When I launched my career as a professional school counselor a year ago, I was confident. After all, I was an ASCA member who had graduated from a CACREP-accredited school counseling program. Further, I completed my final internship at the high school where I was hired. I felt quite lucky to finally begin a career and not just start a job. Of course I felt the customary anxiety from plunging into a new experience, and I knew I would have more questions than answers at first. However, I knew my training and experiences provided me with ample groundwork to get off to a comfortable start. Now that I’ve finished my first year, I finally have time to reflect on my successes, not-quite successes and lessons learned.
Address idealism vs. reality. My weekly internship journals were teeming with examples of how I would do things differently from my supervisors. I would answer every phone call in 24 hours and immediately seek out the student who left a note saying, “I need to see you ASAP!” For the first few weeks of school, I reveled in being able to conduct my duties with punctuality, poise and professionalism. However, after a while, the day came when I just wanted to go home at the end of contract hours, and I didn’t return all phone calls. Idealism is certainly an advantage of novice counselors, but the reality is that we can’t do it all. As much as I knew that I couldn’t solve every problem, I still felt a twinge of pain when a student to whom I devoted hours moved mid-year or snapped and was expelled.
Be prepared to accept some level defeat but don’t have surrender entirely. When you feel a falter, take some time to relax and recharge your spirit.
Just say yes. I was cautioned against taking on duties outside the scope of my job during my first year. Colleagues instructed me to not overdo it or I would risk burning out. Although this is certainly good advice, don’t be afraid to pursue projects that interest you. I volunteered to serve as a group co-leader since I knew that my involvement would sustain and not restrain my motivation as a counselor. If you are passionate about an issue or activity, take the leap and delve into it. Make sure that you share your topics of interest with your colleagues so you can offer your expertise when appropriate and take the back seat when you’re feeling overloaded.
Show some school spirit. As a new counselor, in the beginning of the year I focused all of my attention on my caseload. I wanted to get to know each student assigned to me, and I relished every new connection. But it was by being the assistant swim coach and the co-leader of a test preparation program that I met hundreds of additional students. As I met more students, I was able to gain a better sense of the culture that exists at my school. To some extent I also believe that interacting with students outside of my caseload also increased my “like-ability” since students were able to see me as not just as a counselor in an office. As I felt more connected to the school, I had a greater desire to help each student, not just those assigned to me.
Walk the halls between classes, eat lunch in the cafeteria and show up for after-school extracurricular activities. The more the students (and faculty) get to know you, the greater your chances of making a lasting impact on the school as a whole.
Make lemonade out of lunch duty. Yes, I served lunch duty. I was well prepped on how counselors are inevitably asked to take on responsibilities that seem outside the scope of the position. However much I dislike the thought of being taken out of my office during the time when students are most likely to visit their counselor, I am one of many counselors who view lunch duty as a positive opportunity. During lunch, I watch the students interact with each other in a more natural environment. The cafeteria is also a great venue for informal conversations with the administrators and other faculty on duty. One of my favorite ideas came as I was rushing to the cafeteria and didn’t have time to stop at my office to drop off the fliers I had just copied for a new program I needed to promote. As I was standing in line, watching hundreds of students pass me by, I realized I could contact virtually every student in the building during lunch. I distributed fliers to each table, and the number of attendees at the orientation night for my program exceeded all expectations because of this marketing. As they say, “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” Every opportunity, however dismal it may seem at first, can be turned into a success.
Practice diplomacy. As professional school counselors, we cater to various parties – students, parents and guardians, teachers, administrators, and our colleagues – and we must learn how to juggling everyone’s desires and demands. There is a balance to achieve between giving in and holding the line. I witnessed by best results when I did a little of both. It quickly became obvious that the parents at my school weren’t used to being held accountable. When one of our programs included a strict attendance policy and student participants were dismissed for nonattendance, many parents frantically offered up excuses and fought to have their children readmitted. Although we remained firm, we also offered alternative means for the students to benefit apart from remaining in the program.
Use your finesse to maintain your attitudes and beliefs, while also adapting to your school’s unique needs.
Wean yourself from the routine. About a month into the school year, I came out of my office excitedly exclaiming, “I just did real counseling!” The first weeks seemed to be all about schedule conflicts and changes. My office appeared to be a revolving door of students who wanted to drop an honors course, didn’t like their elective or wanted a different teacher. Even worse, I heard myself sounding like a broken record in response (the title track being “No”). I knew scheduling would be a major component of high school counseling, and I actually enjoy the process for the most part. But this much time? One student had come in to complain about being overwhelmed with her honors U.S. history course, and she wanted to change to the on-level course. Something about her request made me pause, and it occurred to me that this could be an opportunity for exploration. It was obvious the class wasn’t the only thing on her mind, and for the next 45 minutes we drew diagrams of everything that was causing her stress, prioritized, came up with alternatives and set up a journal for the next week. It was exhilarating. It took some time, but I finally felt like I was doing something I learned in grad school. From this I realized that when things begin to feel routine, I need to adjust my perspective and remember that each student deserves my genuine support.
Record keeping. The first year as a school counselor is indeed a whirlwind. The days, weeks and months fly by, and I often felt like I didn’t have the time to do things quite as I would have liked. I often found that we would complete an event or unit and immediately move on to the next task without debriefing or processing as a department. As the event was occurring we would have various ideas for improvement, but we didn’t actually stop to take notes. With so many activities in one year, these thoughts and ideas are often forgotten.
Return to the graduate school concept of journaling and keep a record of the things you would like to change in the future. (At least now you’re thinking more realistically.) Make that your ideas can be easily accessed. For instance, keep them with the file for the event or write them in your calendar so you will see your notes during future planning sessions. Taking a few minutes each day to compose your thoughts ensures that your program will continue to develop and grow in a positive direction.
Continue your education. One of the most frustrating incidents during my time in graduate school occurred when the two mandatory summer courses were switched from substance abuse counseling and family counseling to coursework that could lead to a career-counseling-related certification. Although I could see the advantages to additional career counseling coursework, I also knew I would encounter substance abuse, and, most certainly, family issues on a daily basis. There will always be areas in which you are not as proficient as you would like, so research professional development opportunities where you can heighten your knowledge and stay current on recent trends and advancements.
At the end of the year, I pulled a number of personal files to review over the summer. I was surprised at how many resources I had forgotten were hiding within my files. And yet, I still survived my first year with only a few bruises. I consider my first year to have been a success, but I couldn’t have done it without the support I received from my colleagues, friends and family. I applaud all professional school counselors who are beginning their first year and wish you the best. Year two, here I come.
Christine Spaulding is starting her second year as a school counselor at West Potomac High School in Alexandria, Va. She received her master’s degree in school counseling from George Washington University in Washington, D.C. Spaulding can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.