Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Living on the Edge of the World

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D

A designer, a comedian, and a chef.  Ostensibly not a lot in common, other than success—living different lives in different parts of the world, pursuing different goals.

But I had each of them as a college counselor, and I can tell you, they had a lot in common.  None of them took the world at face value; they wanted to see what was underneath the surface, because the only way they could appreciate the quality of life’s outcomes was to understand the integrity of the process creating that outcome. 

If the process challenged the status quo along the way, asked a question that had an answer no one else pursued, was based on a clear understanding that there was something better out there that wasn’t in focus just quite yet—well, that was worth pursuing.  If it was a question with an answer that was already a part of the milieu, well, forget it.

It isn’t easy seeing the world that way, ever—but especially so at seventeen.  Convinced you’ll live forever, sure the rest of the world can’t possibly see things the way you do, the designer, the comedian, and the chef embraced professions that required them to make people see the world they way they do.  It wasn’t enough to see the line on that groundbreaking skirt if no one wore it, or to bring those flavors together in a new way if no one tasted them as an ensemble, or to get to a punch line with a new perspective if no one heard it. 

They didn’t have the adolescent convenience of dreaming up their version of the way the world is supposed to be, and living cozily in that bubble until reality came along to pop it.  The only way their life was fulfilled was for someone to embrace their new idea and welcome it into the everyday world.

Even then, the joy was momentary.  When you live on the edge of the world, your job is to bring What If to life in a way that delights others.  Once that happens, the newness of What If quietly folds into the huge mound of What Is, and the idea that was once seen as innovative is now business as usual, pushing the boundaries of the known out a little farther—and pushing the designer, the comedian, and the chef a little farther away, to a new edge of the world. 

Creation implies newness, and once an idea becomes part of what’s known, fidelity to creativity is only measured by concocting a new something new.  It is your calling; it is who you are, and fidelity to self is the ultimate badge of honor in the world of something new.

If you aren’t careful, that life can be pretty tiring, given everything else the teen years bring that isn’t new to the world, but can be painfully new to you.  Like every student I’ve ever worked with, I had to sign a form telling their colleges they were ready to engage in the uncertain world of creating among thousands of other like-minded young adults.  They were ready, so I signed their forms, but the creative life offers no guarantees—and as I lifted my pen off the page, I hoped the balance they had in their lives right then would stay with them all of their days.

The headlines have been sadly full of stories about a different designer, comedian, and chef.  No one can say what their balance was in their final days, but it is a reminder that we must look sharp and stand guard for all our students, most especially the creative ones.  Their minds are mighty palettes of the possible, but their hearts must be equally resolved to keep one eye on the world as it is, and one in the world that could be.  We must always help them do that.


Wednesday, June 6, 2018

2018: The School Year In Review

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D


A former boss once marveled that parents thought June was the month when teachers and counselors were “winding things down.”  “We aren’t winding anything down” he told me, “we’re running of a cliff.  We go faster and faster, gaining momentum as our feet teach the ground, and then, the last day of school—nothing.”

This year certainly seemed like a perpetual marathon for school counselors, with events that pulled even the most dedicated counselor away from their own work long enough to look around at national trends in awe, grief, or delight.  Here are some of the most memorable events that shaped our year.

School safety  The string of school shootings and safety issues continued this year, as the start of the year suggested our profession and our students would simply be victims to more cycles of violence, promises to change things, and more violence.  That gloomy prognosis was mightily stirred by the survivors of the Parkland shooting, who saw to it that things would have to change.  Months later, there is the memory of a DC demonstration; the work of a federal School Safety Commission, and an upcoming bus tour where Parkland survivors will urge young people to register to vote, and bring in a change to Washington.  The Santa Fe shooting that came this spring is a tragic reminder of how far we have to go; the Parkland students are determined to help get us there.

Opioid abuse  Legislators took notably swift action in many states to try and disrupt the pattern of opioid abuse that is affecting every families, schools, and towns of every size and status.  From limiting the size of related prescriptions to increasing state recordkeeping requirements to increasing school budgets to make schools safer, states are eager for more information on how to create teams of support that join the efforts of schools and communities to turn the tide of addiction.

Increased interest in career and technical education  The chant of “every student must go to four years of college”  was sharply muted this year, as a number of advocates urged schools to make sure all students had a complete understanding of the full array of options open to them after high school.  One of the most notable proposals is working its way through the Michigan legislature, where CTE champions are asking for more career counselors—but also asking schools to rethink the way even the most basic skills are taught, all in the name of teaching the skills students will need to develop the habits, attitudes, and skills needed to engage the ever-growing field of CTE.  The best news is that many of these skills are the same ones students need to be successful in college, further proof that the CTE/College choices of yesterday are no longer an either/or option.

