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The Art and Ethics of Collaboration
Carolyn Stone, Ed.D.
Sunday May 01, 2005
by: Carolyn Stone, Ed.D.

Section: Inside Insight

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You are in a school with a deeply divided faculty. Two strong, charismatic faculty members are in control and decide if a faculty member will be embraced or ostracized. Members of the “in” group socialize together and offer strong support to each other. The faculty members that have been branded as “outcasts” spend some lonely hours at the school. It is not apparent why some people are accepted and others are rejected, but what is clear is that these two strong personalities make the decisions and everyone else falls in line. You have been chosen to be included, and you love having the warmth of the camaraderie of a large portion of the faculty. The fact that you are accepted helps you accomplish what you need to for students. However, the good that comes from having such support is tempered by the constant reminder that some faculty members are ignored. Your suggestions to include those who are left out are met with silence and warning signs that you could be pushed out if you continue along this path. How can you deal with this ethical dilemma?

Group membership on a faculty can be difficult, but success as a group member is critical for school counselors to develop a place as a collaborator. Collaborative skills are a building block for leadership, and without leadership our advocacy efforts on behalf of students is stymied. In addition to needing to be effective at the big three – leadership, advocacy and collaboration – our ethical codes and No Child Left Behind implore us to contribute to a safe and respectful school climate. The title and position of “school counselor” adds the responsibility to be inclusive of all faculty to the fullest extent possible. At the same time, job satisfaction and your own mental well-being are contingent on being connected to others and having good relationships with the faculty.

This case can only be answered by each individual professional in the context of his or her situation. There are no hard and fast rules of behavior that say a school counselor must abandon new friends, seek to include the marginalized or speak out on behalf of others. However, it is in the norms, customs and mores of our profession that we must adhere to a high standard of conduct in our interactions with fellow professionals. It is the expectation of our advocacy role that we must try to be on professional terms with all our faculty members. Ethical school counselors must demonstrate strong interpersonal skills and the ability to successfully move within and among the different “camps” that can be found in schools. School counselors want to be bridge builders, helping all members of the school community find emotional safety in their school community. At the end of the day, we have to be able to look in the mirror and say we actively tried to support a safe, respectful school climate for students but also for faculty; collaboration depends on it.

Self-reflection and discussions with an impartial person may help to illuminate what you need to do. Ask yourself:

  • In an effort to fit in and not be ostracized, do you try to match the behavior of others even though it is against your better judgment and your own feeling of self-respect?
  • Do you succumb to peer pressure at the expense of your own inner voice?
  • Can you preserve your place with the “in” group and still reach out to the ostracized faculty members?
  • Do you challenge yourself and step out of your comfort zone with regard to relationships?

Collaboration and Your Administration
The principal shares sensitive information with you, most of which is appropriate for you to know. Occasionally, however, he confides information you wish you didn’t know. Last summer, he told you he interviewed a recent graduate and wanted to hire him. He then went on to explain that he had to temporarily drop the counseling position out of the budget so as not to have to hire a weak counselor on the surplus list. He said that once the surplus counselor was placed, he would put the position back in the budget. This is exactly what he ended up doing, and the new counselor was hired. The teacher’s union filed a grievance against the district on behalf of the surplus counselor, and a union representative asks you what you know about the entire situation. What should you do in a situation like this? Must you tell the union what you know?

Our principals need to be able to communicate with us and trust us to keep thier confidences. However, there are some subjects, such as questionable hiring practices, that we wish our principals wouldn’t share with us. It would be best to skillfully learn to distance ourselves when certain topics come up containing information we would be better off not knowing. However, in this case you have the information and you are being asked to breach the trusting relationship you have painstakingly established with the principal. Perhaps your best course of action would be to explain to the union representative that you are in a special relationship with the principal and that the two of you routinely need to discuss sensitive information with the understanding that your communications will be confidential. You can try this approach until someone in authority demands more information, in which case you and the principal should seek legal counsel.

Privity, a legal principal, is when you have an interest in a legal action to which you are not a direct party but your interests arise out of your relationship to one of the parties of the legal action. There is no privity here, however. You are under no legal obligation to tell the union the contents of a conversation with the principal. However, if you are a union member, consult your union handbook as you may have agreed to cooperate with union investigations as part of your membership.

