Wednesday, January 27, 2016

The Ten Key Questions for National School Counseling Week

By:  Patrick O'Connor Ph.D

Many schools have their plans well underway for National School Counseling Week, which starts February 1.  There are plenty of pre-packaged lesson plans and activities online, so it’s not too late to plan your own party—and it’s definitely an opportunity to raise awareness of what counselors do, and just how they manage to do it.

With that goal in mind, I offer these ten questions for you to insert into your plans for next week.  By having these on hand, or by typing them up and placing them in every teacher’s mailbox, you’re advancing the main goal of the week—to dispel the myths that surround our work and keep us bound to the past.  We spend a lot of time trying to help clients walk away from wrong perceptions; let’s help ourselves next week, and let the facts speak for themselves.


1.       What does a school counselor do?  (ASCA offers a great definition, but use your own words here.)

2.       Why did you decide to become a school counselor? (Here’s where you can tell your story, and dispel the notion that counselors are just teachers who are tired of being in the classroom.  If you think that stereotype is dead, think again!)

3.       Teachers have to teach big classes, but how many students are on your school counselor’s caseload?  (Don’t be shy here—count your students and tell them.  If you’re lucky enough to have more than one counselor, give them the average.  They’ll be stunned.)

4.       How much time does that give your counselor with each student every school day?  (The math here is easy—take your caseload, and divide it by the number of hours (or minutes) in the school day, and you’ll be able to say something like “62 seconds per student per day, as long as the counselor doesn’t eat lunch, or never goes to the bathroom.”)

5.       How else can teachers help counselors?  Be our eyes and ears.  If you see a student’s having a bad day, don’t hesitate to ask them—and if it looks like this is part of something bigger, let me know.

6.       Anything else?   Share the information we send you about the programs we offer, and the events we host.  Remind students of the services we offer.  Think of ways the counseling curriculum blends with what you’re teaching.

7.       Why do school counselors want class time to talk to students?  The relationship between your curriculum and a student’s social, academic, and intellectual growth is tremendous.  Together, we can help students see this connection in powerful ways, leading to higher student engagement once I leave the classroom.

8.       Really?  How?  Research shows that students with healthy self-esteem are better learners who are more involved in the learning process (see  Healthy self-esteem is a big part of what school counselors do!

9.       And you help students through crisis?  Absolutely. (Use this space to list the groups and services you offer.)

10.   What’s the one thing every teacher can do that would help you do your job? (Don’t hold back here, but keep the goal realistic.  If it’s more time in the classroom, re-state that; if it’s letting students out of class to see you, make your case.  This is your party; ask for the present you want.)

It’s often been said that the problem with school counseling is that no one knows what we do.  I disagree; I think the problem is everyone thinks they know what we do, and are wrong.  This is our chance to set things straight.

Enjoy the week!

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

A Change in Store for College Admissions?

By:  Patrick O'Connor Ph.D

It’s been called an academic arms race, the race to nowhere, the rush to rankings, and more.  Thanks in large part to the ridiculous idea that there is one best college for everyone, applying to college has turned into a parody of Reality TV, where students spend thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours preparing for a four hour test that, in the eyes of many, holds their future well-being in the balance.

It’s important to point out that school counselors have resisted this change, long advocating for an approach to college selection that was based on the student’s interests, needs, and goals. That’s an approach many of us are about to embark on with the Class of 2017, even though those plans will be out-shouted by artificial college rankings that make students feel worthless unless they are pursuing The Best College On Earth, or by parents who are convinced that their child will be destined to a life of sleeping on their couch unless they attend a college “everyone” has heard of, even if that means driving the family, and the student, into deep debt.

It would seem all of that is about to change.

“Turning the Tide” is a report that came out of Harvard, and if its lofty goals are only half realized, the world of college admissions is in for a very overdue change.  Supported by 50 institutions, including some of the most selective colleges in the world, the report calls for a shift in the foundation of college admissions in three key areas:

1. Promoting more meaningful contributions to others, community service and engagement with the public good.

2. Assessing students’ ethical engagement and contributions to others in ways that reflect varying types of family and community contributions across race, culture and class.

3. Redefining achievement in ways that both level the playing field for economically diverse students and reduce excessive achievement pressure.

This change will only be realized, the report asserts, by making sure colleges, parents, and school counselors embrace eleven recommendations, including everything from devaluing the role of testing (where no student takes the ACT or SAT more than twice), to contributions to family, to expanding students’ thinking about “good” colleges.

The tone of the report is certainly encouraging to any family who watched the college selection process change their child from a student who loves to learn, to a student who learned how to negotiate a labyrinth of stress and societal scorn while trying to stay true to self.  Such a journey brings key life lessons, to be sure; but when one remembers that the purpose of college is to expand one’s view of self and the world, the competitive, narrow, cynical tone that too often resonates within college admissions seems a rather bizarre way to begin an experience intended to be expansive by nature.

“Turning the Tide” appeals to counselors because we are trained to see the best in all people and situations.  At the same time, there is some question if colleges that just admitted half (or more) or their class through early action programs are truly willing to risk yield percentages and graduation rates in the name of healthier children, and if they do, will students and parents actually buy in.  There are reports that a summit will be held this summer to discuss how to bring these lofty goals to life.  A first indication that colleges are serious about these changes will be seeing how many lifelong advocates of the “what’s the hurry” approach to college advising are invited to attend.

