According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, as of 2014, there were roughly 273,400 school counselors working in public and private schools across the U.S.
If you were to ask most of them their opinion, they’d probably tell you that there aren’t nearly enough of them. With more than 50 million K-12 students in public schools alone, you’d have to agree that they kind of have a point.
But it’s always been this way. School counselors have miles of ground to cover, hundreds of students to reach, and only so many hours in a day. We celebrate this Herculean effort in the first week of every February with National School Counseling Week, an occasion that we mark by paying tribute to all academic advisors, past and present.
And in that spirit, we’re spotlighting the experience of two counseling professionals, one who works in the field today and another who worked as a school counselor for 33 years before retiring. We wanted to get a bit of insight into the life of a school counselor, both now and then.
We found that while some things have changed, the fundamental nature of the job is very much the same as it has always been.
Carol Mogdis has 18 years of experience as a professional educator and has worked as a school counselor for the Mona Shores Middle School in Norton Shores, Michigan since 2009. Carol has worked exclusively with Millennials, a generation raised on social media, screen time, and a 24/7 news cycle.
By contrast, Allan Care began his career as a counselor in 1965, when socializing was still done almost entirely in person, when screen time was limited to the one television in most family households, and when the three broadcast networks that existed actually went off the air after the late shows. Care worked primarily with high school students across more than three decades in the Upper Moreland School District of Pennsylvania. He retired in 1997, which means that most of the students Carol Mogdis has advised were not even born during Allan Care’s tenure.
And yet, in our interviews, we learned that students haven’t changed quite as much as you might think, at least not from the perspective of those who advise them.
A Village of One…
They say it takes a village to raise a child. If that’s true, the school counselor is probably one of the busiest people in your village. Both in Allan’s era and in Carol’s, the scarcest commodity seems to be time.
When asked what, if anything, Carol would change about her profession, she explained, “That is easy to answer. I would have a higher ratio of counselors to students. I would also like to see more counselors at the elementary school level.”
Allan separately echoed this sentiment, indicating that schools “need more counselors to be more available and to deal with kids more quickly” and that each counselor should have “a lighter caseload so as to devote more time to each student.”
To listen as each of them describes an average week in the life of a school counselor, it’s easy to see why they feel this way. Allan indicated that during his tenure, it was incumbent upon him to meet daily with students and teachers; to meet regularly with social workers, college counselors, admissions staff, and parents; to manage achievement, career, state, and college boards testing; to assist students and teachers with scheduling; to advise on course selection; and to provide written reports on these activities to the superintendent.
Today, exactly 20 years since Allan’s retirement, Carol describes a very similar experience, noting that “an average week doesn’t exist but I regularly meet with students one-to-one and utilize short-term, solution-focused counseling. My week would also typically include an IEP meeting, meetings with parents, collaborating with teachers, administrators and parents about students. Counselors do scheduling, facilitate small groups and go into the classrooms to do lessons on career exploration and character education. Counselors are involved in transitions (elementary to middle school and middle school to high school) and academic award assemblies. There are often after school activities and clubs to attend. School counselors are on various committees. On a weekly basis, counselors attend to the academic, social and career needs of students.”
Allan explained that, in his experience, it was particularly difficult to effectively allocate his time to provide meaningful assistance to all the students in his caseload. He recalled being assigned roughly 500 students across 4 grades. This left him with precious little time “to spend connecting with colleges and admissions offices” and, of course, “little time available for breaks.”
Ironically, said Allan, one of the most common misconceptions that school counselors face is the fact that “a lot of people think that you don’t do anything.”
Students: The Next Generation
While some of the real-world challenges that students face have changed, the role that the school counselor plays never does. In addition to the academic duties, it has always been the job of the school counselor to serve as a confidante and a voice of compassion when students face personal challenges.
Indeed, Carol notes that, among the biggest challenges a school counselor will face are the difficulties of “working toward motivating the unmotivated” and working with students that have high anxiety.” Add to this the challenge of “working with parents that have various parenting styles,” and one can see just how emotionally-demanding the work of counseling can be.
Allan’s experiences were similar. He observes that, “kids got more sophisticated over the years, but they were still kids, all looking to find themselves.” He also noted that, despite his lengthy career, he observed “no difference in drug use or single-parent homes from when [I] started and when [I] retired.”
Of course, none of this is to suggest that nothing has changed. To the contrary, Allan said that it does seem, today, that “everyone is busier” and that “kids today are less organized and have worse study skills.” He also noted that “not every kid was pushed into college” when he started his career.
These changes in the youth culture may well serve as some explanation for why student anxiety is among the biggest challenges that counselors like Carol face every day. That’s not all that’s changed, though. Allan observes that “kids today more socially connected.”
Indeed, this accounts for what is perhaps the most dramatic change in the role of the school counselor. Carol notes that “social media has changed the role of the counselor. Students are influenced by what others say about them on social media. It can effect how students feel about themselves. It is important for counselors to teach resilience.”
In spite of these broader cultural changes, the relationship between student and counselor remains as it always was, a bulwark against the feeling that students are in it alone in their struggles.
Navigating the Challenges
Even if the relationship between counselor and student hasn’t changed much over the years, it is anything but predictable. Allan concludes that “you do a lot of the same work, but no two days are alike.”
Carol confirmed this experience, observing that “Flexibility is important because no day will be exactly the same.”
The best way to navigate this kind of unpredictability, says Carol, is to remember that “each child is unique and comes from a unique family history,” that “it is important be non-judgmental,” that that one must “Always be authentic.”
To celebrate National School Counseling Week, Feb. 6–10, 2017, nominate a great school counselor you know for the $20,000 Escalante–Gradillas Prize for Best in Education!