Thursday, March 31, 2011

Doing Our Work with a Spring in Our Step

By : Patrick J. O'Connor, Ph.D.

April is indeed the cruelest month for school counselors.  While it’s wonderful to hear the birds singing and to see some flowers in bloom, this is the time of year when our workload is at its busiest, no matter what grade level we serve:

*   Counselors at all levels are leading their schools through required standardized testing;
*   Middle and high school counselors are working with students on schedules for next year;
*   Elementary counselors are dealing with students who have simply had it with winter;
*   High school counselors are doing some major hand-holding to support seniors disappointed with college decisions

Taken individually, these tasks might be manageable—but add them all together, throw in a request to make a presentation to the school board or chaperone a basketball game, and this is more than enough to put you over the edge.

This kind of frustration is common among teachers, so what is it that seems to make it so acutely felt by counselors?

Because we are the integrity center for our schools.

Think about it.  When a student mouths off in class and the teacher asks them to stop, does the counselor see that student if they do as their told?  Of course not; we only see the students who talk back to the teachers, so we can help the student sort out their priorities and consider their behavior.

If a senior decides to drop an Advanced Placement class for a gym class, who has to tell them they have to report this class change to the colleges where they’ve been admitted?  Right—us.

Who’s called in to mediate a tense principal-parent meeting?  Who’s asked to come to the Spanish class and explain the importance of learning a language other than English?  Who is supposed to help every student grow every day?

No wonder we’re tired.  When it comes to taking a stand on an issue, we spend more time on our principled feet than the Statue of Liberty.

What’s the best way to catch a breather and stay standing tall?  Let’s practice what we preach, and remember these three things:

*   Keep the big picture in mind.  Talking with Joey again about his failing report card may not get him to leave your office as a changed person, but it may give him something to think about tonight, or this weekend when he’s deciding if he should do his homework.  We are Johnny Appleseed, planting ideas for growth in life, and they might not be hydroponics; give them the support and time they need to grow.
*   Consider the alternative.  Leading the charge for right over wrong may seem more like working in the Alamo than a counseling office, but the two can have much in common if we remember the importance of principle and commitment.  It’s what we want the students to demonstrate, so these are our behaviors to model.
*   Cherish the victories.  With the enormous caseloads we carry, there has to be at least a dozen students a day who show some kind of personal growth.  Focusing on the 400 who don’t seem to get it yet will keep us depressed, and won’t help anyone grow; be prepared to yell, whistle, and high five every piece of good news that comes your way.

April showers may bring May anxieties about who’s taking who to the big spring dance, but if we follow our own advice and are good to ourselves, the growth of all things dormant since the winter won’t be the only beautiful signs to dot our landscape in the next two months.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Helping Kids by Supporting Their Parents

Patrick J. O'Connor, Ph.D.

School counselors everywhere will appreciate the strong, data-driven reminder delivered in a February editorial in The Christian Science Monitor. “Want better students? Teach their parents” is aimed at classroom instructors, reminding them that many parents don’t know how to help their children build good study habits—but they are willing to learn.  This article stands apart from others like it because is offers some research suggesting the coaching of parents makes a difference with children, further evidence that much of what goes on in the classroom is impacted by what goes on outside the classroom.

If parent support of classroom teachers is important, imagine how vital it is for the teachers outside the classroom—like school counselors.  Our work with students focuses on some of life’s biggest lessons; exploring careers, recovering from loss, preparing for college, and dealing with conflict are only some of the issues in our curriculum, so it’s only logical that parent support of our “teaching” would improve student learning in a number of ways.

