Wednesday, March 7, 2018

A Better Way to do Scheduling? Take it Away From Counselors

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D

Here in the Midwest, the beginning of the high school basketball playoffs are upon us, and the last of the potential snow days flirt with our hopes that we could earn one more unexpected, but badly needed, day off. This means only one thing—it’s time for scheduling for next year.

The debate over the value of school counselors doing scheduling is legendary. School administrators argue (generally with a wry smile) that academic planning and postsecondary planning are integral parts of a counselor’s work—and what better way to make sure those plans are on track than for counselors to meet with students to plan their schedules for next year?

It turns out there actually is a better way to do this, and that is through the advisory system. Long used with tremendous success by private schools, the advisory system is centered on a regular meeting between the adviser (usually a teacher) and about 15-18 students. These meetings occur as often as once a week, and are run using a school wide advisory curriculum, so busy teachers don’t have to find things to keep their advisees amused, and so certain school wide tasks can get done with greater efficiency—like scheduling.

Many public schools tried the advisory system about 40 years ago. Most schools called it a homeroom, and since the number of students in each homeroom was closer to 30 than 15, the success of these efforts was minimal—especially since most schools didn’t invest in a creating a schoolwide curriculum ahead of time. The end result was a well-meaning disaster.

This is where you come in. If counselors ever needed more partners in the implementation of the school counseling curriculum, it’s now. Too many kids with so many needs, combined with ever-growing administrative duties counselors were never meant to do, all spell out the need for you to take on the task of creating a support system for kids that’s more than just you. You need to shape the advisory system in your school.

This is less hard than you might believe. ASCA and other groups have armloads of resources for how to run an effective advisory—and if your administrator balks at the idea, point out these advantages:

More efficient communication Websites and emails aren’t reaching students the way they used to, and texting should be saved for special occasions. Regular advisory meetings give schools the chance for a caring adult to look at students in the eye and relay important messages, from news about prom to discussions about campus safety, with a directness administrators will delight in, and students will find refreshing.

Better academic advising More advisers working students through the nuts and bolts of scheduling in the winter—and more important, schedule changes in the fall—means your time and expertise will help students make better decisions about what to take, when to switch a class, and how it relates to the bigger picture. If a student needs to see you for a serious discussion about life after high school, you now have the time for one.

A stronger community affect Advisers and advisees can’t help but get to know each other better through the advisory system. That means one more pair of eyes and ears has the time to focus on the development and well-being of a student, since advisory isn’t about teaching—it’s about growing. A little training of teachers helps them know when a mental health professional’s skills are needed. The creation of an advisory system puts them in a position to help students access those skills at the right time.

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

The Painful, Important Reminder of Dear White Counselor

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D

She had never met her school counselor, but that didn’t keep her from bursting into his office once the bell rang.

“I know what I want to do with my life!” the student said, excitement in her eyes.  “I want to go to college to become a musician in a jazz band.”

The counselor turned sized up the student, and drew in his breath.  “Shows what you know”, the counselor said.  “You don’t have to go to college to join a band—you just join one!  Lucky thing for you.  No college in its right mind would take you.”

Undeterred—or, perhaps motivated in an odd way by the counselor’s remarks, the student went on to graduate high school and go on to college.  After earning a degree in music, she returned to her hometown, where she became the school’s choir director, and went to school at night to earn a Master’s degree.  Her timing was perfect; she completed her last class one June, just as the man who had served as her school counselor announced his retirement.

She was able to take his job, you see, because her Master’s degree was in Counseling.

We’d like to think these days are behind us as a profession, but then there’s Dear White Counselor, the narrative poem of a student of color who jumped into his school counselor’s office with a list of colleges he wanted to apply to, only to watch the counselor rip up the list, and suggest the student get more “realistic.”  As you can imagine, the student went on to high academic achievement at some pretty powerful colleges.

These two stories are gentle reminders that the lone key to successful counseling is humility.  Years of experience may tell us a student and his true love are likely to break up by prom, that cosmetology isn’t really going to work out for the student who has their heart set on it, and that the student with a B average isn’t likely to get admitted to the college of their choice.  But this real-life certitude doesn’t excuse us from treating our clients with anything but dignity.  It also shouldn’t let us forget the element of surprise.

Both of these qualities are essential in building a strong relationship with our clients.  “You’ve picked a pretty great college to apply to, and I’m sure they’ll enjoy reading your application.  What exactly do you like about this school?  I ask, because they have way more students apply than they have room to admit, so I’d like us to think of some other schools that offer the same things you’re looking for in a college, just in case.”

Reads a little better than “no college in their right mind will take you,” doesn’t it?

