By Carli Segal, M.Phil.Ed., M.S.Ed.
“You’re a school counselor? So what do you do, exactly?”
I get asked this question a lot, and there is not an easy answer because in any school environment, we school counselors wear many hats. Therefore, our role has been notoriously difficult to define. Elementary school counselors often function as teachers of classroom-based counseling lessons, facilitators of small group counseling, collaborators on IEP, 504, SAP and other such teams, crisis managers, and liaisons between families and community services, among other roles. Secondary school counselors often serve as career and college planners, individual and small group counselors, testing coordinators, crisis interventionists, and more. We aim to follow the ASCA National Standards, and realistically, that may look very different depending upon setting. For example, a school counselor working in an urban, emotional support program may spend the majority of his or her day focusing on crisis management, where a school counselor in an affluent suburban public school may spend most of his or her time on proactive, classroom counseling.
Though our job descriptions may vary slightly from school to school, the one thing we have in common is that we are, first and foremost, responsible for improving school climate. “Responsible for improving school climate” is not likely listed in our job descriptions, but in my opinion, that is the ultimate goal-- to make sure every student experiences school as a safe, warm, and encouraging environment. Though each student may perceive school climate differently, it is our duty to intervene at the individual, small group, classroom, or school-wide level to remove any social, emotional, and behavioral barriers to learning. Not only are we responsible for improving the school climate, it is our duty to measure and assess school climate. This is why I view my primary role as a school counselor as the “School Climate Meteorologist”.
Historically, principals and teachers have been thought of as being responsible for improving school climate. American School Counselor Association standards have, in recent years, shifted from a reactive “guidance counselor” model to a more proactive “school counselor” focus. Now, with a unique wide lens to the entire school, school counselors are fortunate to have the ability to see the “big picture” and can impact school climate in a big way. School counselors can organize and facilitate school-wide programming that can make the school environment feel safer, such as bully prevention programs, character education assemblies, and school-wide positive behavior support programming. School counselors can also “zoom in” their lenses to focus on counseling individual or small groups of students who may make school climate feel less positive for others. This does not mean that principals and teachers ought to pass the school climate torch to school counselors, it means that school counselors need to, at the very least, be included in the school climate conversations. School climates are best improved when there is a collaborative effort from all stakeholders.
PROACTIVE & REACTIVE SCHOOL CLIMATE COUNSELING
As meteorologists attempt to proactively predict weather based on patterns and analyze data to best prepare people for what’s to come, school counselors aim to anticipate challenging times and provide students with the tools they need to “weather the storms”. One personal example is that based on data from teachers, I anticipated an upcoming standardized testing month to be particularly stressful for students. In preparation for this, I launched a small counseling group for students who suffer from test anxiety. I also co-facilitated a Testing Motivation Team to attempt to keep the climate positive as possible during a strenuous time.
Additional proactive school climate improvement activities that can be run by school counselors include mentor programs, events like Teaching Tolerance’s “Mix it Up at Lunch Day”, and wellness activities for students and staff.
School counselors try to be proactive, but oftentimes we must react to surprising school climate disruptions. As an unexpected rainstorm can disrupt an umbrella-less commuter’s walk, a sudden student-related tragedy can alter the entire school climate, bringing a sudden feeling of fear or sadness over the school community. Schools must be prepared for those school climate-threatening situations in which we must intervene, and school counselors can help. Allow us to develop school crisis plans, connect with families during difficult times, and most importantly—be there for the students who need an empathetic ear and safe place to relax while they process their emotions.
DATA DRIVEN SCHOOL CLIMATE IMPROVEMENT
There are many formal and informal methods to measure school climate, and school counselors are trained researchers. We may use pre/post surveys to gather data, assemble focus groups (comprised of staff and students), or conduct exit interviews at the end of each term or school year. If our school’s positive behavior support program is well documented, behavior slips can indicate positivity of school climate. School counselors can also acquire school climate data by attending grade level meetings, reaching out to parents for feedback, and consistently collaborating with all faculty and staff.
I am proud to be a school counselor, as it allows me to be many things: a teacher, researcher, supporter, motivator, advocate, liaison, and sometimes, a lifeline. This is why it is sometimes difficult to respond when someone asks, “Oh, you’re a school counselor? So what do you do, exactly?” All of our school counseling roles serve to improve school climate to some degree. I am happy to coin “school climate meteorologist” as an umbrella term (no pun intended) to describe our seemingly countless duties, and I will wear the title with pride.
Carli Segal, M.Phil.Ed. & M.S.Ed., is an elementary school counselor and school climate meteorologist of an inner-suburban public school of Philadelphia. She is the founder of Twitter’s Elementary School Counselor Chat (#escchat) and co-founder of School Based Mental Health Chat (#sbmhchat). Follow her @carlicounsels and join the conversations! Carli can also be reached via email at email@example.com.