There is no single best way to win over parent support—approaches are probably as different as each student and parent we work with.  But if you’re looking for somewhere to start, consider these approaches as you review your work with parents:
  • Communication.  The days of relying on parent conferences and a monthly printed newsletter as the only ways to reach parents are long over.  A strong counseling Web site that’s frequently updated, a short weekly newsletter delivered weekly by e-mail, flyers posted on the community bulletin board at the coffee shop and places of worship, and even Facebook accounts can spread the word about the quality services and programs counselors offer.  No one approach will get to everyone, but every approach will reach someone.
  •  Location.  Gone too are the days of sitting in our offices, waiting for parents to drop by to see if you’re busy (and since you’re always busy, aren’t you glad parents don’t do this anyway?)  A Johns Hopkins researcher once said many parents don’t come to school because it’s the school where they failed as a student; still other parents are just too busy.  It’s time to take your programs and seminars to the coffee shop, the bowling alley, the PTA meeting, the Laundromat—or maybe the school parking lot, where the 5th grade moms meet to gossip.  Think about where parents naturally gather—that’s where you want to be.
  • Collaboration.  You might not draw much of a crowd at the roller rink by setting up a table with pamphlets about your services, but if you get the owner of the roller rink to sponsor a family night with reduced rates and giveaways, your chances of success just got bigger.  Pass out low-cost ink jet business cards, get the DJ to make some brief announcements of your services, and see what your mingling can bring—especially if you lace up the skates and take a turn on the track.
  • Abbreviation.  There’s a good chance you won’t be able to do much in-depth counseling at the bowling alley, and Pastor Mike probably won’t let you take over his entire sermon to talk about every part of your career counseling program.  Make sure your message maintains the right focus and length for the audience and the communication vehicle, and respect, awareness, and involvement in your counseling program will soar.
More good student counseling will occur with good guidance for parents—once they’re on your side, nothing can stop you.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

A Free Counseling Resource That Beats a Pot of Gold

Patrick J. O'Connor, Ph.D.

One of the biggest tasks faced by school counselors is finding the time to develop their counseling curriculum.  Between meeting urgent needs of students and tending to administration-assigned tasks that have little to do with counseling, the idea of “free time” during the day is more ancient than the typewriter, and the follow-up calls and e-mails that keep most counselors in the building long after most teachers have gone home leave little time after school for anything but rest, recovery, and re-energizing for the next day.

It’s understandable why the counseling curriculum can easily take a back seat to more pressing daily needs, but the development, evaluation, and modification of curriculum is an important step in any counseling office.  Not only does curriculum development provide a reliable structure of services families and students count on; it also reminds community members—including classroom teachers—that counseling has a specific set of goals, tools, and methods of evaluation, just like any other department in the school.

When it comes to development of college counseling curriculum, the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) can help fill the void between the goal of having a curriculum and the reality of having no time to develop one.  The Families, Counselors and Communities Together (FCCT) program represents 27 years of research and practice in guiding families through the entire college admission process, from the important first steps of college awareness, through visiting college campuses, completing applications, making a decision on which college to attend, and the ever-important awareness of how to pay for college and make college affordable.

Many are surprised that FCCT also addresses the important issue of college readiness.  While this topic may be new to some, NACAC has always realized that it is not enough for a student to be admitted to college; a high school student must develop the study skills, discipline, and goal setting strategies needed to complete the college experience with a certificate, diploma, or degree.

College readiness skills are an integral part of FCCT, making it an ideal curriculum for schools that have a large number of families where the student would be the first in the family to go to college.  At the same time, FCCT is presented in a way where families more aware of the college selection process can reaffirm their understanding of the basics of the process and broaden their appreciation for all the college options that exist.

Counselors interested in FCCT will be happy to know NACAC also provides Power Point presentations in English and Spanish that are ready to present to any audience.  In addition, NACAC offers a series of workshops called Guiding the Way to Higher Education designed for families with students in grades 7-8, 9-11, and 11-12.  The program for middle school students is especially important, since it raises awareness about college in a way that provides information without advocating for a specific college, or putting stress on the student.

If this resource wasn’t enough, budget- conscious counselors (and let’s face it, that’s all of us) will be happy to know that all of these tools are free.  FCCT can be printed to your home or office computer and the slide shows can be downloaded to your computer, all without charge.  Just visit; if that doesn’t work, go to<>, and use the search box to find FCCT.

It’s tough finding time and money to develop college counseling curriculum, but NACAC saves the day by providing a time-tested program for grades 7-12, all for free. That’s not just the luck of the Irish—it’s a blessing for all.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

The Best Advice When Colleges Say No

By: Patrick J. O'Connor, Ph.D

School counselors know the real March Madness begins next week, when some of the nation’s most selective colleges release their admissions decisions.  As a pre-game warm-up, let’s stick with the facts we’ll need to comfort the Class of 2011

  • Most selective colleges are reporting a huge increase in the number of applications.
  • This increase is due in part to more American students applying to college, and colleges seeking out more students from overseas.
  • Since this also happened last year, many colleges enrolled too many students last fall.  They’ll have to make up for that, so many colleges will be admitting fewer students this year…
  • …and wait-listing more students.  This increase means fewer students will be admitted from the wait list come May—and if they are admitted, financial aid will be scarce.