If this sounds like we’re being less than honest with the student, it’s time to remember the students who got in despite the odds.  College admissions isn’t an automatic decision based solely on grades and test scores, especially at high demand colleges; that’s why they ask for letters of recommendation and essays.  The right phrase, the right life experience, the right amount of support at the right time can lead a college to decide a student is worth taking a chance on.  That usually creates so much joy in the student, they don’t come back to the counselor and say “I told you so.”  But sometimes, that wouldn’t be such a bad thing.

As we approach the release of spring decisions, it’s helpful to remember we’re not school counselors; we’re school counselors of students.  I can’t wait to be surprised. 

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Scheduling Season—A Time for Quality Counseling

By:  Patrick O'Connor Ph.D

The last of the schedule changes for this year is in the rear-view mirror, just in time for school counselors to embrace yet another task that isn’t exactly counseling—scheduling for next year. Most administrators are convinced this is what we mean when we talk about college and career advising. In some ways, they have a point—it’s a little tough to be college ready if you don’t graduate from high school—but there is little in the school counselor training manual that addresses how to have meaningful conversations with students whose entire goal in scheduling is to end up with the same lunch period as their friends.

School counselors are champions at making the most of awkward situations—after all, who else can turn lunch duty into a meaningful affective dialogue? That’s why it’s important to see annual scheduling as an opportunity to check in with students, reaffirm their goals, and give them a chance to take direction of their lives. As we do so, here are two questions we often have to field from students who may not be thinking as long-term about their lives as they could be:

Do I have to take any more (fill in the subject area here)? High school graduation requirements are designed to make sure students are exposed to a broad array of ideas and activities, where the goal is to give them a greater understanding of the world around them, and some insights into what they might want to explore more deeply. That can be hard to remember this time of year, as student after student rolls into the office to ask “Am I done with Science?”, or, “Do I really have to take any more French?”

It would be easy to see this as a student who is just tired of being stretched, of someone who would rather slouch home and devote their remaining hours to the pursuit of a video game or six. Another way to see this would be to recognize that you are looking at a student who has taken a long, deep look at the world of Science or French, and decided it isn’t for them—they are now eager to begin the pursuit of understanding a new part of the world. This is not the time to bemoan a match that wasn’t made in heaven; it’s time to find a better one. Check the student’s plans for life after high school (remembering that many colleges like to see two years of language, and many prefer to see more), be sure they are making an informed choice, and look forward to what’s next.

Do I have to keep up the trombone? This is also the time when students start to evaluate their electives and their extracurricular activities. The cool activity they just couldn’t live without in middle school has lost its shine, but they’ve heard colleges really like to see commitment to some core extracurriculars. They turn to you to know if they have to be miserable for the next two years, or if they get their life back. No pressure here.

In many ways, this is the same situation as giving up French. Colleges do like to see students commit to a few core activities and grow in them (by becoming part of an award-winning robotics team, or getting a promotion at work), but it’s unlikely a student will rise to new levels of leadership if their heart just isn’t into it. Junior year is no time to join seven new clubs—the colleges will see right through that—but if it’s time to grow, it’s time to go.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Want Students College Ready? Let Them Miss Class

By:  Patrick O'Connor   Ph.D

About 40 principals and counselors attended the Principals/Counselors at ED event held this week at the US Department of Education (there’s more about the event here), and had the chance to spend a day talking about how principals and counselors can work together to make sure students are ready to take on their roles as college students and workers once high school is over.

The day had some unexpected topics of discussion that were clearly related to the main point, including several conversations on how to instill the qualities, or character traits, known to make students make the most of college, and known to make workers invaluable assets to their companies. ​To the surprise of no counselor on the planet, these are the same qualities that make for healthy individuals who contribute meaningfully to relationships and communities, a reminder that the three main areas of a counselor’s work are not only interrelated; they are the same thing.

The aspects of preparation for life after high school that were covered include:

The nature of the assignments students are given  The work of keeping a college schedule together requires sound judgement, problem solving, initiative, and creativity—the same qualities needed to be an effective employee. If that’s the case, the assignments students are given in school should give them the opportunity to test drive these skills, see how they feel, and fine tune them along the way, with each assignment requiring a little bit more of the student to create the structure.

Some teachers are adept at doing this, but these assignments usually come as the dessert at the end of a heavy meal of lecture and multiple choice testing. If this becomes the main course, students are more likely to take the lead in their learning and in their lives, once they’re shown how to do so. As an example, telling students it’s important to be active citizens is one thing; giving them an assignment to do something for three hours that improves the US government puts their skills to the real test. Students want school to be more real. It’s up to us to deliver on that need.

