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Bridging the Gap
1/1/2012
Rhonda Williams, Ed.D., LPC, NCC
Sunday January 01, 2012
by: Rhonda Williams, Ed.D., LPC, NCC

Section: Inside Insight


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Scenario: Recently, I have had some difficulties with my administrator. She has accused me of keeping secrets from her. She feels I need to share with her all that is going on in my school counseling office so she is updated. She indicates that to be an effective leader she needs to be informed of what is happening in the school since she will ultimately be held responsible. I have tried to explain to her that what happens in my office is confidential. This has caused a big rift in our working relationship, and yet, I don’t want to betray the confidentiality of the students who come to me. Any suggestions?

Although it may be preaching to the choir to say confidentiality is the mainstay of school counseling and is a core value of the counseling relationship, administrators may not necessarily share that perspective. School principals look at the macro aspects of the school. Their focus is on budgets, discipline, curriculum and staff. Administrators are trained in team development and effective leadership. For them, the role of confidentiality seems to run antithetical to the team concept. In a time when being transparent is the buzzword for politics, education and corporations, it should come as no surprise principals sometimes interpret student-school counselor confidentiality as going against the grain.
However, when school counselors get frustrated with the administrators for a lack understanding about confidentiality, it begs the question, “Where are administrators supposed to learn about confidentiality as it relates to the role of school counseling?” Since school counseling ethics isn’t part of the educational leadership curriculum, it’s falls to school counselors to educate administration about the value of confidentiality.

Administrators may be interested to hear that Collins and Knowles’ research found that 98 percent of students believed confidentiality was important or very important in their willingness to see the school counselors. If students cannot find a knowledgeable and trusted adult, trained in areas of mental health, they may confide in unreliable and ill-informed sources about their problems, which often exacerbates the issue. The only profession in the school environment that has the necessary and specialized training to deal with these difficult topics is the school counselor. But if students don’t trust the school counselor to maintain confidentiality, they aren’t going to share their problems.

While the scenario above isn’t novel for school counselors, educating educators about confidentiality in the school counseling profession may be. There are strategies that may help address this issue.
In 2009, ASCA, the College Board and the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP) addressed the differing roles of school counselors and administrators and how they could best work together. The groups released two publications, “A Closer Look at the Principal-School Counselor Relationship” and” Finding a Way: Practical Examples of How and Effective Principal-School Counselor Relationship Can Lead to Success for All Students.”

Armed with the advise from these two publications, many school counselors and administrators have initiated consistent collaborative meeting times to improve communication between the two professions. This effort toward effective communication is an excellent step in developing a positive working relationship. It not only improves the communication between school counselors and administrators but also models collaboration for all of the educators in the setting.

As much as the suggestions in these two documents have helped build bridges between the two professions, they seemed to have stopped short of addressing the professional ethical standards of both professions. Few educators have taken the next step of having a conversation about professional ethical standards and ethical decision-making. This seems like a logical strategy in developing a common understanding of the divergent roles of the school administrator and school counselor.

The ASCA National Model encourages school counselors to be proactive not reactive. Certainly being proactive about the issues confronting school counselors daily is a more efficient use of time and keeps the professional away from the time suck known as reaction mode. Research supports that it is also a more efficient way to manage a comprehensive program for all students. School counselors can apply this same proactive approach to their collaborative relationship with their principal and take steps to educate administrators about school counseling ethical standards.

An article in NASSP Bulletin, “Collaboration and Confidentiality: Not a Paradox But an Understanding Between Principals and School Counselors,” includes suggestions to close this gap, such as simply asking the administrator to read the ASCA Ethical Standards for School Counselors, followed by a using scenarios from past Legal | Ethical columns in this magazine as a springboard for further dialogue.
Districts may also benefit from conducting in-service training on topics allowing for collaborative interaction between school counselors and principals. A workshop or in-service on ethical issues could also bring legal concerns and court cases to the table for discussion and dialogue. These efforts educate both professionals and develop a mutually beneficial dialogue about roles and issues.

A collaborative approach offers a chance to develop an intentional decision-making and problem-solving model based on the ethical standards of both professions. By working together to develop a decision-making model based on ethical standards, both the administrator and school counselor have the framework for effectively working in the students’ best interests. Of course this requires active listening and compromise from both parties so polarizing and positioning cannot stall the efforts to collaboration. This approach may also clarify the roles of each professional.

The relationship between the principal and the school counselor doesn’t just happen. It needs to be nurtured and developed. Students need a team of adults to encourage the development of the whole child, and it’s imperative that school counselors and administrators have a positive and collaborative working relationship to guide student development. This collaboration can only be achieved when both professions understand and respect the contributions each makes to the educational system.

Rhonda Williams, Ed.D., LPC, NCC, is an assistant professor at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs and co-chair of ASCA’s Ethics Committee. She can be reached at rwilliam@uccs.edu.