Those would be school—not guidance—counselors.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

2016: The Year in Review

By:  Patrick O'Connor Ph.D

Anyone can wait until December to write their reflections on the highlights of the year in college advising, but it takes a special talent—or lack of wisdom—to write them just as the year is getting underway.  The challenge is just too hard to say no to, so here’s what everyone else will be writing about in eleven short months:

College access improved.  The colleges of the Ivy League and other highly selective colleges are calling their latest outreach efforts to low-income students a huge success.  Rather than holding area breakfasts for school counselors this year, these trend-setting colleges took the money from those events and sent admissions officers to high schools in underserved neighborhoods, where they spent the morning working with talented youth who would be the first in their family to go to college.

“The real key was partnering with local public universities and community colleges” said one Ivy dean of admission.  “By working together and co-presenting on college readiness and the basics of paying for college, the message was clear: There’s a college for everyone, and while an Ivy might be your college, it doesn’t have to be.”

Early admission decisions support the success of this new effort, as public schools in Detroit, Los Angeles and St. Louis report record acceptances and scholarship offers to students. Plans are already underway to expand the program next year.

Test optional colleges soar.  A different kind of success was claimed by the 145 colleges who started the 2016 recruiting season no longer requiring ACT or SAT scores as part of the admissions process.  “I had students in tears calling me in May, telling me they still hadn’t received the results of their March SAT scores” said one Big Ten admissions director who took his office test optional.  “I kept telling them it’s OK, we don’t need them until October, but they were too stressed out to listen.  That’s when I realized this testing thing was completely out of hand.”  Since October, 110 additional colleges have announced the switch to test optional for the 2017 recruiting year, including 4 Big Ten schools and one Ivy League college.

Student renames FAFSA process, gets citation.  Seymour Hansen received the Student of the Month Award today, to honor the 17 year-old’s contribution to the simplification of the financial aid process at his high school.  “A kid at lunch came back from a meeting with our counselor all shook up, because the counselor kept saying ‘You need your income information from the prior-prior year.’  The kid thought the counselor was stammering, until I said ‘You have to give them last year’s tax information.’  She cheered right up, went back and talked to the counselor, and ‘Last Year’s Taxes’ became our school’s financial aid mantra.”  Seymour’s counselor credits this simple change with increasing the school’s FAFSA completion by 32 percent.

Art schools fail to file for Best Schools rankings.  Tired of being held up as Colleges That Aren’t Worth the Money, every college participating in National Portfolio Day decided to withhold their admission information from all rankings publications.  “At first, we thought the notoriety was worth it” said one admissions director, “but then our new president took me to lunch and asked me, ‘who goes into art for the money?’”  The NPD consortium has created a series of videos on financing an art degree and making a living as an artist, featuring some of the leading artists in the world.  Both videos landed in YouTube’s Top 100 videos viewed for 2016.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

You Did What Over Break?

By:  Patrick O'Connor Ph.D

Colleagues, it’s time to chat.

Like most of you, I’ve just returned from a long school vacation, one of the best perks of being an educator, and one of the best parts of having Christmas on a Friday.  My time off was relaxing, re-energizing, and gave time for reflection of the big pictures of work, family, and life.

As I returned to a virtual mountain of e-mail, it was clear some of you didn’t take this approach.  “Does anyone have a scholarship list they can share?” wrote one of you—on December 28th.  “One of my students just e-mailed me with a rough draft of their college essays” another one began—from December 30th.  And finally, this, from sometime over vacation: “I couldn’t sleep, so I thought I’d start checking 2nd semester schedules for conflicts.”

I realize this is a big world, and it is a much better place because everyone treats their work differently.  At the same time, I also know that the root word for vacation is vacate, which comes from the Latin “to abandon”, “to make like a tree and leaf”, or “to make like a banana and split.”  When one vacates a home, one doesn’t come back to check in on it now and again; you leave and never come back.

I also know that counselors know the value of unwinding and distressing.  We are familiar with studies showing how this actually increases productivity and learning in students, leads to longer lifespans, and makes us easier to get along with. 

Knowing all we do about the benefits of pulling a Queen Elsa and letting it go, I can’t help but wonder why we don’t actually let the office go.  Is it because we care too much?  Have we become the workaholic we entered the field to rehabilitate?  Is there really nothing we can do to make sure we can truly take time off, not worrying what awaits us when we return?

The answer is likely different for all of us, but after reflecting on the e-mails I’ve just read, I would offer this advice for you to consider for next year:

Create a December to-do list.  When you return from Thanksgiving—that’s when you return, not while you’re eating turkey—write a list of everything that needs to be done by January 10th.  Complete at least two of those tasks every school day, with the goal of having everything done two days before vacation starts.  That way, you have the scholarship list in hand before you go on vacation, and you have a less frenzied return to school after break.

Give students internal deadlines.  Starting November 1, I post a reminder in each weekly newsletter that my office is closed when the school is closed, and that includes Thanksgiving and December vacations.  If students want help with essays, they know they’ll only get read when school is open.  If students want a transcript sent for a college with a January 1st deadline, they need to let me know by December 5th.  Telling me after that guarantees it will be sent late, and some colleges might not like that, but it’s up to them to let me know on time.

These steps may not work the first year you try them, but it’s important to remember we set an example for students to follow—so if we want them to demonstrate balance, they need to see what that looks like.

Give it a try—and if you really relax by doing schedule changes, call me.  We could make a tidy sum opening a small online business.