The structure of the school day I used to teach math, and managed to get teaching assignments that never had anything to do with trigonometry. That’s a really good thing for my students, because even though I made it through college calculus, I don’t remember a thing about trig. I had Pre-Calculus every day after lunch in tenth grade, and since I tended to eat a little too much, most of Pre-Calc was spent in a, shall we say, quasi-attentive state of mind.

That’s just one of the reasons so many schools are going to rotating schedules, where students don’t have every class at the same time every day. It’s also why every class doesn’t meet every day—it gives students a chance to rest, let new ideas really sink in, and begin the work with new focus.

Combine that with the FLEX period presenter Scott Crisp has at his school, and things get really interesting. This daily open period allows students to get extra help in a class if they need it, or see the counselor if they need to— but students have to plan these free periods ahead of time. Managing free time is one of the main reasons students succeed in college. This schedule gives them a rare chance to practice that essential skill.

Don’t want to come to class? OK Scott’s school also offers about a dozen classes where students who are doing well in the class don’t have to come to class every day. If they’re earning an A or B in, say, History, and they have a Math test to study for, they can go to an assigned study area and do that instead. This leads to more practice in decision-making and time management, key soft skills for college and work.

Principals/Counselor at ED was an important reminder that counselors are an essential part of the leadership team that builds a college- and career-going atmosphere in their building. While some of that role involves delivery of direct services, much of it involves supporting other educators to create an atmosphere where the postsecondary skills are taught that make all the difference in a smooth transition to life after high school. That’s an important part of our work that deserves more attention.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Keep the Counselor Celebration Going with a Principal Summit

By:  Patrick O'Connor Ph.D

If social media is any measure, National School Counseling Week is becoming one very serious party. From counselor breakfasts to selfies with students to gorgeous pictures of the School Counselor of the Year celebration, word is spreading about the power of this week, and the many ways school counselors empower students. One counselor even took to social media to describe the awe he felt when Education Secretary Betsy DeVos called him to thank him for his work. That’s a moment a counselor just won’t forget.

In addition to phone calls and thank-you tweets, the Department of Education is debuting a new program next week for school counselors. For many years, the Department has sponsored a series of workshops called Principals at ED. Presented at the Department offices in Washington, these professional development opportunities give principals an opportunity to learn about the latest trends in school administration, and give Department officials an opportunity to hear from practitioners in the field about the real issues that affect their work.

Principals at ED takes a new turn next week in sponsoring Principals and Counselors at ED, a one-day workshop designed for principals and counselors. The goal is to present the best practices in college and career readiness—what events, procedures, and approaches create a building-wide atmosphere that gives students the best possible understanding of all of their options for life after high school. A similar program was presented in Michigan, where over 100 principal-counselor pairs were able to evaluate their readiness strategies, and leave the day with practical ideas on what they could do to make their building even more supportive of college and career opportunities.

This first national effort is sold out, and attempts to live stream it are still underway—but even if you’re not able to watch this initial effort, you can make the most of this PD opportunity by asking yourself the same questions that will be presented with each session:

Developing a Strong Counselor-Principal Relationship A rich body of research shows that the college-career tone of a building is best set by a strong counselor-principal team, who share a common set of college and career goals, and communicate often.

College Board’s research on strong principal-counselor bonds is a great place to begin, but the first step in a stronger relationship is often self-reflection. If there was one thing your principal could do to build a strong college-career-going atmosphere in your building, what would it be? If your principal was asked the same question about what you could do, what would they say?

Developing a Career and College Going Culture Long gone are the days when the counseling office is the only place where the college-career curriculum is presented. Teachers, coaches, club sponsors, and community members have to play an active role in sharing and reinforcing the postsecondary message. Do you have a Counseling Advisory Committee? If so, when’s the last time they met?

Supporting High School Students During the Day Life after high school is going to include more learning for everyone. What can teachers do to make sure students develop attitudes towards learning that will transfer to their college and career life?

Utilizing Data Effectively Everyone has data, but what’s the best data to use to make sure students are college and career ready? How do we best assess our efforts? Are we disaggregating in to make sure all students are benefitting from our work?
It’s great to have your work honored this week. Now is the time to build on that support and attention, so your work can be more powerful in the weeks

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

National School Counseling Week: It’s OK to Celebrate Yourself

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D

It’s gratifying to see that National School Counseling Week is finally gaining traction among some key groups. Thanks in large part to the support school counselors received from Michelle Obama during her time as First Lady, National School Counseling Week and the related School Counselor of the Year ceremony have an elevated place in the national consciousness, helping everyone remember the vital role school counselors play in the lives of students, families, and communities.

