Wednesday, February 22, 2023

My Life as a Rural Counselor

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

We had just purchased our first home, in a Detroit suburb, when I got a call about a counseling job. Times were a little lean then, and from what I was told, this may be the only school counseling job available in the state, even if it was a 75-minute drive one way. I had just earned my degree, and eager to get started, I decided to take the job.

There were exactly two traffic lights from my house to that high school, and without a lot of traffic or stops that required my attention, most of those rides included a lot of gum chewing. There were still some hair-raising moments, like the time I thought there were crows on the road, so I honked them off, only to discover they were chickens. Woops.

About half the students went on to college, and half of that half went to the local community college, so there wasn’t a lot of dialogue between me and Harvard. I talked with students eager to understand what college was all about, excited at the prospect of being the first in their family to go to college, and lots of students eager to make sure their grades were in good shape by November 15, the first day of hunting season in Michigan.

There were also some moments new to me, like the student who handed me an invitation to his wedding, scheduled for a week after his graduation from high school; learning about recruiting students to build a homecoming float on a schedule that didn’t interfere with their farm chores; and the student who gave me a ridiculous discount on produce and eggs I bought from his parents’ stand—with the eggs laid from the chickens I’d nearly killed the week before.

There were more than a few things I had to get used to, having been raised in the city and the suburbs. I had to reschedule my financial aid night after I had first set it for Wednesday—the night when every church youth group meets—and the time I had to walk several blocks to the football game Friday night, because everyone—that’s everyone—went to the game.

One thing I didn’t have to get used to was helping students understand the purpose of college. Back then, even the most sophisticated city kids had ideas about college that leaned towards the idealistic. The topics were different, but the motivations were the same; make the family proud, be the first in the family to do something, start something new, run from something old.

The innocence of my students sometimes made difficult family dynamics more apparent to me, a significant challenge in a community where your business is supposed to stay your business. I learned more about dealing with families than grad school had ever taught me. The skills needed to move forward in those circumstances were of great help later in my career, when stubborn parents resisted a different kind of news—like why Harvard said no. Different, yet somehow not.

Time has moved on, and the suburbs crawled out toward that farm town quickly. There are probably twenty or thirty traffic lights on that same drive now, and even a Starbucks or two. But I still see students from that town now and then, and the hope and idealism is the same, along with a work ethic that puts most suburban kids in the slacker category. I was grateful to get to learn about that part of the world firsthand. It set the tone for working with kids in a caring, real way.

Wednesday, February 15, 2023

“But I Worked So Hard!”

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

The assignment for the college-level American Government class I teach was simple enough. Research the US House Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, and answer the six questions—some rote, some not—I provided.

Imagine my surprise when I opened up one assignment to discover the student had answered all the questions, based on their research on—the Senate Armed Services Committee. I went back to the assignment to make sure I hadn’t made a mistake, then gave the student a zero on the assignment, explaining they had researched the wrong committee.

It was then I had my first interaction with the academic expectations of this generation, when the author of the paper emailed me back and said “How could I get a zero on this assignment?I worked really hard on this paper.”

I told the student—again—they weren’t asked to address that committee, and that the student’s answers, no matter how accurate or nicely researched, didn’t address the questions I asked in the assignment. The student then capitulated, perhaps because I also pointed out that the points they lost on this assignment could be made up through extra credit.

I can’t help but wonder if too much of our work in counseling creates this same expectation—put in your time, pay your dues, and the payoff is not only automatic, it is the epitome of all possible outcomes—admission to a highly selective college, getting Suzie to go to Homecoming with you, having your parents get off your back. This generation often embraces an expectation that success is based on hours worked, not lessons learned. And that is a massive mistake.

The last two high schools where I worked as a counselor had parent bodies that had high postsecondary expectations. In many cases, students would come to a college meeting with a list of six Ivy League schools, and that was it. They recognized the admit rates to these schools were small, but surely applying to six would steer the odds in their favor—in other words, if they worked hard enough, one was bound to say yes.

I’ve seen research (alas, I can’t remember where) that says a student is indeed more likely to be admitted to at least one school if they apply to more schools, but that conclusion masks important factors like grades and strength of schedule. Still, many parents—and, alas, students as a result—are convinced that the combination of money spent on K-12 private school, writing coaches, and visiting the college campus will surely yield a favorable result from one fancy school.

My job at that point was not to say they wouldn’t get in—that, in fact, is not my place to say—but it is my place to explain that it doesn’t exactly work that way. This was getting to be a more difficult conversation in the last few years I was in high schools, a result of an increase of the “but I worked so hard” mentality. Still, having that conversation in September was better than working with a student in April who had just gone 0-for-6 in the Ivy League, and a couple of diplomatically worded conversations generally led the student to create some healthy additions to the initial list, even if this same conversation was largely less successful with the parents.

It's hard to say just where this generation decided that effort alone leads to an automatic A in life, but the need to show them otherwise is essential to their growth, and to the advancement of our society. That’s where we come in.

Sunday, February 5, 2023

Why (and How) You Should Celebrate National School Counseling Week

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

It just figures that National School Counseling Week is in the shadow of the Super Bowl. The country goes bananas over the prospect of guacamole-covered chicken wings on Super Sunday, but when America's masters of mental health advocacy ask for a nacho chip or two, the country saves them for the big game.

