Wednesday, January 31, 2024

A Note to Your Principal About National School Counseling Week

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

Dear Principal:

This was a little awkward for me at first. I’ve never been crazy about telling people when my birthday is—even if I’m filling it out online—since it seems like I’m saying “Hey, look at me, it’s time to make my day special”.

That was my first thought for next week, which is National School Counseling Week. But then I took a closer look, and realized next week isn’t about me, the counselor. It’s about counseling, the work done here in the office.

With that in mind, it’s easy for me to ask if we could promote this week with some activities designed to increase awareness of our office, and the services we offer our students. Here’s what we have in mind:

Theme of the day Many students know the counselors for things like schedule changes and testing, but not all of them know the full range of counseling services available here at school. To meet that need, we’d like to focus on one facet of our service each day next week:

Monday—What Is Counseling?
Tuesday—Mental Health Counseling
Wednesday—Academic Counseling
Thursday—Other Personal Counseling
Friday—College and Career Counseling

Daily events To support each theme of the day, we’d like you to include a brief morning announcement that describes that particular part of the counseling curriculum. We’ll have handouts and videos available on that subject in the office all day. At lunch, we’ll make a brief presentation about this part of the curriculum, and how students can make the most of them. Students who attend the presentation will be eligible for a giveaway of a book, gift card, or college and career swag. We’ll make the same presentation 30 minutes before school for parents to attend, and offer the same presentation right after school. Students are welcome to attend these sessions if it’s easier than coming by at lunch.

Teacher involvement We’ve also put together a School Counselor Quiz each day for teachers to present. This 5-minute exercise includes 5 multiple choice questions designed to raise student awareness of the services available in the counseling office, and their importance in the students’ daily lives. We’d ask you to ask teachers to engage in this activity during the third period of every day. That way, all students are exposed to it, but exposed only once.

Faculty presentation We’d also like 20 minutes at next week’s faculty meeting to highlight the many services we offer. We’re going to tailor this presentation to include counseling services offered by the district or the community for faculty members. These aren’t part of the school counseling curriculum, but this is as good a time as any to remind faculty that they matter too, and help is available for them. We’re also bringing snacks.

Evening speaker We’re excited that a panel of local mental health professionals has agreed to make a presentation in the auditorium next Thursday night on the topic “Supporting Students in the Post-Covid Era”. Their presentation will focus on the needs students have, and include a discussion of community resources available to support those needs. The school counseling department will follow with a presentation of the services available here in school. The evening will include with a panel of parents who have agreed to talk about the challenges they’ve faced and overcome with their students, thanks to taking advantage of these counseling services.

Your support of our office is greatly appreciated throughout the year, and I hope you’re able to support, promote, and attend these events.

Wednesday, January 24, 2024

Making the Most of Scheduling Season

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

Most high school counselors have a love/hate relationship to scheduling. If building schedules is part of your duties, you get to actually see all of your students, and that’s good. On the other hand, if all you do with this time is put together a list of classes, that’s more a matter of logistics, and less a matter of counseling.

What are the best ways to make this time rich with counseling interactions? Here are some tried-and-true approaches to consider:

Advanced communication Giving students a heads up that scheduling is coming is a good way to prepare them for the task. Letters/emails/and texts to home (and parents) gives students a chance to think about what they’d like to take next year, and, with encouragement, explore some possibilities.

Provide examples Really effective advanced communication goes the extra mile, and provides students with examples of schedules to consider. For many high schools, this is pretty easy to do—of course, you’ll want to add some language saying these examples are only examples:

Ninth grade Most ninth graders take the same English, Science, and Social Studies classes, and their Math and (if available) World Language classes are typically assigned by ability. Throw in the Phys Ed class that’s likely required for all freshmen, and building a 9th grade schedule likely boils down to deciding on one or two electives. That’s easy to spell out.

Tenth grade Tenth grade is also pretty predictable in most high schools, with grade-level English and Social Science classes, one of two or three Science classes, and the next level of Math and World Language. Again, this leaves room for a couple of electives, and those are easy picks.

Eleventh grade Many high schools give students choices in all subjects at this point, and students can customize more of their schedule. This is also when many high schools allow students to take Dual Enrollment classes, or classes in the Voc-Tech area. This letter will be more detailed, and should include any required grade-level classes, but it’s still a good idea to present 4-5 examples to get them thinking ahead of time.

