Tuesday, January 31, 2012

No Name Calling Week: Video Retrospective

Last week was national "No Name Calling Week," a week where schools across America focus on the impact of words on students.  Oftentimes student groups, including Gay-Straight Alliances (GSAs), will make videos to help get awareness out amongst their peers and in their communities.  Below is a sampling of the creativity from some wonderful young people to help combat bullying.


This next video is particularly poignant, as it comes from a GSA at a school in Nashville, Tennessee. Tennessee is where a bill is currently moving through the legislature known as the "License to Bully" bill, very similar to one that was moving through Michigan a few months ago.:
"What this bill would do, if passed, would give students the ability to justify bullying their peers that are gay or perceived to be gay by pointing to a political or religious conviction." (source: www.huffingtonpost.com) 
Given the number of suicides attributed in part to anti-gay harassment and bullying across the country, what kind of message does legislation like this send?  This video, then, is doubly courageous.



Thursday, January 26, 2012

21st Century Skills and Careers: Licenses and Certificates

I guess it was only inevitable when one has a brother currently majoring in astronomy and physics, a father with a doctorate in American History (we'll gloss over the current obsession with squirrels), and a mother whose work on her master's thesis was about communication styles between the "athletes" of the World Wrestling Federation.

I am a nerd, and an ecclectic one, at that.

Other people listen to techno-music or jock-jams when they are sweating on the stairmaster.  I get my excercise groove on by listening to NPR's Planet Money podcast.  This is a podcast that discusses economics--how money and commodoties play out in the United States and abroad.  I enjoy it because the journalists are able to make complex theories and ideas simple and relatable to everyday life.  One of the more recent ones caught my eye (or ear, as the case was) in that it discussed the changes that have occured in manufacturing jobs in the last several decades.

In a two-part series, the journalists visit Greeneville County, South Carolina, a place that used to be home to a plethora of manufacturers.  People were able to make good, living wages with very little education.  Oftentimes, men and women would drop out of high-school and start working in the factories at 16 or 17 years old, because there was little use for staying in school when they could live comfortably off of their stable company job.  The jobs would often involve heavy labor, but workers could even get by without knowing how to read. 

Flash forward to today.  In the story, the journalist talks about Ralph and Maddie  Neither has anything beyond a high-school education.  Maddie still does hands-on assembly line work, placing parts in machines and pressing buttons.  Ralph, however, works with microscopes and highly technical computer tools:
"Ralph is the future of manufacturing. He has adapted to the new technology on the factory floor. But for Maddie, the pace of change has been bewildering. She is still adjusting, and she will have to keep adjusting as the machines grow more sophisticated and the work less physical." (source: www.npr.org/blogs/money/)
In modern manufacturing and assembly-line work, it is all about technology, computers, math and science.  There are still plenty of machines, but they are very complicated, expensive machines that take a great deal of expertise and knowledge to operate.  In fact, in a more humorous moment in the story, the journalist is told that he would not even be considered for hiring, even though he has a bachelor's degree and some decent computer knowledge.  The skill set for these manufacturing jobs is that specific:
"To become like Ralph, I'd have to learn the machine's computer language. I'd have to learn the strengths of various metals and their resistance to various blades. And then there's something I don't believe I'd ever be able to achieve: the ability to picture dozens of moving parts in my head. Half the people Tony (Ralph's boss) has trained over the years just never were able to get that skill.
And if you don't get that skill, a mistake on this machine can be catastrophic. All the work that's done here happens on a scale of microns. One micron is four-hundred-thousandths of an inch. A human hair, for example, is 70 microns thick. Here, you cannot be off by one-tenth the thickness of a hair.
'A 7- or 8-micron wrong adjustment in this machine cost us a $25,000 workhead spindle,' Young says. 'Two seconds, we could lose $25,000.'" (source: www.npr.org/blogs/money/)
The story back to Maddie, the worker who has high-school skills but not much technical training.  She is working on a machine that is more "old-school" than some of the newer, more highly complex machines.  Right now she has a job because to design and manufacture a machine that could do her job would cost more than her annual salary.  However, looming over her and all the other workers in her position is the fear that could change--that at some point it could be cheaper to have a machine than a worker.  Without more extensive technical training, she could someday be out of a job. (source: www.npr.org/blogs/money/)

In a previous post, I talked about the rise and focus of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) careers.  I have also written about the emerging mission and focus of school counselors, that of preparing students for college and career readiness and helping them to build 21st century skills.  If we look at this new trend in manufacturing, how do we, as school counselors, steer some of our students in a direction that will help them to find stable and meaningful work?  I always tell my students that you do not necessarily need to go to a four-year college after high-school, but you do need some plan, some training, beyond graduation in order to find a job in the modern era.  For many of these manufacturing-tech jobs, you do not need a bachelor's degree or even an associate's.

