March 2020

From Doer to Leader

By Anita Young, Ph.D.
Are school counselors doers or leaders? School counselors in K–12 settings often simply do what is needed to respond to the day-to-day obstacles limiting students’ academic achievement and prohibiting social/emotional wellness. However, by simply doing, are you creating a sustainable impact?

Doers are like first responders, trained to make a situation better, and their attention improves the situation but not necessarily the outcome. Being a doer isn’t enough for school counselors. Student needs demand that school counselors move beyond reacting to leading.

Two basic principles transform a school counselor from a doer to a leader. First is acknowledging you have all the capacity and power to lead. Identifying your own leadership characteristics and style, coupled with the presence of effective leadership practices, is essential to build a sustainable school counseling program. 

The second step is to expand your leadership capacity by seeking opportunities to develop and increase your leadership skills. Familiarize yourself with leadership theories and principles applicable for your school setting. Simple habits such as reading journal articles, participating in district professional development or attending professional conferences that emphasize leadership in educational settings can broaden your leadership capacity. 

The term school counselor leader means a responsive change agent who is able to integrate instructional and school counseling best practices to initiate, develop and implement equitable services to all students. School counselor leaders move beyond doing because they have confidence to influence and effect change from a social justice advocacy stance. School counselor leaders propel above doing because they also know how to collaborate with others to resolve problems.

School counselors can move beyond doing by using the five dimensions of school counselor leadership described below. These narratives are meant to invoke reflective school counselor leadership characteristics and future innovative practices. Contact the author for a copy of the survey used to identify the five dimensions. 

1. Interpersonal Influence

Leadership is defined in myriad ways and influence and vision are common terms used to capture the characteristics of a leader. Influence is exerted through verbal and nonverbal communication and how others perceive the school counselor’s role. 

When school counselors volunteer or are selected to serve on schoolwide, district and community councils, they are in a position of power and influence. Their presence allows communication of the value of school counseling interventions aligned with the instructional mission and vision. For example, they can communicate to stakeholders how the ASCA Mindsets & Behaviors for Student Success can be used as an innovative resource to close achievement gaps and promote college readiness. Serving on a schoolwide or district committees is “doing;” initiating policy changes as a member of the committee is leading.
  • How can you expand your circle of influence?
  • How do you encourage colleagues to share their new ideas?
  • Are you knowledgeable about communication styles? If so, how do you use communication to impact student outcomes?
  • Do you effectively navigate through the politics of the school? The district?
  • Do you have a clear vision for the school counseling program?

2. Professional Efficacy

Leading takes courage. The belief in your ability to lead creates efficacy and confidence that helps school counselors challenge mediocrity. Not only does efficacy breed confidence, it also fertilizes advocacy for self and others. Efficacy is what keeps school counselors returning each day.

To design and execute all of the components of the ASCA National Model requires grounded efficacy. For example, imagine yourself as a new school counselor in a school without an established school counseling program. You have been trained to be a school counselor leader; therefore, your belief in yourself catapults you to design a school counseling program aligned with your school’s instructional goals.
  • Do you view yourself as a change agent?
  • Have there been opportunities to lead and you chose not to do so because of fear of failure?
  • If needed, are you confident you are equipped to design a school counseling program?

3. Resourceful Problem Solving

Often, parents enter the school building seeking answers to questions that have nothing to do with school counseling, and school counselors find solutions or direct parents to appropriate resources. Stakeholders often rely on school counselors to fix problems that run the gamut from simplistic to complicated.

A doer reacts; a leader responds with data-informed options resulting in systemic solutions producing self-regulated behaviors for students. Resolving problems also requires leaders to be goal-oriented. A school counselor leader with acute problem-solving skills operates with annual student outcome goals in mind. 

A school counselor leader provides services that fill data gaps presenting barriers to student achievement. Similarly, forging a business partnership to sponsor college tours or purchase learning manipulatives for an afterschool tutoring program are examples of integrating resourceful problem-solving strategies.  

Consider the day-to-day hiccups school counselors encounter. Are you providing random acts of improvement or resolving problems that provide equitable outcomes for all students?
  • Are you leading or reacting? 
  • When faced with obstacles, what steps do you take to remove barriers? 
  • Can you identify systemic barriers plaguing students in your school?
  • Do you know how to find resources to secure what is needed to improve services for all students? 

4. Systemic Collaboration

To meet the needs of all students, collaboration is a mandate not only for school counselor leaders, but all educators. Imagine working in a school as the sole school counselor. Building relationships and partnerships with parents, staff and community members produces sustained outcomes.

For example, a school counselor leader communicates with the principal to share the school counseling program vision and mission and how they align with the school’s mission. Collaboration with teachers, administrators and parents is needed to schedule appropriate services. 
  • Do you know the key stakeholders in your school community?
  • Do you work with stakeholders to implement school counseling programs? 
  • Is collaboration encouraged in your building? 

5. Social Justice Advocacy

School counselor leaders give voice to marginalized students and their families with the aim of producing equitable outcomes for students through transformative methods. Leading from a social justice lens involves public acts that energize others to work toward collaborative multicultural competencies. Social justice advocates cannot simply do, they must lead. When leadership, social justice and advocacy are joined the outcome is riveting. 

Our day-to-day work should be driven by an explicit emphasis on social justice activities and advocacy. School counselor leaders should be ever-vigilant to produce equity in educational outcomes across all student groups. For example, challenging and eliminating policies and practices that negatively affect students or parents who might be marginalized due to race, gender, ethnicity or sexual orientation promotes transformative change. 
  • Do you ask for help when needed to advocate on behalf of students and parents?
  • When you recognize an inequity, how do you respond?
  • Do you challenge status quo to advocate for all students? 
The complexity and uncertainty of today’s society should not prevent students from creating goals and fulfilling their dreams. The primary role of a school counselor leader is simple: Help students reach their maximum potential. If you are doing, aim to lead instead.

Anita Young, Ph.D., is an associate professor at Johns Hopkins University. She can be reached at aayoung@jhu.edu.