and the school team handle them effectively?  Did you have a documented plan?  Did you feel you had support from other staff within and outside of your school?  What might you do differently next year to make it more effective?  As you found that you needed to refer students and families outside of the school for additional help, did you have a referral list on hand that was helpful?  Did you have relationships with some outside support practitioners to help make the transition smooth?  Are there things you can do for next year to help make that process easier for you, your students, and their families?  Looking back, are there issues that seemed to pop up time and time again?  If so, would it be helpful to try to program a preventative lesson or presentation about that concern and collect data to see if it helped to head some situations off at the pass?  Would it be helpful to program time in the year for a group on issues that seem to always come up--grief and loss, divorce, social-skills?  Looking at it from a macro level, were there times of year where you seemed to deal with noticeably more crises or immediate issues (ex. before winter break, the end of the school year)?  Can you free up some additional time in those periods knowing they will be busier?
  • Relationships: How are your relationships with other counselors in your building or district?  How are they with your administrators?  How are they with the teachers, the students, and the parents?  Oftentimes the key to your success is the strength of these partnerships with your stakeholders.  What did you do well to help to build and strengthen your bonds, and did it pay off?  Are there things that you might want to try to do next year to advance the communication between yourself and other members of your school community?  Inviting parents in for coffees or teas?  Setting up weekly or bi-weekly meetings with your administrator to share information about students and come up with intervention plans?  Using your time in the hallways to get to know the teachers in your building a bit more?  If you feel there is some part of your school community that you would like to know better, now is the time to consider ways to make that happen.
Through all of these reflections, the ASCA Model can help you to enrich the amount of information you have to work with.  Your Advisory Council made up of your various stakeholders (students, parents, teachers, administrators, and community members) can help you to examine your prevention programming and reaction strategies and give you additional perspectives that can assist you and/or your department to make decisions for the upcoming year.  A needs assessment of students and/or parents and/or other school staff can also give you more in depth information about what worked, what did not, what needs to be improved on, and how that improvement might take shape.  Then, you need to take stock of yourself:
  • You as an individual, both professionally and personally.  Are you where you envisioned yourself being at the end of this school year?  If so, how were you able to meet that goal?  If not, was your goal realistic, and if it was, what prevented you from reaching it?  Did you have to stay at work every night until six, seven, eight o'clock?  Were you able to maintain an acceptable work/life balance?  Looking ahead, do you see yourself wanting to take on more leadership within your school, your district, or at the state and/or national levels?  Do you see yourself wanting to have more time for personal pursuits--hobbies, family, additional education?  When work became stressful, did you have a self-care plan that adequately met your needs?  Are there additional supports, either professional or personal, that you feel you need to put in place for the upcoming year?  What further training or education would help you reach your individual goals?
This last set of reflections is of primary importance, and, again, I feel we often gloss it over.  However, it is vital to examine your job within the context of your entire life to see if it is falling into place in the way that you expected, or if there are steps that need to be taken to put it into the proper context for you.  There may be things that you can do within your building or community to put your job into a place of balance, or there may be things you can do within your personal sphere that could also have a positive impact on achieving just the right note between work and life.  Remember that self-care is an ethical mandate, and that you can only be effective in your work if you yourself are taken care of. 

Once you have taken the time to reflect on these ideas and examined all the data and information, you can begin to pull together your calendar and programming for next year.  It is probably not realistic to think you are going to be able to change everything--I would recommend picking a few key things to focus on, change, or add, and allow those to be the goals for the year.  Maybe you were unable to run any groups this year, so perhaps adding one for next year in an area of demonstrated need would be a great way to start?  Maybe you want to examine an achievement gap in your building and help to facilitate an intervention, either on your own or partnering with other stakeholders?  It is important, also, to take your reflections and put them into a context of those that are immediate goals/changes and ones that may be more long term.  Perhaps you are interested in applying for RAMP, but doing it within a year is not going to work.  However, you can take steps this year to begin the transformation process that might allow you to apply within two years or even three.  Whatever your aims, taking real time to look constructively back on your year allows you to be proud of your successes and helps you to plan for the short and long term, both for your program as well as for you as a professional and individual.


  1. Great blog post, Darrell! These are all great questions to answer as I reflect on this past school year. I feel as though I started on this reflection path a couple of months ago. I have found myself eager to implement new things, make a few changes, and plan for a new year. Thanks for breaking it down and giving this school counselor some things to think about!

  2. You're welcome! Indeed, reflection is often going on continuously throughout the year. I find, though, that I am usually finally really able to put things in context when the school year is over and I can examine things from start to finish. I love that you are excited about ideas for next year--happy planning!


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