It’s one thing for NSCW to enjoy the national spotlight, but what about its role at the local level? While some PTAs and other parent groups have Teacher Appreciation Month on their radar, NSCW can still be an elusive event, especially since it’s celebrated so close to Valentine’s Day, which is every parent leader’s favorite holiday. I’ve talked to too many school counselors who are actually conflicted about raising awareness of NSCW. “It’s like reminding my spouse about our anniversary” one counselor said. “If I have to ask them to celebrate me, is it really genuine?”

Yes. The answer is yes.

Look—school counselors spend an incredible amount of time teaching students to self-advocate. You don’t understand the homework? Here’s how you ask the teacher. It really bothers you when your brother makes fun of you? You can talk to him in a way that will make a difference. Making sure kids grow in claiming the part of the world that’s theirs is likely the single biggest thing we do. Why aren’t we showing them by example?

One counselor told me they don’t mention NSCW because they’re afraid their principal will go overboard. “I don’t want an assembly, or a sheet cake. To be honest, a sincere thank you would really be great.”

I don’t want to burst anybody’s bubble, but as a former school administrator, I can tell you that’s what you will likely get. Principals are incredibly busy people, and that’s why they need people like secretaries—and counselors—to make sure they’re current on what they should be doing, and who they should be talking to. Principals also know that if they hire a DJ and throw a NSCW breakfast, that sets a precedent for Administrative Professionals Day, National Paraprofessional Week, and—well, you get the idea. Principals value what everyone in the building does; they just don’t have time to cook for all of them. Mention NSCW to them, and you can reasonable expect a short, personal visit, a card, and maybe a donut. That's a good day. 

So step up, in two ways. A reminder to your principal about next week is timely right now, since it gives them the weekend to make plans. In addition, join your colleagues across the country to celebrate your work. Grab a student, take a selfie, and tell the Twitter world why you love being a counselor. Throw #NSCW18 in your description, then take a look at the pictures of other school counselors. You’ll feel more supported, less isolated, and honored.

Mission accomplished. 

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

A New Approach to FAFSA Completion—Want Prom? Complete FAFSA!

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D

There’s been a lot of exciting changes to the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. Thanks to some insightful planning, FAFSA can now be completed as early as October 1 of a student’s senior year in high school, and most of the financial information it asks for is already on file with the IRS, if the student’s family filed taxes in the previous year. This means students are more likely to know how much Federal aid they’ll get for college—and knowing more about your college budget can make a big difference in the college application process…

...provided, of course, the student completes the FAFSA. If they don’t fill out the form, they can’t get the information—or cash—they need for college.

This is a bigger challenge than you might think—after all, as adults, if someone wanted to give us cash just for filling out a form, we’d fill out twelve of them. But students don’t always pay attention to the cash part of college as much as they should; for some reason, they see this as Mom and Dad’s job. That means the real challenge is either to get the parents to complete the FAFSA, or to get the student to get the parents to complete the FAFSA.

This is where things get tricky. School counselors usually don’t see parents on a daily basis, so it’s harder to nudge them into action. In addition, many parents whose students would qualify for Federal aid are hesitant to complete the form, for all kinds of reasons. A program like College Application Week makes it easy enough to get a student out of class, sit them down, and help them complete an application for college. But can you do the same thing with parents and the FAFSA?

It’s time for some fresh ideas. Some offices are tying FAFSA completion workshops to parent-teacher conferences or sporting events, and those are having some effect. It’s even been suggested—but to be clear, not tried yet—that a high school could contact a local restaurant and build a FAFSA Completion Party to Happy Hour. High schools are already asking local merchants for door prizes for events held at high school (“Complete the FAFSA, Win a Big Screen TV”). Celebrating FAFSA completion by buying the next round isn’t all that much of a n additional stretch.

Another approach that’s been underserved is focusing on students. There are some key components of the high school experience no senior wants to live without. If there was a way to tie FAFSA completion to some, or any, of those events, there’s a good chance more seniors might hear the FAFSA gospel. While some of these key activities vary from school to school, what about:

  • Tying FAFSA completion to schedule changes. Want a different class? Great—have you finished your FAFSA?
  • Connecting tickets to the Fall Dance (Homecoming) or even Prom to FAFSA completion. You can say yes to the dress (or tux) as soon as we see your FAFSA receipt.
  • Permission to participate in an event outside of school. Students at my first high school were really into hunting. Imagine what would happen to FAFSA completion rates if the only way students were excused for hunting season was by finishing their financial aid forms.
There are undoubtedly other ideas out there, but you get the idea. Every high school has a “thing” that is THE event of senior year. If the ticket to that event is tied to the ticket to their college future, FAFSA completion will soar with ease.