Monday, September 3, 2012

Shepherding the Flock: Supporting New School Counselors

Think back to when you first started your job as a school counselor.  For some, that may have been 20 years ago.  For others, that may have been last week.  You would have recently finished a graduate program in school counseling, complete with an internship that provided you with real experience working in the schools.  All of this prepared you to be a rock-star school counselor.  Your education was complete--you knew it all.

Perhaps not.  If you were more like me, you sat in your first meeting with the other counselors in your school, two weeks before the students started back, being given task after task, data report after data report, having no earthly idea of a) what they were talking about and b) how to do the things they were asking of you.  I'm pretty sure I had a look of sheer panic on my face, as one of the my colleagues came up to me afterwards and reassured me that they knew how I felt and that they would sit down with me the next morning and help me work through the list.

No matter how strong our graduate programs were, and no matter how much a part of the school team we became when we did our internships, there will always be a learning curve when new school counselors start their very first job, just as there is when new teachers start teaching.  There is a huge difference between being somewhere a few hours a day or a few days a week, having a small select population of students that you work with, and then suddenly having a real case-load that is all your own, with no supervising counselor to serve as your buffer when things don't always go according to plan.  Often you are suddenly trying to map out your calendar for the whole year, learn a new student database program, and pull together the five classroom lessons, all for different grade levels, that you are required to teach the first week as part of the rotation in an elementary school.  Never mind trying to forge relationships with teachers and figure out how you and your administration are going to function as a team.  Oh, and by the way, you're in charge of the school's mentoring program.  And we're also going to need you to develop a school-wide bullying program that the Superintendent wants in place by the 2nd week of school.  And the PTSO board wants to meet with you to talk about the winter-coat drive you will be assisting with starting in October, and they need you to bring estimated numbers of students in need and expect you to have found a place for them to store the coats within the school through December.

You can barely find your office, let alone all the nooks and crannies of your school where you could store 200+ winter coats.

This weekend the Washington Post did a Q and A article with D.C. area school superintendents about everything from education reform to teacher evaluation.  Dr. Jack Dale, from Fairfax County Public Schools, was asked about the amount of training it takes to make an effective teacher.  He states:
"We have found that an effective teacher needs at least a year of well grounded practice to become minimally proficient in the classroom.  Teachers continue to learn and refine knowledge and skills through their first 5-7 years of experience.  The more that experience is with coaching, the shorter the time to become a highly skilled teacher." (source: www.washingtonpost.com)
I have to agree with this statement, not only for teachers, but for new school counselors, as well.  Our education and learning does not end with our graduate degrees.  Far from it.  Rather, we need continued education, supervision, and connection to resources as we go through our first several years, not to mention our entire careers.  Dr. Dale also mentions that if there is some sort of support in place, such as coaching, that the time for a teacher (or counselor) to become proficient is reduced.  This is because clearly defined support services can more quickly identify areas of need and growth within a new school counselor and then develop targeted interventions that will help to strengthen their skills and performance in a much shorter period of time than if they were simply left to figure things out on their own.  If you are able to get right to the heart of the matter, address it, and move on, things are bound to happen more quickly.

As part of a team, I work with all of the new secondary counselors in my school district.  Our program of support has grown and been refined over the course of many years, and we now have three key-components in place that support our school counselors in their continued professional development:

