Sunday, May 17, 2015

Graduation Hell Week: Tips for High School Counselors

Sunday, May 17, 2015
 I hear the Navy Seals test their recruits for five and a half days in "physical endurance, mental toughness, pain, and cold tolerance, team work, attitude, and your ability to work under high physical and mental stress, and sleep deprivation".  (Navy Seals, Hell Week). Only 20% of recruits make it through this time, but those who make it realize they can accomplish 20 times more than they thought possible.  For those who make it through this week, it is a defining moment!  Those who are successful are not necessarily the strongest, the fastest, or the best; they are the ones who desire to become a SEAL!!  What is this week called -- Hell Week.

 High school counselors have a similar type of hell week where we work under high physical and mental stress.  Many of us lose sleep under the stress and discover that we must keep a good attitude even though we sometimes want to quit.  This week is known as graduation week!  During graduation week, situations occur that challenge our relationships with our colleagues, make us question our decisions, and strain our ties with parents and students. Next week is graduation week and I am not looking forward to some of the situations that me and my colleagues will face.
Navy Seal Hell Week resembles Graduation Week for School Counselors!
During my time as a high school counselor, I have had a lot of testing of my endurance during graduation week. However, I realize when I complete the week that I am a lot stronger and wiser the next year!  In this post, I would like to share five graduation week challenges that I have faced as a educator.  Reflecting back on these past scenarios, I realize they prepared me to withstand more than I thought I possibly could!!

The hassle comes before the tassel!
Graduation Hell Week Scenarios

Scenario 1: The Bathroom Stall Incident

As a first time senior teacher, I experienced the pressure that students and parents place on educators.  One of my students failed my class and made accusations that I had not input grades correctly.  When it was proven that the accusations were not true, the student became desperate. One afternoon after school, I was in the bathroom and I heard someone outside my stall. When I tried to open the door, the student had trapped me and told me that I could not come out until I changed the grade. After calming myself down, I decided to sneak out the bathroom by crawling under the stalls.



Lesson learned:  Because of my experience, I am very empathetic with teachers when parents and students try to bully teachers in changing grades. My advice as a school counselor is to not pressure teachers into changing grades. In the past, I worked with a colleague who often pressured teachers into changing a student's grade and it caused a lot of hard feelings and resentment.



Scenario 2: Avoiding the Victim Triangle

 During my second year as a high school counselor, one of my students was failing a required class for graduation.  The student and the parent begged me to advocate for the student; however, I knew that this was one of the toughest teachers who never budged an inch.  I told the student that I would talk to the teacher about the reality of passing the course, but I could not make any guarantees.  I communicated with the teacher and he was honest about the possibility of the student passing the course which all came down to the final.  The next day I met with the parent and student and I was honest about odds of passing. Because I am a "student advocate", I took on the responsibility of making sure the student prepared for the final.  Boy that was a mistake.  Although the student said he/she wanted to pass, it was a fight to get the student to follow through on his/her commitment.  When I called home to speak to the parent, I faced the frustration and stress of the parent. I am happy to report that the student passed the final and graduated, but there was a great lesson for me as well.

Lesson learned:  I decided that I cannot take on the responsibility of making sure that a student "passes" a course; however, I can be there to support and encourage the student. Getting involved as the rescuer can place a school counselor into a player in the Victim or Drama Triangle. The Drama Triangle is a concept developed by Steven Karpman  and defines our role in a situation.  In the above scenario, I put myself in the rescuer role as my I saw myself as helping the student against the villain, the teacher.  The student identified him/herself as the victim who was unable to help him/herself and needed assistance from an outside source (aka me).  Finding my way out of this cycle (which is often not easy) is to first identify that I have been caught up in the triangle by my desire to be a "fixer". It is easy for the players in the triangle to switch positions where the victim becomes the persecutor and the rescuer becomes the victim.  Once one realizes he or she is caught in this cycle, it is important to set up boundaries ahead of time and not to set yourself up as the rescuer.  Unfortunately, it has taken me a long to learn this lesson.   Since this situation, I have stayed true to my commitment and I often give this advice to my interns!

See my blog post regarding another graduation story about avoiding the drama triangle as a school counselor.

Don't Get Caught In the Drama Triangle!
Other resources about the Drama or Victim Triangle:

Drama Triangle Worksheets
Drama Triangle and Fairy Tales
Breaking the Drama Triangle

Scenario 3: You Can't Handle The Truth!!