Interestingly enough, there are organizations out there looking at the amount of money one earns depending on various post-secondary education options.  According to an article through American Radio Works, there are a wide variety of license and certificate programs that can lead to stable careers in a variety of fields.  Licenses and certificates are often shorter programs than an associates degree and only focus on the classes needed to learn a particular skill, whether that is information technology, HVAC, or dental workers.  Further, according to the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, 43% of those with licenses and certificates make more than those with associates degrees, and 27% make more than those with bachelor's degrees.  31% of those with associates degrees make more than those with bachelor's degrees.

What does this tell us?  It tells us that a four-year degree is not necessarily the only path to a stable career and success.  For some of our students, they will find themselves to be just as successful if not more successful if they simply graduate from high school and then receive specialized training in a specific field.  We have students who have struggled with academic coursework their entire time in school.  We have students who prefer to be hands-on with their work--they want to be directly engaged with wires or metal.  We have students who love to be able to be in motion the entire day.  We have students who are not quite ready for a two or four year academic degree at this stage in their lives, but who want and need to get a few more skills to enter the workforce.  These license and certificate programs are a strong option.

Mike Rowe, the producer and host of the television show, Dirty Jobs, lobbied congress for more information and recruiting of skilled labor--labor that is trained in license and certificate programs.


Similarly, President Obama, in his recent State of the Union Address, stressed the fact that there are jobs out there, highly skilled manufacturing jobs, that cannot be filled because workers lack the necessary training, a fact confirmed by the American Composite Manufacturing Association in a follow up article.  Certificate and license courses can help to fill these positions.

Where can you get more information about these types of programs?  First, I would recommend looking into your local community-college.  For us here in the Northern Virginia area, we have NOVA, and the list of degrees and certificate programs is quite extensive, everything from radiology certificates to multimedia design certificates.  Another trend to be on the look-out for in the next couple of years are emerging "free-college" online schools.  As of now, these schools, such as University of the People, are not accredited, but that could be changing, and they are teaching valuable skills in areas like information systems and technology.

We may have to broaden our definition of "college" when we discuss "college and career readiness."  For me, I believe it is some structured program after high-school that earns a student a credential of some kind.  Licenses and certificates fit the bill, in my book, and could be the best pathway possible for some students to find success and satisfaction in the work they end up doing every day. 

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

School Counselor Advocacy and Owning the Turf

In a previous post I discussed the importance of school counselors advocating for the work that we do as well as beginning to define our role, both for ourselves and for our stakeholders.

The following two videos are from the National Office of School Counselor Advocacy (NOSCA).  The first is an overview of the the Counselors at a Crossroads survey that shares what it is that school counselors see as their ideal mission.

The second video is from the current Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, and discusses the importance of school counselors Owning the Turf of college and career readiness within our schools.


Both of these videos can be shared with stakeholders--administration, parents, teachers, students, and community members--as a way to help them see the value in what do as school counselors and to further help to define our mission of academic success with skills that will lead to college and career success.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Think homophobic bullying is not occuring in elementary school? Think again.

Another child has killed himself, reportedly because of bullying due to his sexual orientation.  Phillip Parker, a 14 year old boy in Tennessee, had stated to his grandmother:

"He kept telling me he had a rock on his chest," said Ruby Harris, Phillip’s grandmother. "He just wanted to take the rock off where he could breathe." (source: www.wbir.com)
Phillip was 14 years old, just in his first year of high school.

Additionally, more LGBT families are having children and raising families.  The children of these families, though, can often find themselves ridiculed by peers based on their parents sexual orientation.  Claire Davidson-Shermann is one such student.  She was made fun of in her elementary school in Omaha, Nebraska, for having two mothers.  For Phillip, the tauntings that led him to take his own life very well could have begun years ago when he was in the primary grades.  For Claire, her young peers recognized a difference in her family and used it to bully her.  In a new study released this past week by the Gay, Lesbian, & Straight Education Network (GLSEN), the roots of homophobic bullying and stereotyping are shown to begin early in the elementary school years.