If none of that does any good, then just say this:

  •  850.

No, this is not the high score on some new version of the SAT, and while it may indeed be the number of times Charlie Sheen appeared on TV last week, that (happily) has nothing to do with college.

850 is the number of valedictorians rejected last year from one of America’s most prestigious colleges.  These students represented the best in their high schools; they did everything they were “supposed” to do—and yet, they didn’t even get to the wait list.

Once you share this with your students, ask them how these 850 students felt when they were rejected.  Sooner or later, the right answer will come forward—“They probably felt like they put in all of that time and effort for nothing.”

And there is the teachable moment.

It had to be hard to be turned down by a school they loved—but did all of that preparation really lead to nothing?  Given everything these students had learned, the many ways they had grown, and how they overcame adversity and embraced creativity in making Plans B, C, and Q, did they really get nothing out of it?

If so, they have every right to be unhappy, but not with the college. They should be unhappy for letting the sun rise and set 1307 times from the first day of 9th grade to the day the college said no, never once appreciating all that each of those days had to offer in and of themselves.

They should hang their heads a little to realize, just now, the difference they’ve made to their classmates, their teammates, and the people they served in the soup kitchen.

And if they look back with a little regret on the many times they blew off a compliment from a parent or a teacher because the goal of college wasn’t realized just yet, that’s more than OK.  They now know it was at that moment that the goal of fully living each day was conquered with a flourish—and understanding that will make each day all the richer at the wonderful college that had the good sense (and room) to take them.

It isn’t easy to see watch wonderful students work through the dismay and disappointment college decisions can bring, but if we remember the most important part of our work has nothing to do with who gets in and everything to do with who gets it, the disappointment will fade faster than the memory of the teams we had in last year’s NCAA pool, and students can move forward with a better sense of who they are, and what really matters.  Now that’s college counseling.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Early “Admission” Letters Contribute to March Madness

By: Patrick J. O'Connor, Ph.D.

There’s just about a month to go before many colleges send out their admissions decisions.  Ordinarily, this is a time when students focus on their studies, the end of basketball season, or the start of Spring Break.

But this is far from a normal winter—it is a time full of distractions.  Students are keeping their eyes to the skies, hoping for one last snow day, teachers are keeping an eye on Wisconsin, and seniors are already watching their mailboxes, since some unexpected college mail is already on its way.

The letters that are coming are called “courtesy letters” or “heads up” letters, and more colleges are sending them than ever before.  The heads up letter doesn’t offer admission—let’s be clear about that, since not too much else is clear when it comes to heads up letters.  Instead, the letter lets the students know things are looking good, and usually sounds something like this:

“After reviewing your application, we wanted to let you know how happy we are you are considering our college.  Since we are sending out offers of admission April 1st, we cannot offer you admission at this time, but we very much look forward to communicating with you at that time, and have every reason to believe you should look forward to us communicating with you as well.”

If this sounds like a curious mix of Lewis Carroll, binary code, and a State of the Union address, then the letter has served its exact purpose.  Colleges know that the sooner a student hears good news from them, the greater the chance the student will enroll there. Given the increase in college applications this year, if a college has read an application and really likes what they see, they really, really want the student to be there in the fall—that’s why they send out a heads-up letter. 

So why not just tell the student they are admitted?  Think about everyone else who applied, students who are highly qualified, but not at the very top of a very qualified group of students.  It’s going to take more time to review the rest of a very talented applicant pool, and if a college starts sending out admission letters now, every applicant will be calling the college—or worse yet, asking school counselors to call the college—which will make the application review process even more longer and stressful. 

If you think heads-up letters makes the college selection process more messy, you’re right.  One of my students came in with one of these letters, and I had no idea what it said.  This student made such an impression as a Presidential scholar, they almost offered him the President’s job instead of the President’s congratulations—but for as bright as he was, and for as long as I’ve been a college counselor, neither one of us had any idea what this letter meant, until I called the college.

Now that I made the call, you don’t have to.  If one of your students  comes in with a heads-up letter, let them know things are looking good but tell them to be careful who they share the news with.  Parents can be convinced it means the student is admitted, and other students can be convinced it means they *aren’t* admitted, and the letter doesn’t say either of those things.  So be prepared to do some explaining (and to make a lot of copies of this column), and encourage them to  be happy keeping the news to themselves, letting it germinate into a fully-bloomed ebullience others can share come springtime.