Collaboration with Teachers
Over the course of time, you’ve learned a great deal about different teachers’ effectiveness, and Ms. Branden’s class is especially chaotic. You believe students are suffering academically as it appears that minimal time is spent on teaching and learning. Branden has chronic behavior problems no matter which students are assigned to her, and the administration seems unaware of her lack of classroom management skills. What is your role in this situation?

The key to success in working in difficult situations such as the one described in this case is to genuinely respect and support teachers; their jobs are tough and critical. Good teaching matters. Building trust with teachers is essential to have access to their students and to influence effective teaching. Therefore, do we head to the administration with information about this teacher’s ineptness in classroom management?

When talking to administrators about circumstances having an impact on students’ success, it is helpful to know how information will be used and to feel secure that it will be used to help the teacher make strides toward a better learning environment. Glean as much information from different sources as possible, assess the problem, and share potential solutions with the teacher and/or principal without compromising the confidentiality of sources or damaging the teacher's reputation. If you are uncertain whether or not the principal will deal deftly with Branden’s situation, you may have to think of another plan that doesn’t include going to the administration. Identifying allies early on, such as the assistant principal or someone who will use compassion and a nonjudgmental approach to problem solving, will help once in the throes of a dilemma such as this one.

School counselors cannot afford to set themselves up as informants or align themselves with a particular administrator or any other individual in the school. The school atmosphere is not unlike the United Nations, and in cases where potentially divisive situations arise, the school counselor should remain neutral and nonjudgmental. Like a good ambassador, the counselor’s job is to groom relationships with all administrators and teachers and to figure out how best to support the instructional process. Remember, think like an ambassador, and your collaborative role will be better protected.

Collaboration with Fellow Counselors
You are a school counselor serving the eighth-graders in a 7 12 school counseling department. Your certification authorizes you to counsel elementary and middle school students, grades K 8. Over your five years at the school you have earned a wonderful reputation, especially among the students. During your second year, about a dozen ninth-grade former students came back to you after they reported feeling “dismissed” by their high school counselor. This practice has continued for four years and now you have far too many students and the stress is wearing you down. Although you encourage these students to seek help from their own counselors, they are reluctant and continue to see you. Are you behaving unethically or illegally? What do you do?

The intentions to support former students are admirable, but the counselor has unwittingly set up an unmanageable workload and everyone suffers. Tough as it is to admit, the counselor has enabled students’ to rely on their former counselor too much and in the process may have needlessly alienated the rest of the counseling staff and imperiled his or her own well-being by taking on too much. Professional school counselors are obligated to be aware of their limitations, hence the need for certification and a manageable caseload. Although this counselor may be an intuitive counselor for preteens, older teenagers bring with them a different set of developmental issues, ones the counselor is not certified to address and may not be qualified in skills to handle.

It is important to find a way to ease out of a relationship with the older students who have received counseling. Be honest. Set time limits so these students are able to gradually make the transition (i.e. “I can only meet with you two more times, but I have set up an appointment for you with Mrs. Jones, who is terrific with people your age. With your permission I can sit down with Mrs. Jones and brief her about some of the things we’ve been talking about the past couple of years so she can have a sense of who you are.”)

Inform the other school counselors about what has been happening, and include them in a solution. By fostering collaboration, conflicts that can create fissures in a department may be avoided.

Once the counselor creates boundaries, students will respect them. If they balk at consulting another counselor in the school, offer them the option of seeing someone in an outside agency. It is advisable to groom a relationship with an agency ahead of time so students can be best informed about what they might expect. Perhaps an agency counselor could be repositioned by special grant  to work out of the school counseling office. Or maybe the person could arrange to be available during school hours. The primary objective is to provide students with the most professional service available.

Practice within the parameters of your certificate. If accused of wrongdoing, negligence or incompetence, legal counsel will have a difficult time defending school counselors who are practicing outside their certification, especially when the school district did not hire them to be out of field and did not sanction their out-of-field practice.

Carolyn Stone, Ed.D., is an associate professor and school counseling program leader, University of North Florida, and chair of ASCA’s Ethics Committee. She can be reached at cstone@unf.edu.