If proposed tenure changes are making teachers think twice, school counselors need to go into a serious state of meditation, and fast. School counselors are often represented by teacher unions in collective bargaining, and find themselves on the short end of negotiated contracts that overlook the handful of counselors whose professional needs are not more or less important than classroom teachers—just different.
Often, these differences aren’t addressed because classroom teachers don’t really know what counselors do. Since most principals are former classroom teachers, they take their limited understanding of counseling to the front office, where it appears in everything from budgets to personnel decisions to teacher—and counselor—evaluations.
If you’re thinking there’s something wrong with this picture, you’re starting to get the picture. How in the world can a principal observe most of your work as a counselor without violating client confidentiality? How will that play out when it comes time to let go of staff, either through layoffs or through changes in teacher tenure?
It’s time to come out from the shadows of your classroom colleagues. Since you can’t change your labor agreements all by yourself, it’s time for an IEP—Immediate Education of the Principal:
- Schedule a meeting with the principal and the entire counseling staff. A brief, organized meeting that spells out the goals, structure, methods and assessment practices of the counseling office will build the foundation of knowledge your principal will need to understand, support, and defend your program. Principals like things in writing, and they tend to like data, so provide both, and have enough copies of the materials for the principal to share with the superintendent, the school board, and the public. Your goal is to build awareness and advocacy, so you have to speak their language, so they can speak on your behalf.
- Schedule a regular meeting with updates and information. It may be once a month or once a quarter, but regular formal contact with the principal goes a long way to dispel rumors, support school-wide initiatives, and garner administrative respect. This is the give-and-take phase of any healthy professional relationship, and you want yours to thrive.
- Discuss assessment and evaluation procedures well in advance of using them. Too many well-meaning principals plan observations a day before they’re due, but that just won’t work for school counselors. Use a meeting to talk about the best way to make contract-required techniques work when it’s time to evaluate your work, and make sure that discussion is at least a month before the evaluation occurs.
- Evaluate your principal’s support of you and your efforts. A study I completed in 2000 showed counselors need five things from principals in order for counseling programs to shine, and there’s a way to evaluate how well your principal is doing on all five. If you’re not sure how your principal is doing in program and logistical support, engaged advocacy, capital allocations, affirmation, and support of program growth, your principal probably doesn’t know either. You owe it to your students to share your insights, and a good principal won’t mind hearing from you.
It may appear to be troubled times for tenure, but a little advanced planning can turn this challenge into an opportunity for dialogue, support, and growth—and that’s what school counselors do best.