Wednesday, September 5, 2018

A Welcome Back to School Letter from A School Counselor

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D

Have you ever wondered why only the principal gets to write a “welcome back to school” letter?  Why not a counselor—better yet, a counselor who works for the US Department of Education?

My work with the Department is almost up, so here’s my one and only effort to welcome back every student to school.  Share widely, OK?  And welcome back!

Patrick O’Connor is in his thirty-fifth year of service as a school counselor.  His work as the inaugural school counselor ambassador fellow with the US Department of Education ends in October.

Some of you have been in school for a month now, so it’s a little late to say Happy First Day of School.  Still, now that nearly all of you are back in the classroom, I wanted to offer three pieces of advice for the coming year.  You may have already heard them from your own school counselor, but just in case, I hope you’ll keep this close—in your locker, on your phone—to help make this year a great one.

Keep wondering Many students get the message that the main reason they’re learning whatever it is they’re learning is only because it will get them ready for something else.  We learn to read in first grade so we can learn to read more in second grade.  We take French in eighth grade to take more challenging classes in ninth grade.  High school gets us ready for college, or a job, or something else.

My hope is that you’ll never feel that way this school year.  It’s important to be ready for what comes next, but everything you learn—everything—is an idea all by itself, something someone first thought of that no one else had considered.  There was a first person to think about what keeps plants green, how courts should make sure laws are fair, and how to make The Twist different from a waltz.  The first step in wondering about something new is taking the time to look at something you know, and think about how it got here.  Keep doing that—it will encourage you to keep asking the questions you want to have answered, and that is important to all of us.

Step forward  Kindergarten classrooms are pretty amazing places.  When the teacher asks a question, a million hands go up in the air and wave around like crazy.  Sometimes, it doesn’t even matter what the question is—students just have something to say.  Remember when your kindergarten teacher asked what day it was, and the student they called on said “My dog had puppies?” That’s really putting yourself out there.

For some reason, students in older grades often think they don’t have anything to say anymore, or what they have to say doesn’t matter.  If your teacher didn’t want to know what you think, they wouldn’t have asked you a question—and if somebody else laughs because they think your answer isn’t perfect, that’s about them, not about you.  Live your life.  Use your voice.

Know you aren’t alone  Not everything grows in light.  Doubt, frustration, anger, despair, disappointment—all thrive in darkness.  In fact, they like the darkness so much, they’ll do whatever they can to keep you isolated, so no one can help you end the darkness by turning on the light.

Keep that in mind the next time you’re not sure what to do.  Friends, neighbors, teachers, counselors, and parents are all there, waiting to help the best way they can.  Something inside you may say “no one can help”, but that’s the same voice that says it’s OK to eat cake for dinner—it’s never helpful.

Finding the right helper may take a couple of tries, but keep at it. Thomas Edison thought he could make a lightbulb, and a thousand failures later, he finally made one—he’d found the right combination to turn on the light.  There’s a million light bulbs in you.  Reach out, let others help you light them up, and watch them shine.