Increases FAFSA completion  A large number of states are reporting significant increased in FAFSA completion, thanks in part to the earlier October 1 filing date.  At the same time, up to 30 percent of these applications are being flagged for verification, a time consuming process that can discourage low income students from finishing the process.  Calls to simplify the FAFSA process continue, as counselors await the rollout of the FAFSA app for smart phones.

College applications get easier  A record number of colleges are now letting students self-report their grades and their test scores, making the application process much more inviting.  Combined with a growing number of colleges that require no test scores at all, much was done this year to open up college access to a wider audience.

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Summer Help for the Kids Who Need it Most

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D



You know who they are long before they show up in your office—if they show up to your office at all. They’re the students who get discussed at the weekly student issues meeting; the ones whose names appear on discipline notification lists, where their alleged infractions typically occur on Mondays or Fridays; the ones whose names are whispered, sometimes in not-so-hushed tones, in the faculty room by teachers who are either frustrated, afraid for them, or a little of both.

Their names show up in more emails this time of year, because they know they will soon be going home to a home that really isn’t home. It’s where they sleep, where they eat (at least now and then), and the last place they really want to be, for any number of reasons. When school’s in session, they have somewhere else to be. In the summer, they feel like they have no other choice—and that lack of choice is staring them right in the face in these last days of school. No wonder they end up in the office more than in class.

This is the student you move heaven and earth to find something else to do, but this isn’t without its challenges. The president of the area Chamber of Commerce may have a summer maintenance job or two to fill, but students from hard homes often lack the self-esteem to make it through even the most basic of interviews, and may need more feedback and direction on the job than a supervisor has time for. Sleepaway camps cost money they don’t have, and even if summer school is free, there’s the question of how they’ll get there. Free breakfast and the more comfortable routine of school await, but without a bus, Point A can’t always be connected to Point B.

Solutions to this challenge aren’t always easy to come by, but these ideas are worth a shot:

Make a move to the mall No business owner appreciates the idea of telling your entire school to go hang out at the mall, but there are ways this large, public, air conditioned place can be part of a restless student’s summer routine. Many malls open early to allow residents the chance to get some morning exercise before the stores open. While most of the participants are retirees, there’s nothing that won’t allow a student or two the chance to do the same, as long as they don’t blare their music and keep a respectful distance from others. This gets the student out of the house, into a cooler place, and gets them going in the morning—and if they end up seeing a Help Wanted sign they decide to follow up on, so much the better.

Embrace community service It’s hard to admit that some of our students just aren’t ready for the world of work, but if that’s the case, it might be the right time to try out their professional skills in a different setting. Food banks and hospitals need summer help to replace the students who volunteer there only during the school year, and if the student can handle a paint brush, many shelters and homeless centers spruce things up in the summer. For best results, have them volunteer at different sites on different days; it keeps the work fresh.

Rethink summer school The big yellow taxi might not be available for home-to-school transportation, but there’s a good chance another student in the same neighborhood is summer school bound. A quick review of the summer school roster, combined with a little intervention on your part, could end up providing a ride for a student who would view summer school as a life saver.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Summer Melt: Calling Out the Colleges

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D


If you’re not familiar with American University’s new Center for Postsecondary Readiness and Success, it’s time to take a look. Started just this year, the Center is aiming to become *the* counselor resource for tools, studies, data, and research on the best practices in postsecondary planning.  While the Center is just getting underway, it’s worth keeping an eye on, and definitely worth following on Twitter, since they post the latest in research in postsecondary advising.

The Center recently held a Twitter chat on summer melt, and it was particularly enlightening.  All kinds of community-based organizations and postsecondary advocacy groups participated, offering tools, Websites, and insights into effective ways to make sure students who tell you in June that they’re going to college, actually make it to college in the fall. (That’s why it’s called Summer Melt—the college plans of up to 20 percent of all students melt away in the summer, as students forget to submit final transcripts, complete financial aid forms, attend orientation, or simply change their minds.)

All of these community-based resources looked helpful, and some offered some impressive results.  As we’ve discussed here before, one of the most effective tools is a disposable cell phone, where school counselors text weekly reminders to students over the summer about what to do, and when to call their colleges.  This simple practice can offer students the support they need, now that they aren’t seeing a counselor on a regular basis.

These solutions all sound great, but as I reviewed them, I couldn’t help but wonder—where are the colleges in this important effort?  If a student doesn’t show up for college in the fall, the college loses another bright mind, and more than a little bit of money.  Even more important, the college loses the opportunity to bond early with the student, in an essential way.  By reaching out through texting to the student—ideally before high school is over—the college is making a connection with the student, the kind of strong, supportive, “we’re here for you” connection research finds essential for students to make a smooth transition to college—especially low-income and first-generation students.

