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.
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.