School counselors are an integral part of today's educational system. Their role serves to foster the proper emotional, social, academic, and career development of students. They help to ensure that the students of today become the well rounded adults of tomorrow.
During the elementary years, students begin to develop academically. This time shapes who they are as learners. It is imperative that school counselors are present so that they may identify and address needs that students may have, thus eliminating stumbling blocks and promoting students' academic achievement.
School counselor Rebecca Atkins of Millbrook Elementary School in Raleigh, North Carolina serves as an excellent example of this process at work. Taking a proactive role in education of the students at her school, she dedicates herself to making a difference in the lives of the students. That dedication shines through in the following interview.
Where did you go to college and what was your major? Did you anticipate becoming a school counselor?
I was a psychology major in undergrad at Furman University in South Carolina. I wanted to do neuroscience research and did not plan on being a school counselor. I later realized that I wanted to have more personal interaction than research would allow so I began exploring other careers.
Where and how did your career start?
I went to the University of North Carolina for my graduate work and began with my internship at Pathways Elementary in Hillsborough, NC. I worked there about 23 hours per week during my internship. Even though I was not a paid employee, I was there so much it felt like I was a part of the school team!
What do you most enjoy about being a school counselor?
I really like the diversity of duties. My personality is such that I would not like to be in one classroom all day or sitting at a desk all day. Being a school counselor means that every day is different and brings new challenges.
What all does the job of a school counselor entail?
A lot! Counseling roles can be broken in to two different categories: proactive and responsive. In the proactive role, a counselor teaches classes, runs groups, facilitates outside agencies, works with parents, runs programs like peer mediation, and participates in some type of student support team.
In the reactive role, a counselor sees students for individual counseling, meets with teachers who might be struggling with a student, and handles crisis situations (e.g. a student who is extremely upset and having an outburst). Counselors are also often the first-line social worker, dealing with families who need assistance or are struggling outside of school.
What, in your opinion, is the primary role of a school counselor? How does one lay the groundwork for that role and then deliver on that?
I see the primary role of the counselor to be a social-emotional educator. A counselor is a teacher just like a classroom teacher, but instead teaches a different subject area. A counselor might teach a classroom, a group, or an individual student. This is supported by the American School Counselors Association National Model and also in the North Carolina Standard Course of Study. Not all counselors view the role of counseling the same way, however, and there is much diversity in counselor-role expectations.
What is the most stressful aspect of your career? The most rewarding?
I have 815 students at my school. To deliver the type of program that I would like to deliver, we really need to have two counselors. Unfortunately, education budgeting is always tight. There is no way to do my job at the level that I would like in the 36 hours that students are in school every week. Even leaving all of my extra paperwork for after school hours, I just don't have enough of me to go around!
The most rewarding part of my job is that I get to work with children every day. Not only that, I work with children in kindergarten through 5th grade, so I can break up my time and spend my day working at different developmental levels. There is also a lot of flexibility in a counselor's time that teachers just don't have. I like the ability to change my day around based on my needs and the needs of my students. Of course that also means you might end up dealing with a crisis all day instead of the schedule that you had originally planned!
Do you feel that school counseling is effective?
There are days when I wonder if school counseling is effective. One of the major pushes that the counseling community is working on right now is showing data that points to the results of counseling. Even if you can't see the “seed” that you plant within a child, it is reassuring to know that one day they will remember you and the effort that you made in their honor. I couldn't do this every day if I thought I wasn't making a change.
How is the job market now for school counselors? How do you think it will be in 5 years?
I think there is a real need for school counselors, especially highly qualified ones. Of course, different age groups have different needs. It is more difficult to find a job at an elementary school than a high school because there is only one counselor in an elementary school. Projections for future years show that schools are going to be drastically growing. More schools mean more counselors as long as funding is still supported.
What are the hottest issues/specialties in school counseling currently, and what do you think will be next?
Right now, one of the biggest issues in school counseling is student to counselor ratios. The ASCA recommendation is 250 to 1. This is unrealistic due to funding. However, some elementary schools have over 1000 students and only one counselor.
Right now in my state, elementary counselors are not mandated; thus ratios are much higher than in middle or high schools.
We need to have better support for our counselors from legislators and the public. In order to reinforce the need for school counselors, the ASCA organization has implemented the National Model that pushes for data-driven counseling programs. In addition, the National Model seeks to show results of the efforts that counselors make. A conundrum is that with counselor to student ratios as they are, counselors are having a hard time finding the time needed to gather the data to participate in the National Model!
Is there anything else you can tell us about yourself, your career, or education that would be interesting or helpful to others aspiring to enter and succeed in school counseling?
When I was in college, my professors encouraged me to only pursue a job if I couldn't imagine myself doing anything else. Not everyone is going to pursue a career that they are that passionate about; however, if you are to pursue school counseling, make sure that you are absolutely passionate about it. This is a very high stress, low reward job. There are no cushy paychecks or big thank you's to keep you warm at night. If you are passionate about what you do, you don't need to external reminders that what you do is important.