I’ve asked colleges about this, and their responses are unimpressive.  “Who would send the texts?”  “This could cost us money.”  “Who has the time to do this?”

It may be helpful here to remind my college colleagues that one of the most essential cures to summer melt involves a school counselor buying a disposable cell phone out of their own pocket, and using their high school’s Remind account to text students every week during the summer—the only time they aren’t actually working.  Since keeping one of your students from melting over the summer saves you thousands of dollars, do you think you could find a way to buy your own disposable cell phone, collect every applicant’s cell number when they apply, and pay a work study student to use the college’s free Remind account to text college-specific updates to students once a week, while they sit poolside? We aren’t talking about investing in a lazy river here; by the time all is said and done, this is about a hundred bucks.

I know some colleges are doing this already, but more of you need to step up—ideally, from the moment the student is admitted.  Getting texts from colleges as early as November is a sure way to make the student excited, encouraged, and comfortable with their college choice—and is there a better combination of qualities to have in an incoming freshman?

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Worried About College? Be Like Sara!

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D

Sara came home from a softball game last spring and was surprised to see her father’s car in the driveway. May was a busy month in his line of work, so he usually went back to the office after watching Sara pitch, finished a little paperwork, and came home in time for a late dinner.

That day, he greeted his daughter in the kitchen. “Nice game, Ace!”

“Thanks, Daddy. Why are you home?”

He beamed at his 11th-grade daughter and said, “I have a surprise. There’s an overseas community service project heading to a small village in Japan. They’ve opened a large orphanage there for children who lost parents in the earthquake, and they need volunteers to help with the babies, so the residents can rebuild their homes.”

Sara peeled an orange while her father continued. 

“You’d be there four days, and you’d be making a difference in the world. Your grades are strong and your pitching is great, but I think something like this could put you over the top at the colleges we’re talking about. The Web site for the project is up on the computer. What do you say?”

Sara continued to peel the orange. “Can we talk about it at dinner?”

Her father was a little deflated, but he smiled back. “Sure, honey. I’m going to run back to the office for a little bit, but I’ll see you at seven.”

Dad came through the kitchen door at 7:15 and quickly took his place at the table with the rest of the family. After more congratulations for Sara’s great game and a little razzing about her hair from her tech-savvy brother John, her dad said “So, how about Japan?”

Sara put her fork down slowly and looked up. “It’s a great idea, Dad, but I looked on the Web site. Does this trip really cost $6000?”

Her father choked on his ice water, while Sara’s mom gave him a long, cold stare.

“We can afford this, Sara,” he said, smiling faintly. “It’s about your future.”

Sara looked down at her placemat again, and swallowed hard. “Well, I looked up the name of the town I’d be going to. It turns out Habitat for Humanity is working there, too, and they need $4000 for a new pump so the town can get fresh water again. I also called the Boys and Girls Club down on Wilson Street, and they said they could really use some help this summer.

“I sure appreciate the offer, Daddy, but don’t you think it would be better if I stayed here, and we sent the $4000 to Habitat for Humanity? That way, the town would have fresh water forever, John could get that new computer he’ll need for high school next year, we’d have a little money left over for my college fund, and I could still make a difference in the world. It would just be a difference in my own neighborhood.”

Sara’s mother did a very bad job of trying to chew nonchalantly, while John tried hard to wipe the tears out of his eyes in a 14-year-old macho fashion. Her father’s shoulders relaxed, as he smiled almost to himself, and said “Yeah, honey. That’s a great idea.”

Sara will be a senior next year — but the question you should be asking yourself is not “Where will she get in?”

The question to consider is, “Does it really matter?”

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

A Counselor’s Thank You to Teachers

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D


We hear about all the great teachers in the counseling office.  The one who set the times tables to the tune of Pharrell Williams’ “Happy,” ensuring kids will remember them forever, even if it will take a while to get to eight times nine.  Mr. Jones, the history teacher who dressed up like Benjamin Franklin for an entire week and never once broke character.  The tenth grade English teacher who finally explained “I after e” in a way that made sense.  When you put that much thought into a lesson, it makes for memorable teaching.

Of course, that’s not the only way teachers become memorable.  The teacher who said just the right words at just the right time to the bully who had incredible art talent, making the student more comfortable with who they really were, and less of a bully.  The teacher who wore the cut-rate perfume a special needs student gave her at Christmas, every time that student had a spelling test—the same perfume she’d wear when attending that student’s graduation from medical school. The teacher who shows up at the Saturday soccer league and cheers loudly for all of her students on the sidelines, even though her students are spread throughout both teams, and it’s forty degrees out. 

