The most popular school counseling piece I ever wrote was for National School Counseling Week, where I talked about the behind-the-scenes work school counselors had done to help out a student struggling with an eating disorder, and a high school senior who was struggling with the responsibilities of being an unexpected father. This column resonated with a lot of people, especially counselors, who know that much of their work as mental health professionals must, by definition, go unrecognized. That’s been the case ever since we’ve had school counselors, and it was absolutely the case in the 1980s, when a counselor helped out the two students alluded to in that column.
The long-standing reputation school counselors have as advocates for the personal well-being of students makes me wonder about the recent spate of new articles like this one that are trying to portray our mental health role as if it’s something new. What’s even more interesting is that most of these articles take the same approach to explaining this “change”, by saying “You may remember your school counselor as the person who sent out transcripts and told you where to go to college, but…” The articles then go on to explain how the “new” school counselor focuses on four (or five) areas of student growth, presents lessons in classrooms, and partners with other school officials to create a positive atmosphere of personal growth for all students.
It’s hard to say just why there’s an effort to re-cast school counselors in this new light, especially since school counselors have been playing these “new” roles for decades. It’s certainly true that some schools haven’t used school counselors to their full capacity, occupying their time instead with administrative duties like schedule changes and test oversight. But that isn’t a reason to convince administrators that counselors can do “new” things that aren’t really new. If anything, it would be wiser to use the success and history of past school counselors as examples of best practices a struggling school can adopt, knowing that this model has been successfully used at hundreds of schools in the past. With school administrators, familiarity breeds comfort, while innovation often leads to doubt.
Part of this framing of counselors as mental health advocates may be a desire to have the public see school counselors as something other than college and career advisers, but counselors pursuing this path will also want to proceed with caution. School counseling continues to enjoy renewed interest by the public at large thanks to the work of former First Lady Michelle Obama, who praised the value of school counselors, especially in their capacity to help students go to college. Combined with the high expectations parents have for counselors to play this important role, now is the time to embrace this opportunity, and meet those expectations. The goodwill and trust created with the parents and the larger community can then be used to advance the other parts of the school counseling curriculum in ways that would otherwise be hard to achieve.
The media may present images suggesting school counselors have a history of being well-meaning but somewhat clueless, but that image overlooks the long record of support and success counselors have extended to students for years, in everything from individual counseling of family concerns, to group counseling of mental health challenges, to classroom lessons on common challenges facing students as they grow up. Affirming the media's false portrayal, and using this straw man approach to advocate for a “new and improved” approach to school counseling is not only professionally dishonest; it portrays a lack of respect for the counselors who changed as many lives then as counselors do today. As a profession, we’re better than that.