The other day I got a lovely message from a reader (I just love saying that---thanks, Rebecca!) who is a new school counselor. She wanted to know if I had any special advice for someone who's just starting out.
I've been doing this job for over 20 years yet still feel like I know nothing. However, I gave it the old college try:
When you're new, much depends on what you're legally required to do, whether the position is new or if expectations are already in place, and what kind of administrator you have (laissez-faire or micro-manager).
Do you have to provide direct services for kids on IEPs or 504s? Many counselors don't---it's against ASCA recommendations--- but it's a HUGE part of my job; this past year I had 43 kids I was legally required to see weekly for the entire year.
What has worked best for me has been to create groups based on issue, rather than by grade level or classroom.
The groups are somewhat fluid too. I reevaluate at the end of each trimester to be sure that the mix is working well for each group, and think about whether I can roll in any of my individual kids.
This requires a lot of cooperation on the part of the classroom teachers. I haven't had much pushback, I think because I just assume they'll cooperate (and don't really give them the chance to refuse). I say, "I have to see So-and-so weekly. Which of these (two or three) times works best for you?" I'm very nice, so it works.
Also, a lot depends on your administrator as well as what your predecessor did before you. I've had a lot of independence in deciding what my job should look like in both of my districts. In the first case, my position was newly created and there had never been a school counselor there before; in the second, my job had been held by a guy who was essentially on strike for 3 years (one of the teachers told me a few weeks ago, "You had really small shoes to fill. They were like baby shoes." Bahaha!).
Are you expected to do a lot of classroom guidance? If so, you'll want to solicit teacher input when you're figuring out what you're going to do when, and with whom. I haven't done an assessment needs survey, but The Helpful Counselor has.
On to a few other thoughts.
1. If you don't use Google Drive yet, start. You can create surveys, both to get input from people and just for your own use to collect data. The things I've used it for are:
I saw somewhere (I think on Hanselor the Counselor) the idea of using Google Drive to create a list of all her resources by type and topic. If you're that incredibly organized, then God bless you.
This is one of the most positive things you can do to create good relationships with teachers and with parents. While there are things you shouldn't share due to confidentiality or common sense, there are plenty of things you can share.
And you should.
Teachers spend 6 hours a day with these kids. If there's a problem affecting a child's learning, they should know so they can be supportive. Parents need to know if there's something brewing so they don't feel ambushed when they get a call from the assistant principal 2 weeks from now.
Let teachers know when you've spoken to DCF, a parent, or an outside therapist. You don't need to give details, but a general comment is fine ("there's a history of domestic violence," or "his brother is having some trouble and he's upset about it," or "she's worried that something bad might happen while she's at school").
Ask parents for their e-mail addresses so you can dash off a quick e-mail as an FYI if there's a mid-sized issue that doesn't require a phone call (just be careful to always stick with facts and not opinions, and use a professional tone).
I provide teachers with contact info for DCF workers and outside therapists so they can go directly to the source. I also ask those outside people and parents how much I can share, even if there is a release of information.
3. Guard your lunch and prep time as much as possible.
This is me saying, "Do as I say and not as I do."
I thought I had learned this lesson the hard way at my old school, when kids were always lined up outside my door. Even the teachers (and especially my last principal) didn't respect those boundaries. I have to take a good chunk of the blame, because I never really set them. I was there to help, right?
Eventually, however, it all catches up to you in terms of feeling burned out and taken advantage of, to say nothing of having no time to eat or plan for sessions.
When I moved to my new school, because of the precedent set by Mr. Baby Shoes nobody ever called me unless it was an extreme emergency. The amazing amount of work I was able to get done really blew me away. Because of that time available for planning and prep, I did a MUCH better job of serving my kids.
You don't want to start thinking you suck when it's just your schedule and lack of planning time that sucks.
4. Recognize that you are touching kids in ways you will never know.
This is important. I was lucky to learn it very early in my career, when I was still an outpatient therapist. I was working with a second grade boy who wouldn't make eye contact, seemed very sullen, and never spoke during our first 3 or 4 sessions.
He'd take a few toys out of my bag, silently move them around, then put them back when it was time to go. I was panicky, thinking he hated me and not knowing how to make things better. Then in the middle of our 4th or 5th session, he was sitting next to me playing with a toy car when he said very quietly, "You're like a mother to me."
Huh. So much for my amazing ability to read people. As they say, you never know.
5. Finally, a couple of websites I really like:
www.bullies2buddies.com (a very different---and I think eye-opening---take on the bullying "epidemic," including some free resources like video clips and print-outs)
www.pbisworld.com (has all kinds of suggested behavioral interventions for kids with a variety of issues; will give you ideas for consults too)
www.teacherspayteachers.com (many free and low cost resources---I've gotten some terrific games, lesson plans, and other activities there)
And of course Pinterest! You can search for almost any kind of activity and keep all those great ideas in one place so you know where to find them again. If you haven't used it yet or don't know where to start, here's the link to my school counseling board: http://www.pinterest.com/smithie30/school-counseling/
Welcome to the club, and happy counseling!
Question for discussion: do any of you other experienced counselors have advice to add?