Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The Real-World Politics of Schedule Changes

By Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D

I’ve decided it’s time to amend the United States Constitution. 
From now on, the only people who get to vote are school counselors.
This thought came to me after three weeks of nonstop phone calls to my house from presidential candidates.  After listening to the logic and claims they were making to try and secure my vote, I was sure I had been exposed to this interesting kind of banter before—and, sure enough, I had.

“Dr. O’Connor?”

“Hi James.”

“I came in because I need to change my schedule.”

“Really?  Didn’t we just change it three days…”

“Yeah, we did, an issue has come to my attention that demands an immediate change of course in my educational objectives.”

“Really?  In three days?”

“It came to me like a vision in the night.  I’m destined to be an engineer and lead society to a better world.”

“Through engineering?”

“Absolutely. So if you’ll just sign this drop and add slip…”

“James, you’re asking to drop Algebra 2.”

“Yes.  That is my intention.”

“But engineers need Algebra 2.  In fact, you’ll need to take Calculus by senior year.”
“That information flies in the face of the consensus of my supporters.”

“Your supporters?”

“Yes.  My mother tells me that leading engineers are more in touch with their creative side than those who have studied the tired theories of the past, and my uncle is an engineer who doesn’t even remember the quadratic formula.”

“Wow.  What kind of engineer is he?  Civil?  Chemical?”

“No.  He works for Amtrak.”

“But that’s not the kind of –“

“Dr. O’Connor, I really need your support to make this lasting change that will lead to a brighter future for all.”

“From Algebra 2.”


“To Ceramics?”

“If it weren’t for ceramic engineers, we’d never have the tiles that created the heat shield on the space shuttle, the world-known fountain at Metro Airport, or that really cool toilet in the teacher’s lounge.”

“How do you know about—“

“I have my sources, Dr. O’Connor.”

“So you’re telling me this change is in the best interest of your educational well-being?”
“Not just mine, Dr. O’Connor.  It’s for the good of all.”

“Including Amanda Bailey, I assume.”


“Amanda Bailey.  The girl who asked you to the Sadie Hawkins Dance out of the blue?”
“I am acquainted with Amanda.”

“She has French 2 during the period you want to take Ceramics.”

“James, students in French 2 have first lunch, and so does Ceramics.”


“Algebra 2 has second lunch.”

“Dr. O’Connor, I’m really not prepared to address that issue at this time.  If you’d just sign this drop and add slip—“

“Tell you what, James.  Why don’t you leave it with me, and I’ll run this request by a focus group.”

“A focus group?”

“Yes.  Your math teacher, the assistant principal, your mother, Amanda’s mother.  Once I have consensus, we’ll all have a better sense of how to proceed.”

“Actually, Dr. O’Connor, I think it might be prudent to suspend my plans at this time.”

“I think that’s wise, James.  Better your plans get suspended then, oh, say, something else.”

“Or someone else.”


Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Everybody Needs Their Space—Especially Counselors!

By Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D

Every counselor has an ideal office, complete with four big windows looking out on a beautiful garden, three secretaries, and classical music playing in the background.

Since we all don’t live in that world, it’s important to keep these points in mind when evaluating the office you have, and considering how it could be better:

The key is student access to information.  Many counselors like to see papers in folders and books placed neatly on a shelf—but how does that make the information accessible to students waiting in the office?  Your physical space has to be student-centered; every student should leave your office area with more ideas about themselves and their world than they had when they came in, no matter what they came in to talk about.

This doesn’t always mean students have to have access to you.  Thanks to counseling Web pages, Facebook pages, the morning PA announcements and more, students don’t always have to see you to get the information they need. Look at your counseling Web site and ask yourself, What help does this give to your students and parents?  Better yet, buy four students a pizza and ask them this question while touring your Web site at lunch.

Remember the liquid rule.  Counselors have been trained to hold on to information, and that’s very important when it comes to issues that require confidentiality—but how confidential is information about summer programs, college visits, and other information for the public good? This information is water to students thirsty for college knowledge—let it flow into every estuary you can create, in the office, online, or otherwise.

How much assistance do you have?  It’s going to be tough to keep a Web site current if you have to print every transcript, and keeping a local scholarship file up to date is pretty hard if you have 700 students.  Be good to yourself --think creatively about the kinds of volunteers you can use to expand the reach of your office.  There has to be one parent out there who would love to keep that Web site open, and another who wouldn’t mind putting scholarship applications on a spreadsheet.  Use your resources.