Twelfth grade This advanced communication often includes a printout (or link) of the remaining graduation requirements the student must complete, so they can build their schedule accordingly. Be sure to include any required courses, but be ready to still spend some time in the meeting focused on scheduling nuts and bolts.

Group meetings? With an advanced communication in place, many counselors hold scheduling meetings in small groups, or even grade-level classes. This gives you a chance to review the scheduling information; more important, it gives you a chance to put in some kind of counseling lesson appropriate for the grade level that can typically be 10-20 minutes long. Many counselors will devote this time to grade-level counseling about college or careers, but it’s also a good time to present on topics of mental health, study skills, hygiene, or any other facet of the school counseling curriculum.

Advanced review There will always be students who, for a number of reasons, will best benefit from an individual meeting. This is best scheduled before meeting the group meetings, and requires the counselor to review all students in advance, to determine who to help one-on-one. In requesting the meeting, supportive language is a must—“I want to make sure we build a schedule that best meets your needs, so let me know when we can meet.”

Scheduling time doesn’t have to take away from counseling duties—in fact, it can be a great way to enrich meaningful relationships with students.

Wednesday, January 17, 2024

A Note to Seniors About Your Parents

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

Dear Students:

You may remember I encouraged you in 11th grade to start meeting with your parents once a week for 20 minutes to discuss life after high school. This is the best way to keep your parents in the loop, while still staying in charge of your own future.

Since then, of course, your plans have nicely taken shape, and the folks feel pretty informed. With this mission accomplished, it’s easy to see why you might feel you can stop these weekly meetings.

Yes. About that.

It would seem something has happened since you first carved 20 minutes out of your week to talk with your parents. To begin with, they’ve learned to give you space; most parents think it’s crazy to limit themselves to 20 minutes a week to talk about your future, especially during the weeks in the fall when you were working on applications and telling them absolutely nothing beyond their allotted time. They’ve learned to trust you more, which will come in handy over time—like once you’re on your own, when you buy your first couch, and name your first child after a Taylor Swift song.

But something else has happened. Because you met once each week when no one was rushing to get you anywhere, your parents had a chance to see what you’ve made of yourself since the last time things weren’t so crazy—which for most families, is when you were about four. I have to tell you—they really liked what they saw. And they’d like to keep seeing it every week for 20 minutes.

This probably makes no sense to you, but when you came home and said “Last Winter exam! Yes!”, they said, “Last Winter exam? No!!” They told you they cried when you went to this year’s Sadie Hawkins Dance because they thought you looked nice, right? Nope—last one. And remember how they once dreaded having you home from school for any reason? Not so much now.

Through the 20-minute meetings, your parents realize they have a child who is smart, knows who they are, and understands a little about how the world works—and that child is moving out of the house in six months. Giving you up then is something they’ll figure out; giving you up now is something they would just as soon not do.

Of course, you don’t have to talk about the future—now is not the time to sit in the living room, holding hands and listening to the cuckoo clock chirp away until the college decisions arrive. Order some food in, catch up on a movie, work a jigsaw puzzle—do something, and do anything together.

Love is as much a verb as it is a noun, and showing them what you feel at a time of uncertainty (for you and them) can make a memory that will last far longer than whatever State U or a potential employer has to say in a couple of weeks.

No decision will change the way they feel about you, just like it shouldn’t change the way you feel about yourself. Twenty weekly minutes of meeting time that isn’t “required” will bring that home as nothing else can, and build a stronger base for whatever is next.

Give it some thought. They’re sure thinking about it—they’ve told me as much.

Wednesday, January 10, 2024

The Failure of FAFSA

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

My December holiday had a rough start. I went to my usual bagel place on a weekday, in the middle of the morning, and walked right up to the counter—no line, no massive crowd. Without even turning around, the clerk who was in the throes of making a bagel sandwich said “We aren’t taking any new orders.”

How odd, I thought. The door was open, the lights were on, and there were clearly enough bagels in the baskets to feed an army. In addition, no “Sorry, but…” or “Can I buy you a coffee while you wait?” They just didn’t want my business.

This came to mind on December 31st, the alleged day of the much-anticipated rollout of the new FAFSA. I won’t hide my bias here. Many were pleased to see a reduced-form FAFSA, but I couldn’t help but wonder about the research I’d heard (and can’t find) that said 95% of all students currently qualifying for federal aid would also qualify by asking just two questions—how many people are in your household, and what’s the household’s income? Announcing the rollout would come in December, when the admissions world is used to November access, smelled like the college student who wants to know if sliding the paper under the professor’s door at midnight on the due date still counts as on time.