Much of the research into the bullying of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) youth has been done at the middle and high-school levels.  This new study, Playgrounds and Prejudice: Elementary School Climate in the United States, examines how our younger children interact with each other and school communities with regards to gender stereotypes, sexual orientation, and bullying.  The survey gathered data from both students and teachers in elementary schools.  Key findings are:
  • About half of students (45%) report that they hear comments like “that’s so gay” or “you're so gay” from other kids at school sometimes, often or all the time. Half of teachers (49%) say they hear students in their school use the word “gay” in a negative way sometimes, often or very often.
  • Four in ten students (39%) say they hear other kids at their school say there are things that boys should not do or should not wear because they are boys at least sometimes. One third of students (33%) say they hear other kids at their school say there are things that girls should not do or should not wear because they are girls at least sometimes.
  • One quarter of students (26%) and teachers (26%) report hearing other students make comments like “fag” or “lesbo” at least sometimes.
  • Three quarters (75%) of elementary school students report that students at their school are called names, made fun of or bullied with at least some regularity (i.e., all the time, often or sometimes).
  • Nearly one half of elementary school teachers believe that bullying, name‐calling or harassment is a very or somewhat serious problem at their school (47%).
  • Two thirds of students attribute the bullying and name‐calling that they witness at school to students’ appearance or body size (67%). Students are next most likely to attribute the bullying and name‐calling to not being good at sports (37%), how well they do at schoolwork (26%) and being a boy who acts or looks “too much like a girl” or a girl who acts or looks “too much like a boy” (23%).
  • Seven in ten teachers say that students in their school are very often, often or sometimes bullied, called names or harassed because of the way they look or their body size (70%). Teachers are also likely to report that students in their school are frequently bullied, called names or harassed because of their ability at school (60%), they have a disability (39%), their family does not have a lot of money (37%), they are a boy who acts or looks “too much like a girl" (37%) or their race/ethnicity (35%).
  • Students who do not conform to traditional gender norms are more likely than others to say they are called names, made fun of or bullied at least sometimes at school (56% vs. 33%). (source:  www.glsen.org)
What kind of effect does this have on students?  Very similar to middle and high-school students, elementary students who report being bullied are more likely to report lower grades, a lack of desire to attend school, fewer connections to family and friends, and are more likely to feel "stressed."  (source:  www.glsen.org)  If these students are feeling this way in elementary school, how are they likely to feel when they hit middle school, a time that school counselors know children are struggling even more to fit in and find their identity?

Further on in the report, the beliefs of the teachers are discussed.  Teachers, in general, believe that it is their responsibility and obligation to provide a safe and welcoming environment for students who do not conform to traditional gender roles, as well as to LGBT parents and families.  Further, they feel that there is support from other teachers and administrators in their buildings to address non-traditional gender roles and LGBT families with students and their school community.  However, they waiver in feeling there is support from school boards and central office staffs for training and curriculum on these issues. (source: www.glsen.org)

What can we do?  In this same report, teachers report receiving professional development and training on working with diversity and with multicultural issues, but few have received training on working with LGBT families or non-gender conforming students.  I interpret all of these findings as saying that school staffs are eager and ready to help these students and these families, but they are looking for guidance, resources, and support.  As school counselors, we are often seen to be the leaders in our buildings when it comes to understanding human development as well as helping to design and facilitate school-wide curricula that address harassment and bullying.  I often wonder, though, if most school counselors feel that they themselves have had sufficient training on LGBT students, families, and children that do not conform to traditional gender roles.  If my very unscientific polling from conferences and colleagues is any indication, the answer is, no.  Those of us coming out of graduate programs receive a great deal of training on diversity and multiculturalism, which is definitely a step in the right direction. However, it seems to me that oftentimes, because of a lack of time, LGBT issues are either given very scant attention, or none at all.  I say this not to lay any blame on graduate programs, but rather to make the point that perhaps we need to receive more training on this topic once we begin our jobs as counselors to better be able to serve our students, their families, and school communities.

GLSEN will be holding a webinar on February 1st at 3 p.m. to begin the education process and to discuss their new elementary curriculum, Ready, Set, Respect!  If you feel this is something that is timely for your school or that you feel ready to receive more training on, I highly recommend registering at the link provided.

Claire's story has a positive ending--her teacher was able to address the bullying, and for now, things are going well.  Her parents recognize, though, that there may be hurdles to overcome in the future.  I do wonder, though, how many more Phillip's are going to have to die before we, as school counselors, and as a society in general, truly begin to address this issue.  This is not a topic that is about politics or religion or values.  It's a topic about life and death.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Teacher Bullying

As I've written in previous posts, a school-wide bullying initiative starts from the top and moves downward.  The entire school community should be made aware of what constitutes bullying and harassment, as well as the interventions and consequences for such actions.

