Wednesday, December 4, 2019

Washington Needs Your Voice. Here’s How to Use It.

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

Politics really drives me crazy sometimes. It wasn’t two years ago that groups from all walks of life were begging, pleading, demanding something be done to create safer schools—and the fervor was so huge, there really was a sense something might get done this time.

That was then. Ukraine came along, and suddenly, it’s even a miracle that the recent school shootings got any coverage in part because the casualty counts were so small. So little attention is being paid to this issue that a bill funding approximately 10,000 new school counselors is sitting in a House committee, going absolutely nowhere, in part because no one knows anything about it. 

If you’re wondering what you can do to try and get Washington to pay more attention to the needs of school counselors, have I got a program for you. The US Department of Education just opened applications for the next round of School Ambassador Fellows, educators who keep the Department informed of issues of interest and concern in the field. These teachers, administrators and educators work with the Department to offer programming, seminars, and other events designed to improve education. They also offer counsel on policy development and changes that will meet more needs of students, families, and educators.
This program is in its twelfth year, but it’s only been open to school counselors for the past three years. I had the privilege of serving as the inaugural School Counselor Ambassador Fellow, and I can tell you, our work is cut out for us. I spent most of my time talking with policy makers about the real world of school counselors—the gap between what we really do, and what we’re supposed to do, the students who need more help from school counselors and why, and the training school counselors receive that does (and doesn’t) get them ready for their work.

I’m pleased to say I met with nothing but receptive audiences when I talked about the needs for school counselors. This included a couple of meetings with Secretary DeVos, who expressed unconditional support for the need to make sure all students leave high school with a comprehensive understanding of all of the options available to them after high school, a goal that has long been part of the counseling community. Policy proposals to advance that goal were well received while I was there, and the current Counselor Ambassador is building on that start in impressive ways.

If having a say at the US Department of Education sounds interesting, know that you don’t have to give up your day job to do this work. Thanks to the support of my administrators, I was able to work as a Campus Ambassador Fellow, which meant I still worked as a counselor, but spent 3-4 days in Washington about once every 6-8 weeks. I still supported my work as a Fellow when I was in the office, writing newsletters and memos to support policies and programs. My daily work with students helped keep my advice to the Department grounded, based on real-life experiences that resonated with the team in DC. Of course, if you want to spend all your time in DC, that’s an option too, where you’d take more meetings and have an even stronger voice in policy development.

Our profession is making some great headway in the national conversation about student health, and our next Ambassador in Washington is going to play an important role in moving us even farther. To find out more about how you can make a difference, take a look here—and don’t think for a second you’re not good enough to do this. The deadline is December 31.

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