  • Mentoring:  All new counselors should have a mentor, within their buildings if at all possible.  The mentor is the person who is most able to develop that strong one-on-one relationship with the new counselor and help to troubleshoot anything that may come up on a day-to-day basis.  Further, if the mentor is another counselor in the same building, they will be able to help the new counselor build relationships with the other school staff, as well as help to solve problems in a way that is congruent with the specific school culture.  Additionally, the mentor is the person best able to assess areas of strength and areas for growth in the new counselor and help them to practice and develop new skills that will assist them in becoming a stronger professional.  This component is key--new counselors have come out of graduate programs where they were receiving regular supervision of their practice within schools, and it is essential that they continue to receive supervision support within at least their first year of work.  Mentors should not be responsible for any part of the new counselor's evaluation--they should be seen as a support, not as punitive.  If it is feasible, training and support should be available for mentors to assist them in their work with new counselors.
  • Connection to Resources:  No matter what school district or location the new counselors are in, they will need help learning what resources are available to them within the schools as well as in their communities for their students, and their students' families.  Within school systems, these can include alternative programs, the process for identifying and supporting students with special needs, information on the curriculum and how it is sequenced within your school system, and internal crisis procedures.  Outside of the school system, counselors need information on social-services (housing, clothing, food) as well as referral options for mental health to include those that are free or on a sliding scale.  Further, school counselors need nuts-and-bolts education on how procedures work within their schools and within their districts, everything from calling Child Protective Services (CPS) to assessing and notification for suicide risk.  This information can be disseminated in  multiple ways--we have meetings throughout the year with the new counselors where this information is presented, usually by the people in charge of or connected with the resources themselves.  How can you begin to identify what resources need to be shared and when they should be presented?  Consider giving a needs assessment to some of the newer school counselors in your district--what would they have liked to have had information on and when would it have been helpful?  You can also look at the calendar of the year and determine what topics are most needed at a given time--curriculum information is probably best before academic advising season, whereas the special needs student information specific to your district may need to be fairly early.
  • Continuing Education and Skill Development:  As I wrote about above, you learn a lot in your school counseling graduate program, but every new school counselor is continuing to build their skills as a professional.  20 years ago, almost all school counselors had been teachers before they became counselors.  Now, if your district is similar to mind, about half of new school counselors have never been in the classroom.  This is not a negative--these career-switchers bring an absolute wealth of knowledge and experience from such areas as the private sector or the military.  However, they have a steeper learning curve when it comes to learning the structure of a school as well as essential skills like classroom management, lesson planning, and developing assessments for when they have to step into the classroom.  Most graduate programs do not include the topic of college advising and admissions in their curriculum, yet for high school counselors, this information and knowledge is imperative.  Additionally, in almost every district and school in the United States, school counselors are seen as leaders and are expected to facilitate team meetings, parent conferences, and serve on or lead school committees.  These types of leadership and management skills, even if they were addressed in graduate school, continue to need honing as school counselors transition into full time work in their buildings and begin to apply them to real-world situations on a regular basis.  Again, there are many ways to work this into a program of support for new counselors--we have joined forces with our program that supports new teachers, known as Great Beginnings, to teach classes after-school on a monthly basis that cover many of these topics for our new school counselors.  They work together as a cohort through a variety of activities designed to get them thinking about their practice as well as learn new skills.  Again, if you are trying to determine what some of the skills should be for a program in your district, consider doing a needs assessment of not only recent new counselors, but also from Directors of Student Services/School Counseling in schools and perhaps even administrators (in elementary schools).  As the people responsible for evaluating new counselors, they may have noticed patterns over the the last several years that a program of education could help to address, for example a need for more work on classroom management skills.
Now, many of you may be reading this and think that this is something that is unattainable in your district--lack of funding, lack of support personnel, or your school district is so small that there is only one school counselor in each school, and there are only three schools in your entire district.  How on earth do you create a full-blown program to support new counselors and their specific needs and skills (as opposed to just being lumped in with new teachers) when you have any of the constraints above?  Hopefully the tips and ideas below will help you to think of some ways to implement some of the supports I discussed:
  • If there is currently nothing in place and you need to pick one thing to start with, choose mentoring.  That one-on-one connection with another school counseling professional, even if that person is in another building, is the most important thing, in my opinion.  New school counselors, especially if they are by themselves in a school, need to have someone they can pick up the phone and call to discuss the often very confidential and ethically-gray situations that we tend to run into.  They need at least one other professional in their world that understands the specific challenges of being a school counselor that they can turn to in order to problem-solve, from whom they can get a resource, or someone they can just vent to when things have not gone particularly well.  It is important, when mentoring, to maintain appropriate safeguards with regards to confidentiality, especially if you are in a smaller town or district.  Avoid names, if possible, in your discussions, and make sure that you are not having conversations about sensitive topics in public places like coffee-shops and restaurants.  Further, even if the mentor is not in their particular school, they are at least in the same school district, so they will have some knowledge of how things tend to work, in general.  Mentors automatically connect new counselors to internal and external resources, as well as help to teach new skills on an individualized basis.  Hopefully, whether formally or informally, there is already some form of this in place in your district.  If not, maybe you are the one to start it?
