Why School Counselors Are More Essential Than Ever

By Frankie Wallace

When you think about some of the most influential people in the lives of children, there are a few that probably immediately come to mind. Parents, of course. Maybe grandparents or other involved members of the family. Perhaps a close family friend or godparent. Definitely school teachers. But what about school counselors?

Many of us fail to recognize the very valuable role that school counselors play in shaping the lives of our children and pushing them towards success. Often times, counselors work in the background, taking care of things that fall outside of the realms of both teachers and the administration. They are there for the kids through thick and thin. 

Given this, it is tragic that counselors are almost always one of the first positions to be discarded during budget cuts and one of the last to experience increases in support in good budget years. Counselors are anything but “non-essential” to the schools they work for. Like the majority of positions within the education system, they are understaffed, underappreciated, and overworked. 

All the Hats of a Counselor

What exactly do counselors do day to day? Honestly, the better question to ask is: what don’t counselors do as part of their job? Job descriptions can range widely with tasks such as:

  • career guidance and goal setting
  • student mental health support
  • at-risk identification
  • standardized testing organization 
  • college application guidance
  • substitute teaching
  • mediation between parents, teachers, and students
  • development of drug and alcohol programs 

Unfortunately, there is a severe lack of understanding and appreciation for school counselors. In fact, although national guidance suggests staffing one counselor per 250 students, most states fall desperately short of that with one counselor per 455 students. Nearly 1.7 million students actually attend schools with more staffed police officers than counselors

Although they are spread thin, the focus of each counselor may vary by school district depending upon the direction and goals of each school’s principal. Generally, counselors can be divided into one of two categories: those that are focused upon career services and those that are focused upon mental health support. Each has its own benefits and each is more essential than ever in this day and age. 

Mental Health & At-Risk Services

School counselors are typically trained with some level of counseling background. This means that they are more likely to be more capable of dealing with emotional and mental health issues that students may have than their teachers. Counselors within the school system can play a pivotal role in helping students boost self-confidence and work through difficult personal issues that may be interfering with their educational success. 

In some areas, counselors may be asked to identify and help at-risk students before they begin to struggle. Others focus much of their work on helping students with behavioral issues or a criminal background work through the root causes or problems, until they’re able to get their lives back on track. The job requires a great deal of insight and understanding as well as empathy. 

School counselors can also play a role in the healthy emotional development of younger students from the very beginning. They can also plant the seeds of training students to avoid or de-escalate conflicts. Providing a safe place to work through difficult issues that could be interfering with education is a critical role within schools. One that shouldn’t just be sidelined every time there is another round of budget cuts. 

Career Guidance

Other times, school counselors have the primary job task of helping students reach their educational goals — whether it is just getting through high school without flunking a class or getting into their dream university with a good scholarship. This can mean sitting down with students individually and working through recommended courses and necessary grades. It can also mean helping them through their first-ever college application. 

Not every student knows exactly what they want to do, which is somewhere both counselors and teachers can help by asking questions and helping with research. Even if students are set on a career path, they are more than likely to change directions at least in subtle ways once they reach college. A counselor’s role is to help prepare students for anything that they may end up doing after high school graduation, and those preparations might include general skills like the ability to develop strong team-building skills, how to handle conflict resolution, how to ace an interview, and so on.

Counselors can also play a role in helping the entire school assess where it stands and where educational improvements can be made. This can entail organizing standardized testing or reviewing curriculum looking for alternative routes for greater success. Counselors may keep track of other things such as enrollment and attendance rates and come up with solutions to improve these statistics as well. 

School counselors are not simply a job that can be cast aside when the going gets tough —  rather, they are critically essential aspects of the school culture. Counselors provide all sorts of benefits to students, including things such as mental health services and career guidance, which is exactly why they should be protected at all costs and kept within school systems.

I Deserve All the Credit For My Students’ Success

Last week my third graders took the chapter 6 math test on division. We use the Go Math! program and the tests aren’t easy. This wasn’t your father’s division test. There were multistep problems, word problems, intentionally misleading questions, and it was taken digitally, so I couldn’t give partial credit to the kid who showed understanding in his work but made one small mistake that led to the wrong answer.

