Wednesday, December 15, 2021

Remembering the Season

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

Many counselors are looking forward to this upcoming time off, since it represents a return to a “normal” holiday season. Given the hope—and even for those who are looking at a different kind of time off— here’s a story that takes us back to one of the holidays that’s celebrated, in the hopes that looking at its origins might give us the perspective needed to make the most of our upcoming time off. Enjoy.

In fourth century Asia Minor, there lived a farmer with three beautiful daughters. When the eldest announced she was planning to wed, the farmer fretted aloud that he had no money to provide her a dowry, putting her wedding plans in jeopardy.

One day, as the farmer left his home to tend to his crops, he felt something bump up against his foot as he put on his field shoes, which he had left on the porch before coming in the house the night before. He searched the shoe, and discovered a small bag of gold, worth just enough to make a dowry for his eldest daughter and to pay for her wedding.

A few years later, his second daughter announced her plans to wed, and the farmer’s financial picture had not improved over time. Wondering where he would find funding to support this wedding, he was delighted, but still surprised, to find another bag of gold in his field shoes just a few days later.

When his third daughter announced her plans to wed, the farmer was determined to discover the identity of the giver of the gold. He spent the night on the front porch, and when no one came to fill his field shoes with gold, went inside to prepare for the day. Imagine his surprise when he took down his stockings—hanging near the fire where they were drying—and found another bag of gold.

Only years later was it discovered that the giver of the gold was Nicholas, the village priest, who was only too aware of the farmer’s plight.

To this day, many families honor Nicholas by placing toys and candy in the shoes their children put out the night before—and these trinkets often include an orange, symbolic of the bags of gold. Other families hang stockings by the fireplace, typically at Christmas, to commemorate Nicholas’ ability to climb down the very large chimney opening once the evening fire was out and place the third bag of gold in the farmer’s stockings.

Either way, the tale of Nicholas is a reminder that this time of giving is one based on supply, and not excess.

Wednesday, December 8, 2021

Counseling Over Break? Ho, Ho—No!

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

’Tis the season for counselor blogs and chat rooms to be filled with the inevitable holiday question—how much are you checking email and seeing students over break? Like most school counselor issues, this one seems easy at first. You look at your contract or remember what your boss wanted to do last year, and there’s your answer.

Until you remember the student who decided to wait to apply to their 12 other colleges until they heard back from their unlikely Early school on December 20. This student is now looking at midnight shifts over the holiday. Won’t they need help?

Until the student who got a Yes from their Early school walks into your office the last day of school with four—count ‘em, four—financial aid forms the college wants completed and returned by January 5, or the student’s acceptance is in peril. This is the first student in the family to go to college. Need I say more?

There’s no hard and fast rule in approaching this question, but there is one important guideline to follow that make the exceptions—and, believe it or not, saying “no”—more manageable. Ready?

Plan ahead. I love my colleagues dearly, but any first-time announcement going out right now about being closed for all of break is going to make Scrooge look like Mister Rogers, so grin and bear it this year, and make a note for next year. Send out an announcement (by mail, by email, on the Web, in text) that states your availability for both Thanksgiving and December break. This puts everyone on notice: You need help? Here’s when you can, and can’t, get it.

This notice can absolutely say the office will be closed and you won’t be available. I did this for the last fifteen years as a college counselor, and no one complained. The “last minute” folks in the crowd now know they’ll be flying on their own. If they don’t want to do that, there’s ample time to develop Plan B.

For them—and even for the students who plan ahead—you want to provide guidance (oops) on what to do if something unexpected comes up. “If you end up applying to a school we haven’t discussed, or if you hear from a college over break, drop me an email, and I’ll respond when we return. Just make sure you send your part of a new application in by the deadline.” Colleges know high schools are closed December 28, so they know any request they make then will have to wait until January.

If you must be available over break, the November 1 notice (which gets sent again right before Thanksgiving, December 10, and two days before December break) should specify when you’re available. It’s not healthy for anyone to have counselors available every day of break, so set some times (one morning and one afternoon), set the format (phone, online, in person) and then stick to that schedule. Part of this is for your own good, and part is practice for college. A student shouldn’t expect a professor to be in their office at 2:00 Tuesday if office hours are Monday at 3:00. Be the professor.

There are all kinds of exceptions that make it impossible to take all of break off, but a long history of handling breaks suggests this is an optimal time—for students and counselors alike—to let go of school for a while. Let’s try and keep the big picture in mind as we go over the river and through the woods—and leave the computer at the office.

Wednesday, December 1, 2021


by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

It’s a story about a lot of things that don’t get talked about much, starting with the town itself.  Ask most Detroiters about Oxford, and they’ll say it’s a tiny town that runs a pretty good fall festival.  Beyond that, it’s one of those towns where varsity football is King, where nearly the whole town closes so everyone can go to the game, and everyone can tell you who’s on this year’s team.  A few of the town elders will still tell you Oxford was the birthplace of one of the most famous radio voices, The Lone Ranger, but other than that, it’s just a great little town that makes for a pleasant stop as you’re travelling somewhere else.


This is also a story about the Oxford Police Department, a small-town public safety program that focuses as much on community relations as it does on law enforcement.  This isn’t exactly Sheriff Andy from Mayberry, but I’m hard pressed to think of another police department’s web page that boasts about its chaplaincy program, where “our Chaplain is available 24 hours a day to assist officers and citizens during times of tragic events.”  In a profession where the small things make a difference, it’s clear Oxford gets that. They also understand that the minute you start bragging about them, you’ve kind of missed the point.


Closer to home for school counselors, this is also a story about lockdown drills, the exercises typically held in those first few days of school before the students arrive. To some, it’s one of those things you do to check a box so you can say you practiced the drill.  In the eyes of others, it’s an object of disappointment, a premature step on the road to the loss of innocence at too early an age—“We don’t have enough time to teach handwriting, but there’s always time for a lockdown drill.” Others see them as a necessary evil; if there was a predictable pattern to where they were needed and when, no one would practice them if they didn’t have to.  It’s just that no one knows where or when—so they’re conducted, just in case.


That’s where things were this Tuesday, as school counselors across the country were getting ready for another major college application deadline.  A semiautomatic handgun saw to it that Oxford would be something more than a sleepy town with a tough football team, killing four, and putting the school in the company of once-unknown Columbine and Sandy Hook.  The community-based peace officers took on a role they had never known, but were clearly well trained for, as the shooter was captured three minutes after they were dispatched to the high school.  And those pesky, painful lockdown drills saved hundreds of lives, as students and teachers built barricades that withstood gunfire, and responded to fake “all clear” messages by holding their ground or heading for higher ground.


Not a single school counselor slept well, or at all, Tuesday night, as our hearts reached out to another set of suffering families and another suffering school, and we wondered if our school would be ready to respond.  We pray we are, but we pray harder that we never have to find out.  Either way, we leave this week with a greater appreciation for things too often taken for granted—leadership, protection, and advanced planning. We vow to remain alert for signs of events that are often as understated as the towns where they occur, until the unknown becomes known in ways that make us ache, and vow to do better.


Will we?