What spaces are available?  Your office and waiting area probably have all kinds of counseling materials up and around, but what about the main office, or that empty bulletin board in the English hallway, or that 30 minute slot on the local cable TV show once a month?  If you took 10 minutes to think of where you could be spreading the college word, you’d surprise yourself at just how big your office can be.

How much delegating can you do?  If computers aren’t your thing, give the Web site to someone else; if you don’t have time to put the Career Night flyers up in local businesses, call the Chamber of Commerce, or the National Honor Society.  If your filing is driving you crazy, a retired educator in your town is dying to give back.  Getting bigger sometimes means letting go…

How much delegating can YOU do?  …and to do that, you have to be honest with yourself.  Does it really matter what color the napkins are for the cookie reception after Financial Aid Night?  You need to shape what the flyer for your test prep program says—but do you have to decide what it looks like?  Many hands will make light work, as long as you aren’t holding them all the time, or holding them back.  Be good to yourself, and help others help you.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

FAQs on Financial Aid

By Patrick O'Connor Ph.D

You’re in the middle of scheduling, it’s almost February Break, and now students are getting financial aid offers.  How can you help them?—why, with this:

Remind me again.  What’s the EFC?  EFC stands for Expected Family Contribution.  This is what you and your family can afford to pay for college, at least according to Congress.  This figure is based on the information you provide on your free federal aid application, FAFSA.

What do colleges do with this number?  They use your EFC as the starting place to build your financial aid package.  If your EFC is $8000, and the college costs $15000 to attend, the college will try to find the $7000 you need to go there.  If College B costs $20000 to attend, they’ll try to find the $12000 you need to be a student there.  If College C costs $6000, they won’t be finding any money for you, since FAFSA indicates you can pay that much on your own.

My EFC is way too high—there’s no way I can afford this much for college.  What can I do?  If you have a money issue FAFSA doesn’t take into consideration, financial aid officers can use “professional discretion” and offer more financial support. This is one reason why some colleges offer you more aid than others.  Be ready to provide documentation to support your situation, and don’t be afraid to ask.

How do colleges help me pay for college?  Most colleges offer three kinds of financial aid:  Grants, or money you are given that you don’t have to pay back under most circumstances; Work study, where you take a part-time job at the college to pay off part of your tuition; loans, where you’re offered a low-interest loan you usually don’t have to start paying off until you’re out of school.

Will my financial aid be mostly loans? Over the past ten years, more and more colleges are giving bigger loans as a part of financial aid, while other colleges have eliminated loans all together.  If loans are part of your financial aid package, ask the college about the terms of repayment, and make sure you look at other options.

Like what?  This is where private scholarships can be a big help.  If you win a $500 scholarship from your local chamber of commerce, you should report it to your college.  Most colleges (that’s most colleges) will then take $500 off of the loan part of your financial aid package.  They’ll keep doing this until your loan part is gone, so look for those private scholarships—they can make a huge difference!

Do I have to accept an entire financial aid package, or can I just take the grants and work study?  You have the right to take, reduce or turn down any part of a college’s financial aid offer.  Students often turn down the loan portion, or accept only part of it, and decide they will work more during summers and weekends.  Other students decide not to take the work study part of the package, at least for first semester—this gives them a chance to focus on their studies.

Do colleges have to meet all of my aid?  Unfortunately, many colleges don’t have enough money to meet 100% of the financial needs of all students, and other colleges don’t meet all of your need as a strategy to see if you can’t pay more of your own way.  Many colleges will advertise they meet all need as an incentive for students to apply; if you don’t know, ask.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Scheduling Classes for Next Year? It’s Time Your Students Got Plowed

By Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D

Like most dedicated school counselors, I have another job that pays for the privilege of being dedicated to my counseling job.  I teach American government at a local community college to a group of what we counselors would call “reluctant clients”, since the class is required to get any college degree.

I keep this in mind when I first address the class.  “I realize that if this class wasn’t required, you would be at home in bed right now, and I would be standing on the freeway holding a sign saying ‘I will teach you about the Electoral College for food.’”

This brings chuckles from a few students (who are given As for the semester right then and there), so I quickly add “I know this class may not be your first choice.  But the college requires you to take this class because our country needs you to engage in the job you will have for most of the rest of your life—active participant in the governance of the United States of America.”

This month, thousands of counselors are working with reluctant clients in the annual rite known as Course Scheduling.  We pull them out of class and try to create a slate of courses for next year that will encourage them to dream, embrace their roles in the world, and leave high school in four years with an aptitude and appreciation for what’s next.

