Four Major Misconceptions about School Counseling
By: Sheldon Soper
Sheldon Soper is a New Jersey middle school teacher with over a decade of classroom experience teaching students to read, write, and problem-solve across multiple grade levels. He holds teaching certifications in English, Social Studies, and Elementary Education as well as Bachelor's and Master's degrees in the field of education. In addition to his teaching career, Sheldon is also a content writer for a variety of education, technology, and parenting websites. You can follow Sheldon on Twitter @SoperWritings and on his blog.
Four Major Misconceptions about School Counseling
It takes dedicated, knowledgeable, and passionate professionals to help students achieve academic success. Still, today’s students face a litany of challenges that reach far beyond academics.
Stakeholders like teachers, tutors, administrators, and parents all play key roles in helping students succeed. Often overlooked, the school counselor is actually one of the most vital yet underappreciated pieces in the support equation. Part of the reason for this oversight is that there are numerous misconceptions about what a school counselor actually does.
I spoke with two accomplished school counselors about these misconceptions in an effort to unpack the vital roles school counseling plays in fostering a positive and productive school community.
Our conversations provided eye-opening insights into just how much effort, passion, flexibility, and expertise go into being a school counselor.
Misconception 1: “Aren’t school counselors just guidance counselors?”
In recent years, there has been a deliberate shift away from using the term “guidance counselor” to describe counselors in schools. One of the main reasons for the evolution is that the guidance counselor archetype from decades past represents only a fraction of what modern school counseling encompasses. Gone are the days where a counselor’s role began and ended with college and career prep.
Hence, there is potential harm in failing to distance the profession and its efforts from the preconceptions tied to the antiquated title. Phyllis Fagell explains:
“I think some people think that school counselors are solely paper pushers or schedulers or involved in discipline. School counselors have master’s degrees and use data, creativity, and evidence-based practices to remove barriers to learning. Many of us are licensed mental health professionals as well[.]”
Some counselors, like Barbara Gruener, acknowledge the rationale for the shift, but find ways to repurpose the term as a reflection of the amazing work today’s school counselors actually do.
“I think a perception about school counseling might still be that we are guidance counselors just focused on college and careers like way back when. [...] I don’t mind the word guidance personally, because I like to think of myself as a guide through a child’s journey down Character Road, but I get the semantics behind the reframe, because we do so much more.”
For many, the term guidance counselor still carries with it overly simplified connotations of the position’s role in the educational landscape. By renaming the profession with a title reflective of its school-wide importance, the value of a counselor’s impact on the learning community is less likely to be overlooked.
Misconception 2: “School counselors stir up and validate student drama.”
Spend enough time in schools (or raising teenagers) and your head will spin with the amount of focus kids put on their peer relationships. With the advent of social media and smart phones, students now carry their social lives in their pockets everywhere they go.
One of the negative consequences of this evolution is that since there are now so many new platforms where students’ relationships with each other can play out, there are that many more opportunities for potential misunderstandings, conflicts, and even bullying.
School counseling plays a key role in helping students navigate the social and emotional challenges of a socially interconnected world. By offering students opportunities where they can speak freely with reasonable assurances of confidence, counselors give students the opportunity to have their thoughts and feelings heard by an unbiased third party.
However, the work doesn’t stop there. Counseling is not just a venue for students to gain adult validation for their social concerns. Gruener describes:
“School counselors are connectors. We help students connect to one another and to their friends. We help them build healthy relationships based on good character choices. We stretch and nourish those glorious virtues like empathy, compassion, and kindness so that they position themselves to be in the right place at the right time doing the right thing.”
Helping students foster these types of relationships can have positive implications for their academic success as well. Fagel attests, “[W]e know that a kid in crisis won’t perform well academically. We need to educate the whole child and teach soft skills such as conflict resolution”.
Effective school counseling does not perpetuate interpersonal student issues; it is instrumental in both solving and preventing them.
Misconception 3: “Only the troubled kids see the school counselor.”
The link between the term counseling and the field of mental health leads to a common misconception about a school counselor’s clientele.
School counselors do offer support and coping mechanisms to those in need. Gruener clarifies:
“We connect people to resources when the game of life throws them a curveball. Families fall apart, pets and/or people pass away, parents fall on hard times, things change ... Feelings get tender, raw, hurt, so we’re there to help [people] bounce forward into their new normal, to see that sometimes when it feels like we’re buried, we’re really just planted.”
Nevertheless, the services of the school counselor are not limited to those in times of emotional distress. As Gruener also articulates, “the perception that if you see the counselor you might be in trouble - or worse, troubled - couldn’t be farther from the truth.”
It is common for parents, teachers, and administrators to seek out a school counselor’s expert advice on any number of student-related issues. While the majority of conversations during counseling remain in confidence, the unique and unprejudiced perspectives of school counselors provide benefits to all members of the school community’s stakeholders.
Fagel recounts some of these types of experiences from her career:
“Over the years I’ve testified in court, made home visits, scheduled courses, guided parents through the special education process, helped facilitate communication between home and school, and taught kids everything from cyber-civility to mindfulness.”
School counselors like Fagel, Gruener, and others like them, possess a wide range of expertise and regularly are called upon to put it to use in service of a community much broader than just troubled students.
Misconception 4: “School counselors only do ‘X’.”
School counseling takes on numerous forms depending on the needs of a school and its population.
The reality is, today’s school counselors have to wear many hats. Unfortunately, as with countless professions, there is a tendency to try to oversimplify the job description in such a way that undercuts the versatility and diversity of their work.
As Fagell stresses, “There’s really no ‘typical’ for a school counselor.” She elaborates:
“School counselors attend to students’ academic performance and mental health, impart social-emotional skills and help them plan for the future. They work with kids individually, in groups, and in the classroom, but they also strategize with teachers and administrators, provide parent education and support, create programming and collaborate with outside professionals. Sometimes they need to function more like social workers, securing resources for families in crisis.”
For education veteran Gruener, she has filled similar roles working under the title of school counselor. Beyond counseling students, she has also tackled additional responsibilities ranging from the social media specialist to the service-learning coordinator. She monitors lunch duty and also serves as the mandated reporter of abuse or neglect.
These trained professionals, like many counselors in schools across the country, possess skills, training, and perspectives uniquely suited for optimizing student growth and aiding the key players in the process.
The counseling school counselors provide extends well beyond the classroom; counselors support the whole child, not just the part that exists within the school walls.
“We’re not the guidance counselors of past generations,” asserts Fagell. “That said, I think there’s a trend toward appreciating the critical role that counselors play in the school setting.”
"School counselors know that if we want to prepare kids for the future, we need to look beyond math or social studies. Students need to be resourceful, responsible, considerate and willing to take risks. […] Teachers know that creativity, collaboration and resilience matter as much as academics, but the problem is that those traits are harder to measure than grades and test scores.”
Therein lies the major complication in both defining school counseling and highlighting the importance of school counselors: while it is easy to point to data like rising math scores to demonstrate a math program’s effects, there are no standardized tests for things like socialization and emotional strength. Some of the most important work a school counselor carries out happens behind the scenes, in unquantifiable ways, often sealed in confidence. Other times, counseling extends beyond the counselor’s office and finds its way into the classroom or the community at large.
Because of that fact, it can be easy to give in to misconceptions and fail to both understand and celebrate the uniquely imperative roles school counselors fill within their greater school communities.