My students killed the thing, by which I mean, I killed the thing. My teaching led directly to the following results: one 76%, one 85%, one 88%, and the other 23 students scored 90% or above, with five students acing the test.

Let’s all take a moment to celebrate my accomplishment.

I will now accept your kudos. Feel free to email me or leave a comment on Facebook or even drop a line at the end of this article. You will no doubt want to express your gratitude to me for so effectively molding the future of this nation. My students’ parents are probably already struggling with how they will repay me for placing their children on the path to career success and personal fulfillment. The students themselves may never appreciate the impact I made on their lives. They will foolishly credit themselves, or their parents, or even the influence of their community for their accomplishments, forgetting that it was me, all me, that created their success.

I will, I am sure, be celebrated by my district. I expect a bonus, a nice fat one. Perhaps a permanent raise. Maybe a coaching position so I can share my expertise with all those teachers who aren’t getting my results. I am positive I will be asked to share at the next PD day. Someday, if I keep at it, someone will likely propose a statue be built in my honor. I will consent because I will deserve it.

Yes, I should get all the credit for my students’ success.

I know this because I have been paying attention.

My career started in 2000. No Child Left Behind was signed in 2002. So for 18 of my 20 years in the classroom, I have been told, through words spoken at district meetings, blogs published by education think tanks, studies meta-analyzed by education researchers, articles written by economists, clever slogans shared on Twitter, and legislative actions, that when a child fails, it’s on me. I, the teacher, am responsible for my students’ performance. Students don’t fail to learn; teachers fail to teach them.

The phrase “No child left behind” placed zero responsibility on society at large, parents, or students (that would have been called the Hey, Don’t Fall Behind Act). All responsibility was given to schools (and by schools, we’re mostly talking about teachers, since they were the ones doing the teaching and spending most of the time with the students). “Don’t you let them fall behind” was the unmistakable message.

“No excuses” isn’t directed toward lazy students or neglectful parents or apathetic legislators. Those two words are aimed at the people working inside of schools. “Don’t you make any excuses for students not learning” means that when students don’t learn there is only one group of people to blame. “No excuses” means no one wants to hear about anything that might impede a child’s ability to learn; teachers need to succeed in spite of those things, and if they can’t, then we need to get rid of them and find teachers who will.

“It’s not what you teach; it’s what they learn” similarly places no expectations on students. It offers them no role in their own education. They are passive receptors who if placed in the presence of excellent teachers will learn through no effort of their own.

These are the beliefs that have driven the reform movement for the last 18 years and they are what undergirds all school and teacher accountability efforts.

We punish schools when students don’t learn because it’s schools, and schools alone, that are responsible for a child’s education.

We rate teachers based on test scores because test scores tell us how effective (or, more often, ineffective) a teacher has been. No one cares how nurturing, or inspirational, or understanding a teacher is if those traits don’t translate to student achievement.

Student learning is what matters, and if it’s not happening, it’s because teachers don’t care enough, or aren’t skilled enough, or belong to unions that enable their bad habits and practices, or don’t have high enough expectations for the kids sitting before them.

The message is crystal clear and any teacher who has paid even a little attention can’t help but comprehend it:

Your students’ failures are on one person: you.

A lot of teachers have bought into this message. They’ve heard it so many times that they’ve accepted this responsibility, even though it has been placed on them by people who refuse to accept any responsibility themselves and whose motives are highly questionable.

How many teachers feel bad when students do poorly on the state test? How many feel like they are personally culpable for those results?

How many teachers lose sleep worrying over the academic performance of their most struggling students, even when it’s clear that there are reasons far beyond the influence of that teacher for the child’s struggles?

How many teachers spend their own money to enhance lessons because they take personal ownership of their students’ learning?

How many teachers wonder what they could have done for those three students who failed the test, even though the rest of the class did very well? How many teachers ignore the efforts of those students and place the blame on themselves for not finding a way to better motivate them?

How many of you wondered about that student in my class who scored a 76%? Did you question if I did enough for her?

Now, how many of those teachers who accept the lion’s share of responsibility when it comes to their students’ failures accept credit for their students’ successes?

How many brag about their students’ test scores?

How many want acknowledgment for teaching the valedictorian back when she was in fourth grade?

How many teachers want to rewarded for every one of their students who gets accepted into college?