I really wanted to be wrong about this, but I really wasn’t. Yes, FAFSA was up on December 31st, thus making the December deadline. However, its arrival came with a disclaimer—this was a “soft opening” of the new FAFSA. My only other experience with a “soft opening” has been with Broadway shows and restaurants. Websites that aren’t ready use beta testing, where they create a model of the real thing, and offer it to a select few.

Not so with FAFSA. Since December 31, the site has been up, and down, and up, and down, and up, and – well, you get the idea—before an audience of millions. It’s been up long enough for some counselors to ask pointed questions about the new form and format. It’s also been down long enough for first-time users to try and log in several times without success, concluding they’d be better off getting college money by working at Subway this fall.

This effort does little to assuage the many, many, many detractors of the US Department of Education. Since its inception, ED has built a reputation for either offering no help at all with significant education issues (their handling of instruction during COVID is a recent example), or offering solutions so limited or convoluted that they were either unsuccessful, or served as a disincentive for those seeking assistance.

This soft opening met the letter of the law requiring a December debut, while leaving educators, parents and students drowning in a wake of frustration. Students whose parents went to college, or students of means, won’t suffer a bit as a result of this adventure; the families of first gens who need the cash, and the help, will.

If ED is looking for a way to atone, try this. Put a line item in your budget where every student who files a complete FAFSA gets a $200 gift card. They can use it for college, they can use it for prom—heck, they can use it at Subway. Doing so would send the message that ED is serious when it means filing a FAFSA leads to cash—and, unlike the bagel shop that’s lost my business for good, it may bring some students back into the college-is-possible fold.

Wednesday, January 3, 2024

To Improve College Access

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

As we return to our students, and during a time when the world is focused on goal setting, what better time to look at our profession and consider the big-picture changes that would improve college access.

Wider media coverage A poll (I can no longer locate) a few years ago asked adults what they thought the average tuition was at a four-year college. Their response was somewhere in the neighborhood of $35,000, when, in fact, the average at that time was around $12,500.

Major media outlets are laser-focused on about a dozen expensive colleges. They also happen to be very popular colleges, which only feeds the bias; if Harvard is hard to get into, paying attention to Harvard must be important in the college search.

The media is doing a disservice to the millions of students who won’t go there, since they don’t cover the non-Harvards of the world, even though those schools is where most of the learning and growing occurs. Our society will be serious about college access when the New York Times covers South Dakota State with as much vigor as it covers Princeton. Until then, the notion of college for only a select few remains.

Better counselor training The National Association for College Admission Counseling has stopped keeping track, but at last count a few years ago, only two dozen of the hundreds of counselor training programs in the US offered a course uniquely focused on college counseling. Some offer a postsecondary planning course that gives college advising about 12-15 hours of their time, but veteran counselors know that’s just enough information to know what you don’t know.

There are other obstacles keeping counselors from being more effective in college planning, but all the time in the world and a caseload of 50 won’t matter if counselors have never been fully trained in the rigors of college counseling. Grad programs can easily rearrange the content of the myriad mental health courses required for school counselors to create space for a focused college counseling class, and the curriculum already exists.

Ratios The mental health crisis brought on by COVID loosened up the purse strings for counselors, dropping caseloads in many states. Most are still not even close to the ASCA-suggested ratio of 250 to one—and, frankly, I’ve always thought that number was high—so more funding is needed. Then again, so are more counselors.

Duties Schedule changes, testing coordination, and discipline don’t belong in the counseling office, and counselors shouldn’t be used as last-minute substitute teachers since they “don’t have anything to do”. One way to help with high ratios is to make sure counselors spend their time on true counseling tasks. Parapros and substitute teachers can be just as effective with non-counseling duties.

Administrative training Too many administrators ascend to their position with no clue, or training, in what counselors do. State legislatures and NASSP would do well to require all administrators to attend a two-hour orientation on the role and duties of school counselors. The value of what counselors do shouldn’t change just because the building principal does.

Early introduction to college advising K-8 students don’t need college advising if their parents went to college. Every other student does. It’s more than possible to introduce the idea of college without causing undue stress or recommending specific colleges—I know, because it’s already happening. K-8 counselors need to pick up this mantle, remembering it’s just as important to educate the parents of first gens and low-income students on the virtues of college as a choice. Without them, the conversation with the students goes nowhere.