As I am walking through the office, a lady is sitting in our waiting area shaking her leg nervously.  I asked her if she had been helped and she told me that she had not. As I asked her if I could help, she informed me that she was there to advocate for all the students in her community that could not graduate. She had come to the school to request that the school allow them to walk even though they had not met the requirements.  She continued telling me that the school was destroying the self esteem of these students by denying their families the opportunity to see them walk across the stage.  The
This is what I wanted to say!!!
community member went on to talk about specific students (don't fall in this trap of talking about other students) and their unfair treatment.  Before she could continue, I asked her to step in my office as she was drawing quite a crowd.  After entering my office,  I allowed her to vent.  After she was finished, I told her that I wanted to answer her question about why the students could not walk in the ceremony.  I educated her on the county policies regarding graduation, informed her that I was not the person who made the decision about graduation policies. and showed her my appreciation for her passion. I shared that I was willing to give her the name of those who made policy decisions so that she could continue her advocacy.  Remember, I don't want to get involved in the Drama Triangle nor do I want to get involved in a debate (I can't be Jack Nicholson!). So, it is important that I remind myself that my job is not to fix, but to be an agent of reality and to provide accurate information.

Lesson learned: Be empathetic and professional when listening to community members.  Let them know my role and be willing to provide them with resources or accurate information, even if it is unpopular. 

Scenario 4: Hung Out to Dry

One of the saddest parts of my job is to confirm that a student is not graduating. By the time May comes, the majority of my parents know that their student is in danger. Worse than confirming an informed family that their child is not graduating is to call to a family who has no idea that their child is in danger of not graduating.  When can this happen you ask? This can happen when a teacher fails to contact a parent or gives them false hope (remember our Drama Triangle???). Often, I realize that when I call the parent I quickly become the target of their anger and frustration.  Believe me, as a former teacher, I understand the hesitation in calling parents!  One of the best ways to avoid becoming a target in the Victim Triangle is to set guidelines with teachers about making parental contacts and establish your boundaries early (I can't say this enough!!).  I make it clear with teachers what my role is when it comes to contacting senior parents.

Don't let colleagues hang you out to dry!
Lesson learned: At the beginning of the year, I establish clear boundaries with teachers about making parental contacts.  Also, I make sure that I keep documentation when speaking to teachers and parents.  One of the ways I do this is by keeping a notebook with all my communication, phone calls, and emails about particular students. Also, establishing boundaries early can help maintain a good working relationship with my colleagues!

If He's In Danger of Failing, At Least Three People Need to Know It

Scenario 5: Beg For It!!

Falling victim to a begging parent is never a good idea.  I found that when a parent begins to beg it is easy to make promises to them about their student that you may not be able to keep. When you have an emotional parent in your office or on the phone it is very easy to get seduced into making promises or making pithy statements like "everything is going to be okay."

One of my students shut down his senior year and never recovered.  At the end, I made contact with the parent and told him/her that the student was not going to graduate.  Although the parent intuitively knew that the student could not graduate, invitations were sent out out, a cap and gown was purchased, and family members were told that the student made it.  Because the parent was embarrassed, he/she begged to make an exception for the student to walk.  When I relayed that this could not be done due to board policy, the parent came to the school with the student and begin to make accusations that the school was unfair.  It is easy for emotional parents to go from zero to sixty in a short time and so I was expecting the visit. At this point,  it was important for me to remain calm and not mirror the emotions of parents during our conversation.  Even though the parent stormed out of the room, he/she continued to send emails begging me to reconsider.
Don't let Parents Work You!!

Lesson learned: I must remember that I have to be empathetic when listening to upset parents and never provide false hope.  I try to remain professional, calm, and only state the facts. In addition, I ask a colleague to accompany me into the meeting as a witness and I keep administration informed of any situations that I feel may get out of hand.  For instance, when this parent came to see me I told the front office staff to stay on stand by just in case the situation got out of hand. Also, I document information shared with the parent and dates I met with the parent.

Carol A. Korizek-McKenzie provides a great tip sheet for school counselors to give parents with angry teens; however, many of these tips can be applied when working with angry parents.  Check out her tip sheet.

Other resources:

How to Handle Angry Parents, Education World
How Can You Deal With Angry Parents, NEA
One Stop Counseling Shop:Tips & Tricks-Dealing With Angry Parents

So, these are some of my scenarios that I wanted to share with you during my time as a educator.  I hope that you can use some of these techniques that I have learned the hard way.  Also, I would love to hear your experiences and lessons learned during graduation week!