In some ways, we don't mind. The last time we made headlines, most people surveyed felt that school counselors were more of a hindrance than a help in applying to college. Before that, we were the punch line of a car ad — "Your guidance counselor drives a minivan" — or we were known as the washed-up teachers who were given offices close to the principal so he could keep an eye on us.

But Jenny doesn't see us that way.

Jenny was the quiet, slender girl who didn't cause anyone trouble, except herself. When two or three students saw Jenny needed help, they went straight to the school counselor, who called Jenny into that office close to the principal to talk about it in a safe, confidential place. Jenny got help, and became an even more beautiful person.

Steve doesn't see us that way either. Three weeks into school, he had his fifth unexcused absence, and was on his way to flunking a required course. He told his school counselor he was working late to support the newborn son no one knew he had. His counselor asked the teacher to give Steve one last break, but never mentioned why. Steve got it, graduated, and got a full-time job that paid enough to take care of his young family.

If you didn't know that, you're not supposed to. When someone's life slips or they don't know where to turn, school counselors give them the space for grace and dignity to rebuild and strengthen their lives, all without fanfare. Sometimes, if you don't know we're doing our job, we're doing our job pretty well.

Of course, we aren't perfect. Most of us work with 450 students at once, and some have twice that number. Since many principals think we should change schedules instead of lives, we don't have as much time to help students as we'd like, and most of us were never — never — trained how to help students apply to college.

I bet you didn't know that either.

Old habits die hard — school counselors know that for sure — but if you have a minute this week, stop by and thank your school counselor for everything you don't know they're doing, and put in a good word for them with the principal. We might not score winning touchdowns or drive fast cars, but when the goal is to drive 450 students to win their own big game, the minivan really rocks it.

Non-Counselor folks—how can you celebrate National School Counseling Week?

  • Thank them, both during National School Counseling Week, and whenever they help your child.  One of the reasons some people don’t know what counselors do is because good counseling is usually done without fanfare—it’s important, but it isn’t public.  Your thanks is a gift to these behind-the-scenes professionals, who arrive early and stay late every school day.
  • Ask counselors what you can do to support their work.  Counselors often need help spreading the word about the services they offer, including mental health programs, college scholarships, and more. If you have ideas on how to increase awareness of counseling services, let them know. Letting them know you’d like to help increase awareness is an even greater gift.
  • Put in a good word for the counselors with the school’s administration.  Urging them to make sure counselors are engaged in counseling tasks, and not leftover administrative duties (Substitute teaching, schedule changes, and more) is one of the greatest gifts you can offer a counselor.  Don’t hesitate to ask a principal what can be done to keep counselors focused on student needs.

Wednesday, February 1, 2023

Deferrals 101

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

Several colleges with large applicant pools have released their first rounds of admissions decisions, and, predictably, these decisions have been met with a number of people howling at the moon, shouting at the rain, or simply scratching their heads. Most of the energy expended by those counselors who have taken to social media has been over the quantity and quality of deferrals, the admission decision that isn’t really a decision, as much as it’s a decision not to decide.

The response to all this deferring has been large enough to merit a quick review of deferrals. Ready?

A deferral is a request for more of something. If a college has several rounds of admission deadlines, deferrals give them a chance to compare some of the early applicants to some of the later applicants. Some observers suggest it also gives an admissions office more time to review an unexpectedly large applicant pool, something most colleges are unwilling to admit, even if it’s true.

Deferrals aren’t always based on tangible factors. Colleges requiring essays sometimes read a file and wonder if the applicant really knows the school, or sees the college as a viable choice, and not a backup plan. This is especially true in an age where students are applying to more colleges, a trend that shows no sign of stopping. Applying to more colleges may give a student more options, but the mathematics of it all also means the student may not be as committed to some colleges. The deferral process can give the college more insights into a candidate’s interest.

A deferral isn’t a Yes or a No. Students may have data citing how many (or how few) deferred students are ultimately admitted, but that statistic doesn’t indicate why a deferred student is admitted. For all they know, this college could be a perfect student for that college, but the college just needs to let the dust settle from a busy fall before making an offer.

What to do if you are deferred. Students should read the deferral notice twice, then have a thoughtful adult read it with them, all with the goal of understanding what needs to happen next. If the college asks for more information—another essay, updated grades, clarification on what the student likes about the college—the student should meet the request promptly.

In some cases, the college won’t specify what they’d like to receive from the student. This doesn’t mean the student needs to send a dozen new letters of recommendation or call the admissions office daily, but it would be wise to update the college on what the student has been up to since applying, and a brief statement on why the college is still of interest to them. If there’s something the student didn’t mention in their original application, now is the time to provide that information.

If the letter specifically directs the student not to send anything else, it’s wise to follow that counsel. If every deferred student takes a “well, one quick note won’t hurt” attitude, the admissions office gets exactly what it doesn’t want—a deluge of new information they either can’t or won’t process—but they still have to deal with it. Restraint is hard in this case, but it’s an important life skill. Students should practice it now.

What a deferral isn’t. No college decision makes the student a better or worse person. If you have a student who sees anything but Yes as a character indictment, clear your schedule. Your afternoon now has a new purpose.