Teachers can be some of your biggest allies with regards to students and bullying--they can intervene in the halls and the classroom, and they can also share concerns with you about students they believe are being harassed.  Because they see these students every day or every other day, they are often in the best position to notice changes in kids or observe situations in which they may be victims of other students.

However, as part of the discussion about the bullying and harassment prevention program and policy within your school, perhaps there should also be a discussion about how adults may themselves exhibit bullying behaviors towards students or even other co-workers, sometimes without even realizing that their words and actions could be construed in that manner.  We, as counselors, are used to reflecting on our own beliefs, values, words, and statements, as we know these can influence our work with students and clients.  As the adults in your school come together to address this topic, self-reflection and education can be a key and powerful component in helping to develop empathy across the entire community.

The Southern Poverty Law Center has developed a short seminar meant to be presented to small groups of faculty and staff to discuss the topic of teacher bullying and its effects on students as well as recommendations for addressing it and developing policy.  This presentation is not meant to put anyone on the defensive, but rather educate and facilitate discussion so that there is a greater awareness of the power differential between teachers and students and the effects that certain words and actions can have on students.  Special thanks to the LGBT Project for alerting me to this link.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Basketball Coach Advocates for School Counselors: Be the One

Shaka Smart, the coach at Virginia Commonwealth University, has created a short video encouraging kids to aim for college and telling them to seek out their school counselors to help them reach this goal.  Another great clip for kids and parents alike:

Above and Beyond

The Partnership for 21st Century Skills has come out with a wonderful animated video (partnering with FableVision) that shows the power of the four C's:  Communication, Collaboration, Critical Thinking, and Creativity.  Its a wonderful resource to share with colleagues as well as parents and students.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Support the Student Non-Discrimination Act

Senator Al Franken is supporting a bill that would ban discrimination in schools based on sexual-orientation and/or gender identity.  Check out his video below and website for information on how to contact your Senators.

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: http://www.washingtonpost.com/)
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: http://www.washingtonpost.com/)
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: nosca.collegeboard.com)
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, www.schoolcounselor.org:
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.


New ACA Case Studies Book Offers Best Practices for LGBTQQI Clients

ACA has just published a new book of case studies, designed to help counselors think through and learn about working with LGBT clients--consider taking a look.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Homophobic Language

Another parent posted an entry to Huffington Post about her thoughts concerning homophobic language and slurs and the possible harmful effects it can have on children.  Even in our schools, you can, from time-to-time, hear comments such as "that's so gay" or slurs such as "fag" or "dyke" come out of the mouths of not only other students but also from adults in the schools as well as parents at home.  What effect does that language have on all of our students?  It can certainly cause more angst, self-loathing, and fear amongst those LGBT students, but it also reinforces the acceptability of such language for everyone else.

Read this parent's take on it here.

Friday, January 6, 2012

A Mother's Take on Homophobia and Kids

This came to my attention from several different fronts.  A blogger and mother wrote a post about the crush that her young son has on Blaine, a character on the television show, Glee!.  Read the original post here

She received a lot of feedback and posted a response to the Huffington Post that discusses the comments people wrote to her original post as well as her perspective on homophobic language and its effect on kids, including elementary school-aged children. Worth a read--click here for the post in its entirety.

Anti-Gay Bullying PSA

Karen Gautney, of the LGBT Project, threw this my way.  Check out this great anti-gay bullying PSA from Ireland:

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?

New Year's Day--a time to reflect on the past, remember the joys, and look expectantly forward to a fresh start.  However, for many families, both looking back and looking ahead is filled with uncertainty, anxiety, and fear.

As school counselors, we know that it is no great secret that economic times have been challenging in the last several years.  Jobs have been lost and companies have had to lay off large portions of their workforce.  Those who are now unemployed can spend months and months looking for work, and when they do find it they often take jobs at much lower salaries with fewer, if any, benefits.  NPR has been running a series called "Road Back To Work" over the last year, and the installment on Friday updated listeners on several of the people they have been following.  The men and women they are tracking have all lost their jobs in the last several years and the stories detail their attempts to find new ones.  In this latest story, many of the participants have found new work after months and months of endless job fairs, sent resumes, and interviews, only to lose them again anywhere from a few weeks to a few months.

