Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The Year in Review, and a Look at What’s New

By:  Patrick O'Connor Ph.D

2013 was filled with consistent change, the kind of contradiction school counselors have to get used to in order to make long-term commitments to their schools and their profession.  New data isn’t out yet, but counselors continue to report larger caseloads and more time on tasks unrelated to counseling.  While policy makers are acknowledging something needs to change, the nuts and bolts of reform have yet to be worked out—and with Congress up for election next year, it’s unlikely any real change will occur in the few short months the House and Senate will be in session before their members hit the campaign trail.

There are many highlights and promising moments to focus on, so here is just a sampling of where we’ve been, and where we’re headed:

Counselors and Common Core Implementation of Common Core standards was ramped up in many states, leaving counselors in their usual ambivalent role of part cheerleader, part referee.  The higher order thinking skills Common Core purports to measure are welcome news to counselors, since analysis, synthesis, and evaluation are key qualities to emotionally healthy students.  At the same time, the assessment of Common Core outcomes may be even more odious and time-consuming than No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, which could lead to more testing and fewer electives for a generation of smart phone users that could use a little imagination stretching.  Counselors have generally responded to the possibilities Common Core offers; time will tell if these possibilities will be realized.

Common Application  High school counselors leveled uncommonly high criticism at a trusted counselor friend this fall, when the new version of Common Application debuted with significant flaws.  The most popular college application in the country, Common App 4 made it difficult for counselors to download transcripts; told students they hadn’t paid for an application when they had, and sent more than a few submitted applications to college—with nothing on them.  The fine tuning is complete, so school counselors have moved on to other heartbreaking issues—like NBC’s remake of The Sound of Music with Carrie Underwood.

First Lady Leads Counselor Fanfare  Counselor hopes for improved working conditions were nurtured by Michelle Obama’s publicly demonstrated interest in improving college access and readiness for low-income and first generation youth.  Launched in November, the initiative seeks to raise public awareness of the importance of earning an education after high school, and has garnered the attention of policy makers who can improve the training and working conditions of all school counselors.  Much good is expected of this effort in 2014.

2014 offers these challenges and opportunities for counselor growth:

  • Middle- and high-school counselors will have to adjust to life without PLAN and EXPLORE, as ACT ends these successful tests and replaces them with the multi-grade ASPIRE exam.  Implementation seems easy enough—the question really lies with how well the results will relate to college readiness and Common Core achievement.

  • College access and readiness seem to be pulling counselors in different directions, as some reports indicate a four year college degree is losing its economic prestige, while other reports accuse school counselors of sending high-achieving, low-income students to colleges that don’t really challenge them.  Overeducating and undermatching are two watchwords for 2014.

  • Further change in K-16 education is expected as states begin to shift attitudes about undocumented students. Expect more colleges to offer in-state tuition to undocumented students who graduate from state high schools, and don’t be surprised if financial aid for these students becomes a bigger issue by year’s end.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

So, you about ready to wind things down at school for the holidays?

By: Patrick O'Connor Ph.D

As a colleague once said, the end of a calendar year or school year never gives educators a chance to wind things down.  It’s more like running as fast as you can towards the edge of a cliff, where the number of things you have to do grows every day, requiring you to run faster and faster just to keep up.  When the last day of school is over, there is this momentary feeling of bliss, because you realize time is up, and you don’t have to run any more—but then you look back at everything that didn’t get done, and you go into emotional free fall.

That doesn’t have to happen this year.  With a few days left before the last bell rings, take a minute to take care of your students—and yourself—with these simple strategies:

Take care of the logistics.  No one likes to come back from break with a long list of phone messages and e-mails from parents and students asking for basic information— the link to that Web site you mentioned in a career presentation, the School Code to register for the ACT, the name of that article about effective communication with relatives over the holidays. 

Find five minutes to write down every post-holiday question or concern you’ve come back to in past school years, and write down the answers to those questions.  That’s the content of a newsletter you e-mail to all parents, students and faculty, and post on your Web site—then include that Web link on your e-mail Auto Reply, and put it on your outgoing voice message.  Not everyone who calls or e-mails over the holidays will help themselves, but this gives them every chance to try—and sends the clear message that you want to help them, even when you’re not there.