You can’t analyze a test score to determine what these teachable moments do to the learning and learning habits of students, but everyone seems to understand what they do to students’ learning, and students’ lives.  Like recess, these teachable moments inspire in ways we can’t quite measure, but we still know their worth is beyond measure.

These aren’t just discrete, feel-good stories.  Most of my counseling work for the last thirteen years has involved working with students in college placement.  In that time, every student—every single one—has had the chance to go to college; many have earned at least one merit scholarship, and for those who have been out for four years or more, nearly all of them have finished college on time. 

Almost none of that is due to me.  It’s a tribute to the teacher who took a group of six year-olds into the woods for an entire class period and told them to watch and listen—and they did; to the teacher who had flags from 45 nations in his fourth-grade Social Studies classroom, and talked about the country each flag represented for a full year; to the two teachers who took significant scorn from their colleagues every year they wanted to team teach Lord of the Flies, because it threw such a wrench into the middle school schedule. 

Making the most of college—and learning a trade for that matter—isn’t at all about getting in.  It’s about the absorbing, the becoming, the grappling of new ideas that doesn’t end until the idea is now an honored friend. That state of mind, the acquisition of the habits needed to do that kind of learning, is the essence of teaching.  It is alive and well in the classrooms of the colleagues I eat lunch with.  More important, it Is in the hearts, minds, and souls of the students they serve.

This week reminds me of the story of the principal who was interviewing candidates for a middle school English position.  The first five interviews were all remarkably short, where the principal asked each candidate what they taught.  When they responded, “I teach English”, the principal said, “I see.  Well, thank you for coming in.”

The interview with the sixth candidate started with the same question, “What do you teach?”  When the candidate responded, “Why, I teach students about the wonders of the English language”, the principal responded with, “I see.  Tell me more about that.”

It is one thing to consider Teacher Appreciation Day as a triumph over the long odds of limited budgets, aging facilities, crowded classrooms, and wonky Internet connections.  That’s an important discussion to have, but this week is more about those who serve, and what they leave their students with. In the end, that is all teaching ever was; it is what it must continue to be, if our world is to continue to flourish.

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Lessons Learned from This Year’s College Counseling Efforts

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D

Celebrations are still going on to honor the postsecondary choices high school seniors are making, but it isn’t too early to look back on this year’s college and career advising efforts, and see what we might learn to make things a little easier for next year’s class.  There’s ample truth to the saying that the only constant is change, and that’s definitely the case here.  Consider these points, as you review your year, and plan ahead for the Class of 2019:

Applications are Up—Again  If there was ever a year for college applications to decline, it was this year.  A decline in the birthrate is predicted to shrink high school graduating classes through 2024, and it was supposed to hit nearly every state pretty hard this year in particular.  That doesn’t make it too far of a leap to conclude college applications should decline as well.

Nope.  Schools like USC and the University of Michigan saw application increases of about 14% each in a year when applications were supposed to be flat.  While some of U-M’s increase could be attributed to their new scholarship incentive for low income families, no one expected anything like this.

Safeties Were Less Safe  This continued increase at selective colleges mean some colleges that had plenty of room now find themselves the beneficiaries of some high performing students who had nowhere else to go.  While these students may only take up the spots at the honors colleges, their presence increases the average GPA and scores of a college’s class, meaning those colleges are likely to be more competitive next year.  The result? If you’ve been recommending the same schools year after year as sure shots, it’s time to review the list.

Sure Things Were Less Sure  More applicants also meant that selective colleges had students from more high schools to choose from—and this added breadth of choice led to its own confusion.  Counselors report admissions decisions that are just harder to understand, with some students being denied at colleges that took students with lower grades, but stronger essays, or lower test scores, but stronger work outside the class.  Looking at the entire student—also known as holistic review—has always made predicting admission difficult.  Add in the increased number of applicants, and it seemed like everything was up in the air this year.  Look for more of the same next year.

“College Isn’t for Everyone”, Part I  This was also the year when more and more counselors were taking to social media to advocate for students who were making postsecondary plans other than four years of college.  A resurgence of interest in technical careers and skill trades is clearly on the rise, but counselors will want to make sure not to get too carried away.  Counseling curricula should include a full view of all of the choices for life after high school, and ways to help students critically think and self-reflect their way to making the choices that are best for them.  That may mean more pedagogy focused on careers, but that shouldn’t come at the exclusion of exploration of all the college options.

“College Isn’t for Everyone”, Part II  This is especially true for schools where a small percentage of students go to college, where  college exploration should begin in elementary school, in order to get students—and especially parents—used to the idea of college as an option (but not a requirement.)  If done badly, “College Isn’t for Everyone” can quickly devolve into “Not Everyone is College Material”, and all the elitist, racist arguments that phrase conjures up. We must do better.