In the NPR story, one of the women states that, "I don't know. I never thought life would turn to this for me." (source: www.npr.org) While, contrary to popular stereotypes, there has never truly been a standard picture of what someone who is unemployed looks like, this is a time where people who have played by all the rules (you know the rules--do well in school, get a college degree, get some training beyond the college degree, get job paying good wage with good benefits, live happily ever after) find that even though they've done everything "right," they still face unemployment.  Many news reports, such as this one from CNN this last month, raise the concern that the current generation of workers will struggle more than that of their parents.  Thus, in my job I have worked with families who never thought that they would be struggling in the way that they currently are, ending up in situations where one or both parents has no job, no source of income.  Not only does this pull the rug out from underneath the adults, it also can wreak havoc on the whole family.

Losing a job does mean losing the knowledge of where the money is going to come from, but it has much larger ramifications on a family.  Without benefits, family members may decide to forgo necessary medical and dental care, or, if they do go to the doctor, dentist, or ER, they can rack up quite large medical debt.  Without a salary, families may not participate in the additional educational opportunities they may once have, whether that is tutors, field-trips, or participation in sports or the arts.  Without a salary, families are one mechanical issue away from losing reliable transportation.  Without a salary, families may struggle to provide basic needs like food, shelter and clothing.  This can happen within a few months of losing a job.  A friend of mine shared with me the link to Spent, an interactive website designed by the Urban Ministries of Durham (a group that works with the homeless in Durham, NC).  This website walks you through the difficult choices and decisions many of our families have to make in these tough economic times.  I would highly recommend that you click on the link to Spent and go through the website--it helps to give you a touch of the perspective of what many families are struggling with today.

What can we, as school counselors, do to help our students and their families, through these difficult circumstances?
  • Connect them with resources: free and reduced lunch.  For families who have never had to work through unemployment and job loss, navigating the paperwork and the system for accessing things like free and reduced lunch will be completely new.  Sometimes it may be that we have to carefully and compassionately ask questions of our students and families if we or other school personnel happen to notice that there may be a change in circumstances, and then help to educate then on any services that may be available.  Further, having a good relationship with your cafeteria manager and food service is invaluable--they can help you to move things along more quickly.
  • Connect them with resources:  social services.  I am truly fortunate in my current position that we have an amazing school social worker in our building as well as central offices that assist with our homeless students.  If you do not have people who can serve as these resources, it is important that you then at least know who families  can contact--phone numbers, e-mails, etc.--if they find they are going to lose their house and be on the streets, or if they no longer have medical insurance and need to apply for Medicaid or state-insurance for their children.  Perhaps they need clothes and shoes for their growing children.  Connect with other counselors, social service providers, or mental health workers in your locale to get referrals, and then keep a list handy so that it is there when you need it.  Further, the parents and guardians may ask you if you know of any jobs or job centers within your community--it's never a bad idea to have one or two of those on the list, as well.
  • Connect them with resources:  programs and considerations within the school.  Oftentimes students who qualify for free/reduced meals also qualify for waived or reduced fees for arts programs and athletics.  Further, your PTSO may have a special fund to quietly help students who need a little bit of extra help to pay for things like field trips or prom tickets.  If they do not, perhaps you can help to start such a fund.  Additionally, these students may need some extra academic help but not have the money to pay for it.  Perhaps your National Honor Society or National Junior Honor Society has student tutors looking for extra hours, or perhaps there is a local community organization that sponsors free tutoring either in the schools or at local libraries or even churches, temples, mosques, or synagogues. 
  • Check in more frequently with that student(s).  Once you become aware of a family whose economic situation has changed in a significant way, it is important to build a relationship with that student and the family so that you can offer assistance and resources should the need arise.  Further, checking in periodically with the student to see how things are going is good for two reasons.  First, it will give you information as to if there are any further changes, and secondly, it will strengthen your relationship with the student so that he/she will be more likely to come to you on their own should the need arise.
  • Advocate for your students.  In the Spent game, it comes up that often children will not eat free/reduced lunch because of the stigma.  In my district, all of our students use account numbers when they go through the lunch line, so there is no immediate recognition available to other students simply based on when/where/how they get their lunch.  If your school still has a program that makes the lunch status of students transparent, perhaps you can advocate for change.  It is important to honor the confidentiality of students who are eligible for free/reduced services.  Indeed, it can be necessary for some faculty members, coaches, and arts directors to know that a family is going through hard times, but it is helpful to remind them that this is not something to ever be discussed publicly and that the information is private.
We may not be able to find jobs for all of our families that may need one, but we can help to connect them with resources to make this period in their lives just a little bit easier.  Most important, we can do our best to make sure that the lives of our students, at school, remain steady and consistent, giving them a place that they can rely on even amidst change and uncertainty at home.