Sheryl Kline is a high school counselor at Linn-Mar High School in Marion, Iowa. Previously, she worked at Central City CSD for two years as a Grades K-12 and one year as a 4-12 School Counselor. Sheryl is also a former ISCA Board Member.
I recently came to the somewhat startling answer to the question I have asked so many times before, “Why do administrators care so much why we change our title?” I am not sure about the rest of you, but this question has nagged at me since graduate school five years ago. I could not wrap my head around why administrators, or anyone who has a say in what school counselors’ titles are, cared so much about a name change. Today, I realized that the name change means that administrators also will have to shift their ideas about what we do. Just like those die-hard “guidance counselors” out there, administrators are afraid of what this title change might mean for their schools and who will do the miscellaneous things that often fall into the laps of a school counselor. Many of these tasks don't fit into what a school counselor should or could be doing to be effective in helping all students achieve. We all know those duties: testing coordinator, scheduler extraordinaire, and expert student lunch and recess supervisor. How do we effectively advocate for change? How do we get administrators beyond this anxiety that our role has changed? This blog post will give you some ideas about how to begin the process of change that many of us are striving to make in defining our role as a school counselor.
Below are some tips you can use to start making changes in your building and with your administrator.
1. Start small. I had a professor in graduate school who repeatedly told us not to expect huge, sweeping changes in the first year as a professional nor should you attempt them. I took this advice seriously and spent most of my first year relatively quietly infusing the term “school counselor” into my conversations and lessons in the building. I corrected teachers, parents, and administrators politely when they called me a guidance counselor. My first lessons in the elementary were used to introduce what a school counselor does with and for students. When the administration decided to put signs up outside the offices around the building, I asked to have my sign say “School Counselor.” People began to notice and slowly shifted their vocabulary as well. This, however, didn’t happen without some playful jabs from teachers and my principal about how adamant I was about being called a school counselor, but I took it all in stride. In my current school, my first encounter with the district administrator in charge of school counselors was to ask her to call us school counselors instead of “guidance counselors” after repeatedly cringing in an orientation session with her. I still have to remind people, and it sometimes annoys me, but without this small piece of advocacy, there will be no change.
2. Get administrators on your side and follow the chain of command. This is so important, and I share it whenever I make a presentation. I will repeat this mantra until I am blue in the face. I think this is the key to any change in your building. Administrators are the decision makers, and you NEED them on your side. There are several things you can do to make this happen: take on extra duties (within reason – don’t burn yourself out), align your goals and the counseling goals with your district, principal and building goals. Meet with your principal on a regular basis. There are most certainly going to be administrators that don’t seem to budge. As with any difficult student, you should build rapport with them and approach them in a way that is open and complimentary. You want to find a way to “scratch their backs so that they will scratch yours.” Think of those resistant administrators as a resistant student. What things do you do to win those students over and apply the same techniques to working with administrators.
Also, principals get annoyed when staff members bypass them by to talk to the superintendent or another district level person to get any change to happen. Principals want to be involved, and since they are often your direct supervisors, you should keep them privy of your plans rather than blindsiding them with news from someone higher up. Your principal can often also help you make the changes you are wanting and help you align your goals to district goals. Principals also seem to know how to word things to get them through other administrative approval, whether it be with your superintendent or your school board. The district level administrators also seem to give their opinion a little more weight.
3. Use data. School counselors know the vast amount of tasks we do on a day to day basis and about how many kids we may have impacted. However, our stakeholders don't always understand what we do or what value we add to our schools. It is important to share this information using data. Whether you are using process, perception, or outcome data, these numbers and direct quotes can have a powerful effect on your audience. In our presentation to the school board, we made sure to include the number of students we worked with and information about what parents and students said they wanted from us. We always included data about the impact of our program. School board members and administration can hopefully get behind you when you have this information readily available in a meeting or discussion. It is also a very good idea to share the data throughout the year in a quick email to those stakeholders who are critical in helping you deliver part of your program, especially administrators. I have found that my administrators often want to know things in black and white, so be prepared to talk about your program using a results report that has specific data. How are students different because of what the school counselor did?
4. Work with teachers and parents to make programming changes they support. To go along with the "Use Data" advice above, survey your parents and students about what they need. Then, find people to help you make the changes necessary to deliver the programming. Because I often have a hard time letting go of big projects and delegating work, this tip was difficult for me. In my second year as a school counselor, I started a Career Day with grades 7-12. I found all of the career speakers, developed a schedule for the day, and assigned each student to their career speakers on my own. Doing all of the work was stressful, so when a teacher approached me about having her junior high students do all of the work as part of her class, I was happy to share the duties but reluctant to give up something I worked so hard on. The day didn't go exactly as I had planned, but I was able to focus on other programming, and it wasn't far from my original design. I also used connections with the PTA to help start a Girls on the Run program. They helped me get the word out about the group, coach, and get other girls involved with our program. Without the teachers and parents in our buildings and districts, things often don’t get done or work as well as we want. We need a team to support us and give access to students that are sometimes difficult to reach because we don’t have a classroom or set time to meet with them.
5. Realize that there will always be resistors. Everett Rogers explains the distribution of people who adopt a change in "Diffusion of Innovations." We all know those people that seem to want to stand in our way or tell us it won't work - the late majorities and laggards. These people are always going to be around. Don't let them discourage you. Resistance will mainly happen with those traditional events that have been happening for years before you and will occur years after you have gone. My principals have been my biggest supporters and my biggest critics. They seem to have all of the most annoying, but important questions every time I wanted to change something or try something new. I have found that the best way to address resistors is to come to the table with a plan and contingencies for things that could go wrong or that others would resist. This gives your resistors choices and control in what you are changing. Also, if you have everything planned out, your principal won't have to do as much. They have plenty going on besides figuring out how you are going to deliver your program in a way that will jive with the rest of the school’s plans.
6. Change takes time! This is the most important thing to remember. Change does not happen overnight. It can take years. I spent my first two years as a K-12 counselor working my tail off. I wanted to prove that I could do everything in the district on my own. However, this demonstrated how much more we could get done with two school counselors. I had a lot of ideas. I wanted to change a lot of things, but my high school principal knew I couldn't do it alone. By the third year, the district hired a second counselor. Besides my comments about needing another person, I didn't do much more than the things above and doing my job as a school counselor. Once I was able to start putting a program in place, the two principals and superintendent knew we needed to add another counselor to best serve our students. I can't say that this was all because of me because the operational sharing bill that allowed for districts to share counselors happened in the same year. The bill certainly made it easier on the district’s budget to add a counselor. We were able to find a way to share with another district to bring in the second counselor. Though this wouldn't have happened without the sharing agreement, it also wouldn't have happened if I hadn't asked for a second counselor, repeatedly. Even now, as budget cuts are being made, the district has maintained the two positions. This change was in the best interest of the students, and they are lucky to have both school counselors. I hope that the new counselors can continue working on building the comprehensive and developmental program because there is still more to be done.
Overall, I would encourage all school counselors to make your voices be heard. You can't get what you want if you don't ask for it. These tips can help, but advocacy is going to look different for each person and each school. There may be some things that work for you that just won't work in other school environments. It is important to get a good picture of what is possible and not possible in your building. Tackle those things that you know you can change first, and take the time to make slowly the changes that are best for your program. Remember, the change may only directly affect you, but it is also going to impact others, especially if it challenges their mindset about the role of the school counselor.