When you think about guidance counselors, do these words come to mind: isolated, unaccountable, uninvolved, inaccessible, or out of touch? Counselors can have the reputation of being reactive crisis workers who function within the confines of their offices, separate from the overall school community.
At Thomas W. Pyle Middle School in Montgomery County, Maryland, our staff has mastered the art of counselor involvement. In fact, the members of our counseling department see themselves as the glue that bonds all of our stakeholders. Here are some of the ways the counselors at Pyle work with administrators, teachers, and parents to maximize the academic and emotional success of all students.
Administrators as Partners
The support and collaboration of the administrators is vital to our success. Our administrators support Pyle’s schoolwide guidance program in several ways.
A climate goal in the school improvement plan. A school improvement plan (SIP) provides a focus and foundation for the work to be done for that school year. By including a climate-focused goal on the SIP, our administration sends the message that the school’s support of our students’ emotional health is imperative.
The climate goal at Pyle is: “Pyle Middle School will help students grow academically, socially, and emotionally by developing and nurturing positive relationships and engaging and motivating all students to improve their academic achievement in a positive school environment.” The development and implementation of this goal sends a clear message that everyone is working toward this goal, not just the counselors.
A voice in administrative decisions. At our school, the counseling department chair participates in administrative team meetings. This provides the counseling department a voice when key school-wide decisions are made and ensures administrators hear how these decisions might affect the counseling department and the students. These weekly meetings also provide an important opportunity for the department chair to discuss innovative counseling programs with the administration.
In addition, when implementing new programming, such as school-wide activities and lunch discussions, administrators routinely partner with counselors to introduce new ideas to staff, providing the administrative backing and support many staff need.
Protecting the role of the counselor. The administrators at Pyle honor the primary role of the counselor, which makes counseling the priority. At our school, counselors are not primarily involved in disciplinary roles such as bus duty, lunch duty, and alcohol/drug policing. Counselors are not assigned to be testing coordinators, stand-in administrators, or substitute teachers. By clearly establishing what our roles are and are not, the administrators lay the groundwork for what our department is hired to do.
Teachers as Copilots
Pyle Middle School serves more than 1,300 students and, like typical young adolescents, they all need some sort of counseling-related services. This need cannot be filled by a handful of counselors meeting students individually in their offices; more time and personnel are necessary.
We’ve implemented many strategies to work with teachers to implement counseling services throughout the building during the school day.
The team concept. The team is comprised of academic teachers, a counselor, and an administrator. This team meets weekly to monitor student progress. The counselor and team leader guide these meetings, with the counselor bringing pertinent information about the students from previous grades, report cards, teacher reports, or parent contacts.
Often, the team creates an action plan that outlines a detailed set of steps the team will follow to help a certain student. This action plan usually includes counselor follow up, such as meeting individually with a student or contacting a parent to communicate team feedback. The counselor then reports back to the team the following week. If the team determines a parent conference is warranted, the counselor sets up, attends, and many times facilitates the meeting.
During the conference, the counselor ensures the parents feel like they are part of a team and, most importantly, keeps the adults in check to make sure the student’s perspective and best interest are in the forefront. Clearly, the counselor is a vital member of the team, not an independent entity.
Classroom lessons and activities. Counselors provide teachers with guidance-related, scripted lesson plans and activities they can implement easily in their classes. Topics may include cyber bullying, academic integrity, stress, and self-esteem. At Pyle, counselors provide four school-wide lessons, usually at the beginning of each quarter. A specific date and time are chosen for the lesson to be taught to ensure all students receive the information.
School-wide events. The counseling department at Pyle hosts activities that provide students with handson opportunities for emotional growth. One of the most popular activities is Diversity Doors. After homeroom teachers facilitate discussions about diversity and acceptance, each homeroom decorates its door. A panel of judges (teachers, administrators, and students) chooses the most creative Diversity Door.
Parents as Collaborators
Parents are vital partners in ensuring their students’ success, and we involve them in a variety of ways.
Communication and connections. At the beginning of the year we reach out to all of our parents with our “Meet the Counselors’ Breakfast,” where we describe all of the counseling opportunities for the year.
Committees provide endless opportunities for counselors to communicate with and support parents. Some examples of the committees at our school include: Counseling Advisory Committee, Academic Advisory Committee, International and Newcomer Committee, Character Education Committee, and Cyber Connection Committee.
Our Counseling Advisory Committee provides the counseling department with a key tool to communicate with parents about upcoming counseling programming, but also gives parents a voice to let the department know what needs parents see in the community. The notes from the Counseling Advisory Committee meetings are put in the monthly newsletter to reach an even larger population of our parents.
The counseling department also frequently uses our e-mail listserve to contact parents about upcoming events. This provides parents with information about counseling programs and events and also gives them a quick and easy way to ask questions and give feedback.
Career and culture lunches. Pyle’s parent advisory group collaborates with the counseling department to organize monthly career and cultural lunches. Community members volunteer their time to speak about different careers and cultures to students who sign up to attend during their lunch. Participation is approximately 175 students per month.
And the Counselors
Teamwork is at the foundation of our school and our counseling department. Student caseload is structured by team assignment; all students on a given team have the same counselor. Counselors work together on grade-wide programming such as lunch discussion groups, career development, and classroom lessons, and share responsibility for each other’s students as a back-up support team.
Because we want to reach as many students as possible, one of our counselors has a reduced caseload so she can devote half of her time to special programming and schoolwide events.
Consistency. Each year, counselors and administrators move with their students to the next grade. This system promotes consistency for the students, fosters communication between the counselor and administration, provides teachers with background knowledge about the students, and helps ward off counselor burn-out.
Confidential, not mute. While confidentiality is at the heart of a counselor’s role, not everything a counselor does should be kept a secret. At Pyle Middle School, students and parents often want other staff members to know about their situations as part of the problem-solving process. We routinely ask parents and students, “Is this something I can share with the teachers?” or “What part of what you just told me can I share with the teachers?” We explain the benefit of everyone being on the same page in terms of helping the student.
Bragging rights. Counselors must demystify their position to the staff and reveal how they are using their time. Marketing strategies are a great tool for this. Our counselors make a targeted effort to inform parents, students, and staff about our programs and services. We visit every classroom in the beginning of the year and conduct a needs assessment with all students that helps guide our programming. We announce upcoming groups/ programming to students, parents, and staff via e-mails, listserves, bulletin boards, and PA announcements.
All about relationships. Relationships are the why and how of what we do. Colleagues who trust and like us are more likely to accept our programs. We are friendly and approachable to teachers and other staff members so we can more effectively work with our students. We even have a sign in our office that proclaims: “Warm and Fuzzy.” We strive to get to know our colleagues so we can work with them to help students achieve.
Plan, plan, plan ahead! We try to do as much advance planning as possible. Prior to the school year, we put our school-wide events on the master calendar so teachers have the information as soon as possible. We also hammer out the details such as rooms and space for programming. The more we think ahead, the less we inconvenience others.
Instead of being isolated and inaccessible, the counselors are at the center of a bustling community center with outreach to every classroom in the building. With teamwork, vision, relationships, and communication, our counseling department helps guide the academic, social, and emotional middle school experience of our students
Rebecca Bloom is a school counselor, Jennifer Goodstein is a teacher and team leader, and Erika Huck (Erika_A_Huck@mcpsmd.org) is a school counselor and department chair at Thomas W. Pyle Middle School in Montgomery County, Maryland.
Previously published in Middle Ground magazine, April 2011