Take care of your clients.  The newsletter offers blanket advice to clients making inquiries, but the clients you’re seeing on a regular basis require support more tailored to their individual needs.  Now is the time to review the lesson plans for your counseling groups and the notes from your meetings with high-needs students.  At your last meeting before the holidays, set aside five minutes to talk about the articles, community-based resources, and coping strategies they have access to while school is closed.  It may even be wise to talk about the strategies students have used when faced with challenges over a weekend, or when you were away at a conference.  Showing them how they can take care of themselves affirms their understanding that you see them capable of taking care of themselves; that in itself goes a long way to making their December break manageable and enjoyable.

Ask for help.  Long school breaks can often be a time of anxiety for students who are otherwise very much in control of their lives.  Without the day to day activities of school, some students become overly focused on pending college decisions, struggles with relatives they only see at the holidays, or a self-perceived lack of growth and achievement this past year.

It’s impossible to keep an eye on every student during the last days of school, so call on your peers for support. A quick e-mail to teachers will give them the direction they need to guide students to you who may be approaching the season with some unusual angst—and you’d be amazed how reassuring that e-mail will be to the teachers, too.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Cry for Help, or Pity Party?

By: Patrick O'Connor

I once—and only once--- received a compliment about my dancing.  My wife and I were invited to a square dance, and the caller guided the group through sets of dances, each one a little more difficult than the last.  At the end of the third set, the caller motioned to us, so we walked over to him.  “You two are picking this up pretty quick” he said.  “Tell me, what do you do for a living?”

“We’re teachers” we said together.

With that, the caller took a couple of steps back, and turned ashen.  “No”, he said, “you can’t be teachers.  I’ve called dozens of square dances for teachers, and they never get past the first set before they start arguing with each other.  You can’t teach nothin’ to teachers.”

This episode came to mind when a counselor told me they felt isolated in their work.  Isolation is easy to understand; whether we’re classified as teachers or administrators, school counselors are in fact neither.  We really feel this when we’re having a bad day, because no one knows what we do, but they think they know what we do—and that doesn’t engender a lot of sympathy.

I suggested the counselor form a Counseling Advisory Committee. Established by school counseling guru Norm Gysbers, CACs are designed to help counseling offices review and implement their curriculum.  CAC members are picked by the counselor, and usually include teachers, the PTA president, representatives from the business and religious communities—people who care about kids who need to know what counselors do.  By combining their efforts, CAC members keep in close touch and create an atmosphere of support that’s the cure for counselor isolationism.

The response was understandable, but less than I had hoped for.  “Great idea, but I don’t even have time to do my job.  When am I going to have time to put this committee together?”

And that’s when the square dancing story came to mind.

There is no question school counselors are overworked and underappreciated, and there is little hope that any economic relief is in sight to solve that problem.  As we so often tell our students, when outside resources offer no sign of help, it’s time to help ourselves—so,  just as we tell our students, if we want something different, we have to do something different.

As trained school counselors, we know change has a price.  You have to find an extra hour to organize a committee; not everyone will want to serve; you may end up with the wrong mix of people, and you’ll have to start over, all while considering the number of students you could have seen during the hours you put in to a failed committee.

It’s certainly true there are no guarantees of success—but there are two things to keep in mind.  First, you may, in fact, succeed.  One school counselor used her PTA as a Counseling Advisory Committee, and told them the college counseling curriculum would really be enhanced if she could just get some funding to attend a national conference. The PTA sponsored her, she went to the conference, and the college choices for students soared—as did the scholarships they earned.

The second thing to remember is that if nothing changes, nothing changes.  This isn’t easy to hear, but important to remember when you, a well-connected adult with multiple college degrees, tell a sixteen year-old to be the change they want to become.

Good counseling is all about humility, empathy, and leading by example. The time for dysfunctional stasis is over--so grab your partners.