One of the hardest things I do as a teacher is lead an advisory group of a dozen sophomores. Until they graduate, this same group of students and I will meet to talk about issues as far ranging as how to sign up for classes to what to do about bullying.
Dividing our student body this way into small groups and using lesson plans devised by our counselors, the other teachers and I try to expand the reach of our guidance department. It’s not a comfortable fit for me. I enjoy my students and know they value these small groups, but without the direction from our real counselors, I would flounder.
Both Wake County and Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools have asked for more guidance counselors and social workers for next year. That’s a smart investment in students. At my high school, in addition to planning for our monthly advisory groups, our guidance counselors meet with parents and students each year to assess their academic progress and plan for the future. They lead workshops on how to fill out the FAFSA and apply for scholarships. They give students career counseling and offer practice on interviewing for jobs.
Our guidance counselors are instrumental in setting up IEP meetings with our special needs students to make sure that they are making progress toward their goals.
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They meet with rising freshmen and organize a beginning of the year orientation. When our seniors walk across the stage at graduation, our guidance counselors hand them their diploma.
And in between, they counsel troubled students, lead grief therapy groups, function as liaisons between students and teachers, talk to students about anger management and stress, get to know their situations at home, look out for their health and well-being, and offer empathy and strategies for dealing with life as a teenager.
Until budget cuts forced a staff reduction, Sue Hilton was the head of the guidance department at my high school. Often the first person new students met when they enrolled, she was a tireless advocate for our students. The staff she left behind does a terrific job – but they have to do more for students whose needs aren’t any less.
Sue reminded me that poverty makes guidance counselors and social workers even more important in the lives of children. Social workers, in particular, are able to do home visits, helping struggling families find resources for housing, food, school supplies, and health services.
A guidance counselor colleague of ours who went to work at a more affluent district summed up the difference this way: “I used to see students all day who were in crisis, who didn’t know where they were going to sleep that night or whether or not they would have anything to eat. At my new school, my time is spent talking to parents mad that their kid made a B in an honors class.”
Counselors in elementary schools are even more critical, though many elementary schools have only one counselor serving the entire student population.
“Elementary counselors spend the majority of their time in classrooms doing sessions on topics ranging from getting along with others, how to share and be empathetic, and more,” Sue said. “The goal of all of this is, of course, to make sure students have a successful school experience.”
Give schools the guidance counselors, social workers, and psychologists they need. Teachers will be better teachers and students will be better learners.
McSpadden teaches high school English in York, S.C. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org