Sunday, July 10, 2016

Beginning School Counselor - What You Need to Know

Heading into my 19th year as an urban elementary school counselor, I was thinking the other day about what it would be like to be a novice school counselor again. Back then, when I began, I remember feeling on my own - we didn't have a written K-12 curriculum, we didn't have suicide or threat risk assessment documents and we didn't have many guidelines. I was forced to use what I learned in graduate school and from ASCA to do what I thought was best for the students and staff. I remember feeling overwhelmed because of the lack of direction. Yet, at the same time, I could create a program that I could call my own. I was able to use my creativity, my professional judgment, and excitement to be in a job that I was thrilled about, to develop a K-5 school counseling program that would affect systemic change. A program which made sense for my students, the staff and the parents.

At the time there wasn't the plethora of school counseling and other educational blogs, Twitter and Tweet Chats, Facebook, or Pinterest to turn to for ideas and help/support. Where was Google when I needed it back then? These tech tools have really changed the game in finding tried and true ideas, but also exponentially changed professional development and networking. 19 years ago, I relied heavily on conferences, speaking to my colleagues, school counseling resource books and the catalogs I bought them from to explore the materials to create my program. As an urban educator, I didn't have a budget most years - sometimes only a few bucks. So, I had to purchase and make most of my own materials over the years. I purchased a lot of superb resources, but also, especially early on, I purchased a lot of duds because of the lack avenues where fellow school counseling folks talked about what they do in their school counseling office and in their schools. I am particular in what I want from my materials and it is frustrating when they fall short (especially when you are spending your own money). 

If you are a new school counselor or if you are someone who finds yourself in a situation with little guidance or direction in your school district, here are some learnings I want to share with you. 

Must Haves
  • Materials 
    • A Great School Bag - I love the Thirty One Zip Top Large Organizing Tote (which they don't seem sell in the 18" length any longer). So I found this one on Amazon that seems to compare - will fit all your "stuff" in it!! N.Gil All Purpose Organizer 18 inch Large Utility Tote
    • Zojirushi Stainless Steel Mug - Busy school counselors never get to drink their coffee when they want to. I LOVE this mug - it will keep your coffee or tea HOT all day. No kidding!
    • Hydro Flask Water Bottle - School counselors are in demand all day long. You need to stay hydrated. Nothing worse than going for a drink of water that you packed that morning and it's warms. This is the best water is still in this bottle at night before I go to bed. Keeps your water or cold drink ice cold all day!!!
    • Plenty of Post-It Notes in various sizes - I go through sticky notes like crazy - should have stock in this company
    • SCUTA - School Counselor Use of Time Analysis (SCUTA) - super program to collect data on how you are affecting students. Calendar, generates handy reports and graphs, etc. AWESOME!!!
    • Stress Toys - I can't tell you how often these materials are used by students AND staff when they come to visit me. Check out my blog post on "Sensory Needs and Calming Doodads" for a bunch of my favorites! 
  • Other
    • You-Time - Being a school counselor (or any educator for that matter) can suck the energy right out of you. No doubt it is a stressful and challenging job. Schedule time for yourself - whether it be a specific time that you will leave the office, going for a walk or a hike, doing fun things with friends and family, taking yoga classes, swimming, walking the dog, working in your garden - whatever you find fun and relaxing. I can't express to you how important this is -- you MUST take care of yourself so you can take care of others!!!
    • An Open Door - Folks need to know they are welcome in your space. One great way to do this is keep your door open whenever you are not doing something confidential in nature.
    • An Inviting Office - Consciously think of your furniture and decor. Organize the furniture in a way that makes sense for easy maneuverability and access. Decorate. Don't go over the top with your decor, but make your space go from blah to colorful, interesting and inviting. Professional but not sterile; these are kids you are working with!
    • Patience and Flexibility - You will need a lot of both!!

Must Do's

Must Accomplish
  • Be the kind of school counselor you would want your own kids (or nieces/nephews, etc.) to have
  • The Art of Self-Reflecting - this is what will make you are great school counselor/educator; always trying to figure out what went well, what didn't go so well and how YOU can improve to make it better next time. The trick is to not let self-reflection consume you....
  • Make Your Own Schedule - if not, someone else will fill your day for you
  • Organize Yourself - this career is fast paced and requires a whole bunch of multi-tasking; come up with a system of how you will do it all and how you will keep track of all you do
  • Become a Leader - the person others trust, respect, see as having a valued opinion and can count on
  • With Students - Be firm, but kind and caring; give them your undivided attention, give them you; relate to them and look each and every one of them in the eyes; smile and refer to them by name
  • With Staff - Listen; support; advocate for students; be real; work hard and show your worth; get involved; speak-up even if you are the one standing alone; determine your allies and those natural born leaders 
  • With Parents - Be kind, but honest; get to the point and don't beat around the bush even if it is a difficult situation; watch body language - ask follow-up questions and explain educational jargon
A Final Thought

This is your new career - you have amazing ideas, lofty goals, crazy amounts of energy to get started, and I'm guessing, some nerves. Know that there is much to accomplish, but you don't have to do it ALL at once. I don't recommend sitting back and admiring the fact that you just landed a job in this super career field (from among a host of top-notch candidates), instead, get out there and show them WHY they hired you!! It is, however, important to know that you have to pace yourself.  At year 19, I still have amazing ideas, lofty goals, some nerves, much to accomplish, but not as much energy as I used to!
It's your time to shine!