Trouble is, it’s too easy for us—and them—to forget that.  There are thirty-five students in that classroom, and each one has to have most of a schedule done in the next 45 minutes.  In that situation, it’s easy enough to think we don’t have time to inspire, or that they don’t want to be inspired.  After all, you’re pulling them out of one required class to schedule them in a bunch of other required classes—where’s the teachable moment?

Right here, right now.

“Hey Jenny, how are you?  It just seems like yesterday you came here with your short hair and beautiful bangs (note—you need to flip through old yearbooks before scheduling starts).  I liked that look, but you look even nicer with your hair grown out like this

“Can I see the scheduling sheet that was sent home?  Great—I see you filled out a few choices.  Of course, you’ll take World Literature as a junior, so you’ll read some Charles Dickens.  Did you know he ran back into a train car that was teetering on a cliff just to rescue part of his manuscript for A Christmas Carol?

“Your next math is Geometry—how great!  You know, Madonna once publicly told her Geometry teacher he was wrong, and that she never used Geometry after high school.  But I bet the people who built the platform for the Super Bowl halftime show used geometry when they figured out how to make a portable electronic dance floor that had to be set up and taken down in 30 minutes.”

It’s unlikely any student will respond to these insightful quips by standing up in the middle of class and saying “Wow!  Now I see why these classes are required, and they all have new meaning to me! Thank you so much!”  Still, a counselor’s task is to plant the seeds that nudge students to see the possible, and the tiller of class scheduling creates a very special, dedicated planting season.  Besides, corn doesn’t bloom the day after it’s planted.

And while you’re planting, don’t forget—“Jenny, do you know the reason you take American Government is because our country needs you—“

Thursday, February 2, 2012

The Column to Send out Anonymously to All Your Parents

By Patrick O'Connor

February 6-10 is National School Counseling Week, and before you go rushing down to the mall to find the perfect card, let me save you the trip.  Try as you may, you will find nothing between the Valentine’s Day cards and the Mardi Gras cards (Mardi Gras cards?) that best expresses your feelings for your school counselor on the inside, with a picture of Snoopy, Hoops and Yo-Yo, or even Maxine on the outside—even though many suspect Maxine was a school counselor in a previous life.

This lack of commercial interest in National School Counseling Week is completely understandable, since no one really seems to know what school counselors do.  As a result, Congress won’t be adding another national holiday to February any time soon, especially since they already make Abraham Lincoln and George Washington share one day in February for their birthdays.

National School Counseling Week may not have anything on the Super Bowl, but there are still plenty of reasons to thank school counselors for all they are doing, and to thank them this week:

The number of students they work with is far too high.  Christopher Tremblay at the University of Michigan-Dearborn estimates there are 459 students for every public school counselor, far above the recommended caseload of 250 students per counselor, and far more than the 225 or so students some high school teachers work with.

They teach more than one subject.  Considering teachers help students in only one subject (like English) and counselors help students with academic advising, personal counseling, career counseling, crisis management, college counseling, and getting to class on time, it’s understandable if they don’t have time to tell us what they do—they are too busy trying to do it.

They can’t do a lot of counseling.  From scheduling to testing to discipline to being a last-minute sub for a Math class they aren’t certified to teach, counselors’ days are filled with activities that have nothing to do with helping students understand more about themselves or the world around them.  Try to cook 3-minute eggs in 30 seconds, and you’ll have some idea about a counselor’s typical day.

They don’t get enough training.  Recent studies show counselors themselves admit they were poorly trained for the work they’re supposed to do, especially when it comes to college counseling and career advising.  They try and learn these skills on the job, but too often, they just don’t have the time.  This is changing, but it has a long way to go.

They don’t get enough thanks.  Students applying to college never tell counselors when they get admitted, parents asking for advice never call back to tell them what happened, and students wanting personal advice are too busy looking forward to thank those who kept them from moving backwards.  Teachers see student progress in grades, but students don’t get graded in the counseling curriculum, since it’s tough to put a grade on a changed life.

Since a greeting card is out, what’s the best gift to give a caring counselor?  U-M’s Christopher Tremblay says if you have a spare 5 billion dollars, you could hire enough counselors to get the country to that dream caseload of 250 to 1—for a year.  If not, think about dropping an e-mail or note at the office, thanking the counselors for all they do, and asking what you can do to help.  That may not seem like much, but you’d be amazed what a few words of encouragement can do at the right time.

Just ask a school counselor.