Saturday / June 22

What I Learned from Being a School Counselor

I was an elementary school counselor in a large metropolitan area. Being the only school counselor for over 800 racially and economically diverse students was both challenging and invigorating.

What did I learn from my years as a school counselor? I learned many things during those years…from how to implement a school-wide counseling program to getting buy-in from the most untrusting parents. Most importantly, I learned that school counselors are strategically situated in schools to empower and uplift students. But to do this, school counselors MUST wholeheartedly embrace the role of being equity strategists and “non-status-quo” keepers.

Being a school counselor can be complicated. They are typically well-meaning people who genuinely want to help students, and they like to be perceived by their colleagues as team players. Yet, to genuinely help all students, counselors must often challenge the very practices and systems that their colleagues want to maintain. Dismantling practices and policies that perpetuate racialized outcomes is sometimes viewed by school counselors as a non-starter. Herein lies the challenge— to act even when it’s uncomfortable and unpopular. “Good and necessary trouble,” as Congressman and civil rights activist John Lewis described, is not comfortable trouble.

It was during my time as a school counselor that I learned to be comfortable with discomfort and I embraced the role of justice and equity strategist. I began exploring issues of equity vs. equality and the unevenness of students’ experiences and opportunities based on race, income, culture, and language. I observed Black and Brown students denied access to gifted programs and constantly be criminalized via unfair discipline policies that directly and disproportionately impacted them. At the same time, I observed white students told that they were smart and beautiful and I saw them granted access to opportunities for success. These observations propelled me into action!

I graduated from a traditional counselor education program in which issues of racism and other forms of oppression were not discussed in a way that applied to daily school routines and practices. In a sense, I had to begin my education all over again. If I wanted students to truly succeed, I had to fully understand the impact of oppression and injustice on students’ lives. I began by reading everything I could related to education justice (e.g., Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Death at an Early Age). And I had to do the difficult work of admitting my own racial and cultural biases.  I was blown away.

Ultimately, I’ve learned that the true brokers of change in schools are school counselors!  Nevertheless, it’s not an easy and comfortable process. But comfort with discomfort can be the key to building harmonious, equitable, inclusive, antiracist, and justice-focused schools, where students have opportunities for success. In addition to maintaining a justice mindset, school counselors must focus on the following 6 key functions:

  1. Counseling: Build trusting relationships with students that empower them to succeed.  Strengths-based counseling and racial healing are examples of antiracist counseling strategies.
  2. Consultation: Work with teachers, parents, and other educators to alter faulty thoughts, assumptions, and oppressive ideas about students and their backgrounds.
  3. Connecting Schools and Communities: Increase community and family involvement and engagement in schools. Ensure that all communities are involved!
  4. Collecting and Using Data: Collect and use data to uncover opportunity gaps, and use data to determine if strategies work. Don’t use data to exclude students!
  5. Challenging Racism and Bias: Challenge and disrupt oppressive practices, structures, and policies (e.g., gifted and talented identification policies, behavior/discipline policies, special education policies)
  6. Coordinating Student Success and Support: Create a school culture that supports students and provides services to enhance all students’ success, not just those who are deemed “worthy.”

For me, being a school counselor uncovered and enlightened my understanding of the many social ills of our society. At the same time, I became steadfast in my belief that school counselors are in a position of power. They work with students, teachers, parents, community members, and school leaders. They see it all! But it’s their resolve to intentionally disrupt failed systems that make them true players in schools.

Written by

Dr. Cheryl Holcomb-McCoy believes in the revolutionary power of school counseling. An American Counseling Association (ACA) Fellow with 30 years of experience as a former kindergarten teacher, elementary school counselor, family therapist, and most recently university professor and administrator, she has a wealth of knowledge, expertise, and wisdom. Dr. Holcomb-McCoy is currently the Dean of the School of Education and a professor at American University (AU). She is also the author of the best-selling book School Counseling to Close the Achievement Gap: A Social Justice Framework for Success and her most recent book, School Counseling to Close Opportunity Gaps.

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