How many teachers expect to be honored for their students’ outstanding performance?

Not many. And why not? Because it’s gauche? Unbecoming? Obnoxiously self-aggrandizing? Unprofessional?

Yes, all of those things.

But also because it’s a lie, and every teacher knows it.

Teachers do not deserve all of the credit when their students succeed, no matter how spectacularly they might. We might not even deserve most of the credit. In some cases, we deserve no credit at all.

I have two students doing independent math this year. They’re working through the program at about double the speed of their classmates and they’re doing it on their own, with no one to help them but each other. They’re succeeding spectacularly, acing test after test with no instruction from me except on the rare occasions they ask for clarification on a question. They came to me exceptionally knowledgeable and skilled. I deserve no credit for their performance.

I have two students who receive math tutoring after school. Some would learn the math without me. I could put them on Khan Academy and they’d figure it out. Others would have learned it equally well from my colleagues.

Still other students benefit from my teaching but only because they’re taking advantage of it. They’re doing the work. They’re learning from mistakes. They’re asking for help. They’re paying attention in class, not because they’re terrified of what I’ll do if they don’t but because their parents have high expectations for them or they have high expectations for themselves. They’re completing the homework, often with guidance and encouragement from parents with the time, energy, knowledge, and dispositions to assist.

A student’s success is the result of many factors, with the teacher being just one. And our influence differs from student to student, lesson to lesson, chapter to chapter, and year to year.

All teachers know this, which is why I know of no teacher who actually thinks any of the things I opened this article with.

We know that education is a team effort. It takes a supportive community, involved parents, a responsive administration, good teaching, decent facilities, capable support staff, and students with both the capacity and desire to pay attention and try their best.

Teachers should never accept the narrative that they are solely, or even mostly, responsible for their students’ failures. They should stop blaming themselves for every skill not mastered and every chunk of knowledge not remembered. If teachers aren’t willing to accept all of the credit when students succeed, then they should stop feeling all of the guilt when students fail.

If teachers aren't willing to accept all of the credit when students succeed, then they should stop feeling all of the guilt when students fail. Click To Tweet

The next time you feel personally responsible for how a student did on a test or how they’re doing more generally in your class or for the fact that they grew up to become a criminal, ask yourself if you’re willing to take personal credit for your highest achievers, your hardest workers, or for the kid who grew up to run a business or a country or a nonprofit that helps the most vulnerable people on the planet.

No teacher would consider stealing credit from a child who succeeds. We should likewise stop robbing them of the lessons they could learn from failure, and we can help by first ensuring they recognize and accept their role in it.

No teacher would consider stealing credit from a child who succeeds. We should likewise stop robbing them of the lessons they could learn from failure, and we can help by first ensuring they recognize and accept their role in it. Click To Tweet


Stop Blaming Teachers for Cruddy Systems

A Lie All Teachers Should Believe

Autocomplete, Buffets, and How Schools Are Set Up To Fail

Want articles like these mailed directly to your inbox?

Teachers Talk

I’ve often heard teachers remark of their principals, “It’s like they forgot what it’s like to be in the classroom.” School leaders who spent years as a teacher seem to lose their classroom perspective in short order as they adjust to their new administrative roles. Some seem to forget that teachers have no time. As in literally no extra minutes anywhere in their day to do anything extra.

Some develop amnesia about just how vital planning time is and they ask their teachers to give it up, even though just a few short years ago they protected that time with everything they had.

And still others eschew their previously held beliefs about what it takes for students to be successful when they feel pressure from their bosses to raise test scores. They become the no-excuses,slave-to-the-data tyrants they used to abhor.

One of the most baffling cases of principals (and other school leaders) forgetting their roots is when they assume teachers won’t talk to other teachers. There is no logic behind such an assumption, especially since these leaders can regularly witness teachers talking to each other before and after school, before and after every meeting, during most meetings (including when they should be listening), at professional development days (often during the presentations), and literally every other time teachers get together in any context.

Teachers love to talk to other teachers.

In fact, as a teacher married to a teacher who has a number of friends who are also teachers, I can tell you that if you put us in the same room, there is a 100% chance that we will talk about our jobs. This happens even when we don’t want it to. Teachers can make all the “no talking shop” rules they want. We just aren’t very good at following them.

