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Thriving in Your New School Counseling Role

By Elyse Brogdon and Mindy Willard | April 2020

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In recent months, in the wise words of the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, “our worlds got flipped and turned upside down.” We have had to adapt and change how we’ve always done business in so many ways. The upcoming school year offers a fresh start that many of us are craving. For some, it will be a chance to shake off the struggles of this past year and re-invigorate our comprehensive school counseling programs. For others, it will be more than a refreshing start; it will be a transition into a new role, school or career. This article provides steps for thriving in your new school counseling role.

Building Rapport

Connecting with stakeholders in your new environment is the first step toward a successful transition. Yale psychiatrist and author James Comer said, “No significant learning can occur without a significant relationship.” We know this to be true for our students, and it is just as true for school counselors.

In addition to your relationships with students, families, teachers and administration, building connections to numerous other individuals will ease your transition. To identify those people, ask yourself: Who knows information I need to know? Who has access to tools I need to use? Who radiates positive energy? At any level, this includes your secretaries, custodial staff, food service team and IT/data specialists.

How do you build rapport with these individuals? Ask questions and really listen to the answers. Listen when people speak about their reality and take note of what is important to them. Let them get to know you through introductory meetings or letters, program brochures or your counseling website. Get to know them by volunteering your time, attending meetings or joining a committee. Never underestimate the power of treats in the teacher’s lounge.

Understanding Your Community through Data

While building relationships is the first step in any transition, analyzing data comes in a close second. The data we examine as school counselors tells a story about the students we serve. One of the best people to help you locate and understand your school’s data is your principal, who has spent countless hours poring over the numbers. Examples of important data sources include:
  • School improvement plans
  • District/school report cards
  • Grade distribution
  • Attendance records
  • Office referrals
  • Graduation rates
  • Postsecondary success (enrollment, retention, completion)
  • Alcohol and other drug abuse assessments
  • Standardized test scores
  • AP/IB enrollment and success
  • School climate data
  • Senior survey data
Even with your school’s data in hand, extracting the story it tells can be difficult. The ASCA National Model, 4th edition, gives us the School Data Summary, which helps put together your school’s potentially challenging data story. This tool walks you through the steps of identifying what is important and determining the immediate priorities for your school counseling program.

You can also make sense of data by speaking to the individuals who are impacted by the numbers. Collect qualitative data through focus groups or individual interviews. Ask questions of your community, then begin to develop your program to address the gaps that your analysis revealed.

Managing Your Time

As you work to build relationships, analyze your school’s data and take on all of the other responsibilities of your new role, you may find yourself burning the candle at both ends. To ensure that your performance in your new role is both effective and sustainable, consider these time management strategies.

First, determine your workable hours and stick to them. This might mean your contract hours, or it might go beyond that. It is not 24/7. Use tools on your devices such as “Do Not Disturb,” disable push notifications or time-block your calendar. If you find yourself working outside your defined hours, consider delegating that time for program management, not for responding to emails that can wait until tomorrow. Setting healthy boundaries from the start will serve you – and your students – in the long run.

Another strategy for managing your transition is a 90-day entry plan. (A google search will provide countless examples; check out our template for new school counselors.) This plan helps you map out what is essential in those crucial first few months. Utilize the components of a comprehensive program, such as the Annual Calendar, to align timelines for your role, program and school. Use your advocacy skills to ensure that your time is spent on improving student outcomes and not “other duties as assigned.”

When you are outside of your workable hours, feed the parts of your identity that are not “educator” or “helper.” Pursue passions and goals that are not related to your work. Invest in the big three: nutrition, exercise and sleep. Seek professional help from a counselor or supervisor before a crisis hits so that the relationship is already in place when you need it most.

A new role is an excellent opportunity for professional and personal growth, but it is also a time of great vulnerability. As Brené Brown reminds us, “Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change.” Congratulations on your new role and the great impact you are going to have on the community you now serve.

Elyse Brogdon is a school counselor at Northwestern Middle School in Battle Creek, Mich., and Mindy Willard is school counseling and transitions coordinator with Madison Metropolitan School District in Madison, Wisc.