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Friday, July 18, 2014

Hope Is The Thing With Feathers... For School Counselors

"Hope is the thing with feathers."-  Emily Dickinson

“Hope is a good thing. Maybe the best of good things. And no good thing ever dies." - Shawshank Redemption

In recent months, much attention has been paid to the concept of "grit" in academic circles. In fact, it seems to be the "flavor of the month" these days in the world of education. Experts define "grit" as perseverance, determination, and resilience. Check out Paul Tough and Angela Duckworth as experts on the concept. See Angela's Ted talk here: Ted talk. Grit is a wonderful quality to have and it is undoubtedly linked to success. We are all familiar with the stories of successful people overcoming early failures in their lives. Michael Jordan was cut from his varsity basketball team. Walt Disney was fired from a writing job for lack of "imagination and good ideas."  Oprah Winfrey was rejected by a producer because she was "unfit for television news."  Find a very successful person and chances are you have found someone who has overcome adversity in their life.

My concern as an educator is that we may be missing what is under the surface when we focus on "grit" with tunnel vision.  After all,  if developing grit in young people were as easy as exposing them to failure over and again, students in "dropout factory" schools would be destined for success, right?  Sadly,  that is not the way it plays out in real life. 

In my opinion, there are "engines" which power the sense of grit in young people. Chief among these engines is HOPE. Hope for a better future. Hope for a better life. Hope to feel like you matter and can make a difference in this world.  Educators and school counselors must be champions of hope.  You can expose a child to failure all you want,  but if no one else believes in the child, how likely are they to believe in themselves to persevere through the failures?

What does the research say about the role of hope in education?  Gallup has done a lot of polling and research in this area in recent years. Hope has a significant correlation with academic success. "Hope accounts for about 13 percent of the variance in students' academic success, defined by such markers as attendance, credits attempted and earned, and graduation." Education Week article.

What are some simple ways that school counselors can cultivate a sense of HOPE in their students?

1.  Identify your office as a place of hope. The poster on my door says, "Mr. Koebel's Office: This is a Place of Hope."

2. Ask your students who or what gives them hope. It might be volleyball. It might be their grandma. It might be comic books. The whole point is you will not know unless you ask. When you survey students, at the beginning of the year for example, include a simple question on the topic of hope. Find out what makes your students tick and what motivates them. When you meet with students who are struggling, refer back to these sources of hope to help them push through and to see the light at the end of the tunnel.

3. Recognize the positive contributions of your students. Make sure that you are finding ways to recognize the full spectrum of students and not just "honor roll" students. I will be sending leadership recognition cards to students in homeroom this year. The cards will be brief notes recognizing students for their recent positive contributions to the school. Examples of when I may send out a card:  1) Participation in a service project; 2) Participation in the talent show; 3) Qualifying for a music competition; 4) Tutoring another student.  The possibilities are really endless.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

What does a school counselor do?

This is always a tough question to answer in a sentence or two. No definition seems to quite capture what school counselors do on a daily basis and why they are so important to students. I just stumbled upon a video produced by the Virginia School Counselors Association the other day that does what I once deemed impossible: The video does a tremendous job of communicating who school counselors are and how they serve students.

If you have not seen the video yet, you are encouraged to check it out!

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Counseling Department Organization

One of the challenges of a counseling department in a medium or large high school is how to organize the counseling staff. That is,  how are students assigned a counselor? The two most common ways to divide students are either by grade level or last name. I have worked under both systems. I am in my sixth year at my high school. During my first year, I worked with a specific alphabet range, different grade levels. After my first year, a new principal came on board and he switched our organization to a grade level, looping system.

Below are some of the pros and cons of each system from my perspective:

Alphabet Range
The alphabet range system facilitates continuity and consistency for students. Assuming nothing is changed, the student will have the same counselor for all four years. The setup also allows for an equitable distribution of counseling duties. Generally speaking,  my experience has been that senior year is very labor-intensive because of credit checks, college applications, and scholarships. The alphabet range format divides the intensive senior work to multiple counselors. Additionally,  under the alphabet range system,you stay fresh on things which are unique to each grade level. For example, instead of only dealing with the college process once every four years and perhaps getting rusty, you deal with it every year.  The alphabet range is conducive to getting to know families and working with siblings (assuming it is the same last name for siblings, which is usually the case).

The main downside that I see to the alphabet range system is that you are less likely to become familiar with peer groups and teachers. Because you are working with pockets of kids and teachers across different levels,  it is much harder to know the teachers and peers as well. Logistically,  it can be challenging to talk to all of your students in a classroom students. If you stop by a 10th grade English class, only a fraction of the kids will be assigned to you.

Grade Level (Looping)
My school uses a grade level, looping system. In other words, the counselor is assigned a particular grade and moves with that group of students as they proceed through high school. For example, I will be assigned freshmen this year. The following school year I will progress with that group of students to the 10th grade. So on and so forth.  Grade level provides a similar sense of continuity as alphabet range because students have the same counselor all four years. The grade level system has a significant benefit in that it facilitates getting to know peer groups. Generally speaking,  high school kids tend to hang out with grade-level peers. Thus, when they experience conflict and drama in those relationships,  it is incredibly helpful to already be familiar with the peers.  The grade level system also makes it easier for a counselor to focus on grade-level specific initiatives,  whether it be signing up sophomores for the PLAN or coordinating a freshman transition program.

The main con to the grade level system is that it is not an equitable way to divide the work. The senior counselor inevitably gets stuck with a greater workload even if some tweaks are made and other counselors pitch in to help. Another downside to the system is that it does not foster collaboration among grade level counselors. The danger is that counselors can get very wrapped up in their own little grade level world,  missing valuable collaboration opportunities in the process.

Final Analysis

Which system works best will be determined in large part to the enrollment and staff size of your school. I believe the grade level system works best for our school. We have four counselors,  one for each grade level, with a student-to-counselor ratio of about 400 to 1. The primary reason I prefer the grade level system is I believe I am better able to assist students when I know their peers well. It is easier to get to know the students by hanging out in the lunchroom or stopping by a grade level class. With an alphabet range system, it is logistically more challenging to get to know them and their friends. The grade level system can be exhausting,  especially senior year-- I barely survived this past year! In the end, though, I believe the system ultimately benefits our students.

I am fortunate to work with a staff that is willing to bend the rules of the framework. Thus,  if a student is dealing with personal matter or crisis, and wants to talk to a particular counselor who is not their assigned grade level, we always respect the student's wishes.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Welcome to the High School Counselor's Hangout

Welcome to my friendly abode. Thank you for stopping by. The purpose of this blog will be to share information, ideas, and resources related to the school counseling profession. I recently became aware of the many wonderful school counseling blogs in the blogosphere. These blogs provide a tremendous resource for school counselors as they follow their calling to help all students succeed. My hope is that my blog evolves to serve a niche in this powerful network of information.  All opinions expressed are strictly my own.

Happy counseling!

Scott Koebel