Teachers talk, and this immutable fact is something all school leaders would do well to remember.

We talk about how you treat us.

We talk about the text message you sent us.

We talk about what’s happening in our buildings to teachers who work in other buildings.

We talk about how you handle student discipline.

We talk about new initiatives and how you rolled them out.

We talk about what went down during committee meetings.

We talk about how you dealt with that parent.

We talk about the message our grade level received and compare it to the message other teachers received.

We talk. We talk in person, on the phone, by text message, and through social media. Take those things away and we’d use smoke signals and carrier pigeons.

And because teachers talk, school leaders need to be careful about what they say and do. What principals say or do to one person is going to get around, and if they get it wrong, they could unintentionally initiate the rumor mill, lose control of the message, harm their reputation, endanger equity, and even contribute to the destruction of their building’s culture. Here’s why.

Teachers Hate An Information Vacuum

I was in a building leadership meeting last week where a new professional development opportunity was discussed. We were debating how and when to introduce this initiative to the whole staff. Leadership believed this was new information and they wanted the opportunity to frame the message and put as positive a spin on it as they could. They planned to roll out the plan in two weeks.

The problem was that it had already leaked. I’d heard about it from another teacher who had heard about it from a colleague who had caught wind of it from a small meeting the previous week. Teachers talk. And because they talk, leadership should share, as early as possible, any information they have that will directly impact teachers. When they don’t, they create an information vacuum. Teachers will not sit by and wait patiently for an explanation. Instead, they will assume that withheld information means there’s something to hide. They’ll presume bad intentions. One teacher will tell another something that starts with the words, “Well, I heard…” Now you have rumors, negative attitudes, and zero control over the message. It’s out of administration’s hands and the only thing left to do is damage control. Not the most promising way to kick off a new initiative.

Recognize that teachers are going to talk and get the information out as quickly as possible to as many people as possible. Practice aggressive transparency and you’ll gain the respect and trust of your teachers while preventing rumors.

Teachers Compare Administrators

In my previous district, I worked for a principal who was the good soldier. She did as she was told. She never indicated if a despised idea was her own or if she was merely the messenger. She took the bullets for bad policy decisions and poor implementation. If a supervisor told her to keep her lips sealed about something that was coming down the pike, she did exactly that.

Across town, the principal in the other elementary building was the exact opposite. She was a “players’ coach” and was far more worried about keeping her staff happy than she was about pleasing her bosses. She exercised her own judgment. If she thought teachers should know something, she told them, damn the consequences. If administration wanted her to make an issue out of teachers allowing kids an extra five minutes of recess, she’d tell her staff exactly where it was coming from.

As you can imagine, this put my principal in a difficult position because teachers talk. One building’s teachers regularly knew what was going on and what was coming, while the other building’s teachers were in the dark, at least until those teachers learned through the teacher-talk grapevine what their colleagues had been told by their more transparent principal.

The only thing my principal’s compliance did was lower her teachers’ opinions of her. Every teacher in that district wanted the principal who respected teachers enough to share information quickly and who ignored the old-fashioned belief that information could be controlled. Leaders shouldn’t put their principals in such a position, and principals who want the respect of their teachers should push for more transparency and the prompt dissemination of information.

Teachers Compare Buildings

We all seem to have a built-in sense of fairness; I see it in my third graders all the time. Even something like math manipulatives better be distributed close to equally if you don’t want to deal with complaints. Teachers aren’t much different than third graders in this regard. We want to be treated like our colleagues, even if those colleagues are on the other side of town. And since teachers talk, you can bet that every teacher will be keenly aware if they’re getting the raw end of the deal.

In this age of guaranteed and viable curriculums, where students in one building are expected to receive the same educational opportunities as students in other district buildings and test scores between the buildings are compared on fancy slideshow graphs, you don’t get it both ways. If leadership is expecting similar outputs, then teachers have a right to expect similar inputs. So if one building has four teaching assistants and another building has one, leadership should expect to hear about it. If one buildings’ students are allowed 30 minutes of recess and kids in another school only get 20, there are going to be complaints. If one building’s teachers are asked to do extra work relative to their colleagues across town, someone’s going to throw a fit.