  • We have mentoring. Where do we go from there?  You may be ready for a mentoring "extension."  Consider formalizing your mentoring program with a month-by-month list of items to cover (which, again, can include resources and skills building) and even some review of data to determine goals that fall in line with the ASCA National Model.  For an example, take a look at Delaware's school counseling mentoring program, complete with checklists of items to be covered.  If you do not have the resources or personnel to develop separate programs to share resources or continue education, build some of it into your already existing program.
  • There is no one to coordinate and facilitate a separate program for school counselor development.  Further, there is no money to pay for the extra time it would take to develop such a program.  Believe me, I understand this concern.  Many districts do not have someone in their central offices devoted exclusively to school counselors, and in a challenging economy there is not a lot of "extra" floating around out there to develop new programs.  You might see if there are any grants available for your needs, but this may be hit or miss.  You have to know your own school and district and just how flexible things may be.  Perhaps you can volunteer to head up a mentoring and class effort in exchange for a reduced case-load of students.  Maybe you can negotiate one-day off a month to work at the central office to develop and manage the program.  If none of these things work, there is another currency with which schools can reimburse you for your time--continuing education units (CEU's).  Each state asks for a certain number of CEU's to re-up certification every so many years--perhaps you can more than make your quota by being reimbursed with points for developing a program for new school counselors over the course of a year, and then getting some each year as you maintain it.  Additionally, if there is a program of support for new teachers (and many districts have such a program), how is that being supported, and is there any way you might be able to garner support through that program?  None of these may ultimately work, but it may be worth asking a few questions and proposing a few ideas to see what may be possible.
  • We have a strong mentoring program, but some new counselors are getting a good education when it comes to resources and some are not.  We are not going to be able to meet on a regular basis to go over them, but they are essential.  What should we do?  First, you could strengthen the mentoring program even more by working these resources into the program--if all the mentors are required to go over special needs students during the second month of school, chances are higher that there will be more consistency across the board.  Beyond that, consider creating a School Counseling Resource manual that is updated regularly with procedures, internal resources, and external referral sources.  In this world of technology, consider doing this electronically through a shared internal drive, through a school counseling Blackboard or SchoolFusion website, or on a flash drive given to new counselors.  You could also consider creating videos that walk new counselors through various resources that they can watch together with their mentors, or you can use programs such as Prezi to create presentations that will educate them on what is available in your district and make sure that everyone is getting the same message.
  • We do not have the resources to develop our own curriculum for continued education and skills development.  What might be some other options?  First, check out what speakers and experts are available within your building or district.  If you are looking for some professional development on lesson-planning, you may be able to have a colleague who is a teacher lead a session on that topic.  There are probably people who already have things prepared and ready to go that would be happy to partner with you.  However, there are a lot of options out there with regards to pulling things up for free to work on with new counselors.  First of all, the ASCA webinars are free to members.  Take a look at the schedule there and pick out a few that seem relevant to your school and/or district.  Then, watch them with the new counselors and follow up with discussion and ideas for how to incorporate some of the concepts discussed into their practice.  Topics this year include classroom management, bullying, technology use, and leadership--perfect for new school counselors.  Another great website for webinars is the National Office of School Counselor Advocacy (part of College Board)--check out their events page for upcoming and past events that you can access.  Another resource would be the plethora of school counseling blogs that are out there--find some entries that get to the heart of things like classroom management, lesson planning or academic advising and discuss them as a group.  You can find a pretty complete list of blogs at the School Counselor Online Professional Exchange (SCOPE) as well as some great tech ideas.  Additionally, there are monthly school counseling chats on Twitter (1st Tuesday of the month, 8 p.m. ET) that cover a variety of topics.  A great idea might be to have all the new counselors in your district hop on together for these chats and then follow up with a discussion of the topic as it might relate to your district.  There is also ASCA Scene, the school counseling discussion board--start a thread with the new counselors in your district and see where it goes, getting input and feedback from school counselors from around the world.  Perhaps you can find some time to gather everyone together for some topics, and enrich the experience with some of these options provided by technology--get creative! 
As we have a unique role as school counselors within our schools, we need unique and tailored professional development, especially in those first years, that speak to our specific skills, needs, and challenges.  It is our ethical responsibility to "provide support, consultation, and mentoring to novice professionals." (ASCA Code of Ethics, F.2.b)  My hope is that by focusing on mentoring, connection to resources, and continuing education and skill development, you can work within your school and district to build and design a program that works for you to "shepherd" in the next generation of school counseling professionals.

I must absolutely acknowledge several people and entities that I have the privilege of collaborating with in our work with new secondary counselors in my district: Marcy Miller, Valerie Hardy, the entire FCPS Great Beginnings staff, and my partner-in-crime, Deborah McDonald.  I am able to write about this topic only because I work with such outstanding people.  

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