Teachers talk, and leaders, knowing this, should treat teachers as equitably as possible. If they don’t, teachers will know.

Teachers Will Know What You Did To Joyce

How principals treat one teacher will become quickly known by every other teacher in the building. This presents an opportunity for principals to build their reputations. Treat teachers fairly and word will spread that you’re a just leader. Stand up to the teacher every other teacher sees as a bully and you’ll gain the respect of your staff. Defend one teacher against unfair treatment by a central office administrator and you’ll score points with every teacher.

But because teachers talk, this is a two-sided coin. Your teachers may recognize that you don’t see eye to eye with Joyce, but if word gets out that you’ve punished her over your personal differences, then every teacher will question whether you can be trusted. Break the confidence of what one teacher tells you and you’ll soon discover that no teacher will tell you anything. Act vindictively toward one teacher who privately questioned your decision, and you might as well have acted vindictively against your entire staff. Teachers talk, which means that anything a principal says or does to one teacher can spread to all of them.

The contents of every conversation a principal has with one teacher have the potential to be known by every other teacher.

Every action a principal takes with one teacher could be learned by every other teacher.

Treat one teacher differently based on educational philosophies, personal interests, age, or gender and your school culture will quickly crumble as word of your favoritism spreads.

Treat one teacher unjustly and every other teacher will wonder if they’ll be next.

Teachers talk, so principals should behave as if every staff member is observing each of their interactions. Because you can be sure they’ll be discussing them.

4 Tricks to Help Struggling Students

By Meghan Belnap

Whether you are a teacher, a parent, or a tutor, it is difficult to watch a student struggle to grasp the same concepts as other children. Each child learns differently depending on his or her personality. Reaching these kids means developing new tactics for learning. Here are four ways parents and educators can address learning complications. 

Use hands-on projects to supplement learning

Some children need to interact physically with new concepts. Taking time to work on a science project that teaches gravity, or using real-world objects during math lessons can help. History maps, graphs, videos, and other items can help these students connect the terminology in the brain. 

Provide a quiet space to learn where there are fewer distractions

Some children just need a quieter space to work. Providing a desk or table away from the main area can be helpful. The key is to make sure these students do not feel alienated from the rest of the class. Giving the child a time limit or allowing a few students to take part in the side activity may help. 

Suggest tutoring sessions for one-on-one activities

Many children need specific guidance to overcome learning problems. Regular visits with a tutor can give a child a platform to ask questions. Some children are shy in front of others, and a smaller group setting can help. Tutors can determine the type of learning personality for each child and develop a plan to give these children the best chance for success. High performance tutoring determines the child’s strengths and weaknesses allowing them to learn at their pace. 

Offer recap homework

Sometimes, all a child needs to grasp a difficult concept is a little reiteration. Giving homework that goes over the primary lessons for the day can help hard lessons stick. Children need regular exposure to the same lessons to help them learn them for life. For example, a difficult math concept like factoring can take more than one day or lesson to grasp. For many students, a week-long course is necessary to get all the fine points of this lesson down pat. Giving homework that covers the major concepts each day is important for memory retention. 

Helping your students do better in class takes a little extra work. The effort is usually well-rewarded with better grades, a more positive attitude, and improved performance in class. Teachers can also point out other ways to help students get involved in the class.

Then Nothing Has Worked in Education

A common refrain from critics of American public education is that we continue to spend more money on it while getting the same disappointing results. The Wall Street Journal‘s editorial board, in an article titled, “America’s Schools Flunk,” wrote,

“The results from the 2019 National Assessment of Educational Progress, which is administered to students around the country every two years, were published on Wednesday. There isn’t much to cheer. Only 35% of fourth graders rated proficient in reading, which is about the same as in 2009. Worse, students have backslid in reading over the last two years.”

The Cato Institute published this handy graph showing how profligate our spending has been relative to our students’ performance:

Legislators have used the data to argue that we should spend far less, since spending more hasn’t worked. In a 2015 Facebook post, Representative Dave Brat wrote,

“Our own government statistics show that over 30 years, federal spending on education has grown by 375%, but test scores have remained flat. That proves that just throwing more money at education is not the solution.”

Politifact examined Brat’s statement and found it mostly true, although he plays fast and loose with the numbers since spending was at an all-time high in 2010 because of the one-time injection of stimulus money (Cato used the same trick).

Still, there’s no denying that performance on the “nation’s report card” for 17-year-olds has been stagnant while spending has climbed.

There are, of course, a number of problems with using the NAEP as the sole measure of how well American kids learn, and those problems have been outlined by better writers than me. Also, a fair amount of research has emerged that shows more spending does in fact lead to more learning, especially for low-income students:

Still, the critics aren’t wrong when they say that more spending hasn’t led to improved performance on the NAEP.

It’s just not as damning of an argument as they think it is.

Because reformers’ criticism that students aren’t learning more despite increased spending betrays a rather gaping hole in their logic to which they seem inexplicably blind:

If the only way we’re measuring education outcomes is by standardized test scores like the NAEP, then nothing has worked in education.

That includes all of their ideas, which have dominated education policy for the last 20 years. 

Teachers have their own ideas about what would improve education. Most teachers I know believe that treating teachers like professionals, making sure classrooms are staffed with certified educators, and trusting educators to make policy decisions rather than uninformed legislators and think tank boobs would improve outcomes. Teachers think that we should address poverty through social policy instead of expecting education to solve it. We believe that more recess time, fewer tests, increased teacher autonomy, and yes, more spending for the neediest students, more mental health professionals in schools, and more investment in our public education system would lead to better test scores and life outcomes.

Also, we’d like fewer school shootings.

But most of those ideas haven’t been tried. They have, like most teachers’ ideas, been ignored if not ridiculed as excuse-making.

Instead, the reformers have had their way for about two decades, starting with the punitive No Child Left Behind Act, continuing with the federal bribery scheme Race to the Top, and persisting today with the legacy of accountability measures and the attack on public schools waged daily by our Secretary of Education.

The same people who want to spend less on education invariably favor an unoriginal list of reforms, most of which have been attempted.

The National Review is as good a representative as any, and in 2013 they believed that “Liquidating the teachers’ unions, enacting vouchers and other school-choice options, abandoning the exhausted excuses for poor performance, and — conversely — boosting expectations for all students (regardless of background or circumstances) would help solve this perennial challenge.”

They largely got their way.

27 states are now right-to-work and the Supreme Court handed the reformers a victory in Janus v. AFSCME. Membership in teachers’ unions has dropped, albeit modestly, a disappointing result for reformers who’ve won multiple legislative victories but who likely have no one to blame but themselves for motivating teachers to remain with their unions so they might more effectively fight against policies designed to destroy their power.

School choice has expanded over the last 20 years, as have voucher schemes.

As for “abandoning exhausted excuses for poor performance,” that’s the heart of the entire reform movement. We’ve ignored the root causes of poor performance and achievement gaps and instead placed all responsibility on the shoulders of our educators, threatening them with their jobs if scores don’t improve enough and using silly statistical models to rate them based on their students’ (or sometimes other teachers’ students) standardized test results.

If flatlining test scores are evidence that increased spending on education hasn’t worked, then those same test scores are evidence that reformers’ ideas are equally ineffective.

If more spending hasn’t worked, then more parent choice hasn’t worked.

If more spending hasn’t worked, then neither has weakening teachers’ job protections.

If more spending hasn’t led to higher test scores, then neither have common standards.

If more money hasn’t worked then:

Higher expectations for schools haven’t worked.

Shaming and punishing schools and teachers for student test scores hasn’t worked.

New teacher evaluation systems haven’t worked (as the Gates Foundation already admitted).

Longer school years haven’t worked.

More instructional time hasn’t worked.

An intense focus on tested subjects to the diminishment of the arts and electives hasn’t worked.

Personalized learning hasn’t worked.

More technology in classrooms hasn’t worked.

Filling teaching positions with long term substitutes and uncertified teachers hasn’t worked.

If critics are going to point to stagnating test scores as evidence that more spending on education is foolish, then they must admit that their own ideas, most of which have been given a chance to work, have been equally disappointing. Flat test scores might indicate that increased spending doesn’t lead to better results. But if they do, then they also indicate that everything else we’ve tried in education has been equally fruitless. Critics who point to test scores as a reason to spend less money should also see those test scores as a reason to abandon their most cherished reform ideas.