Why Students Dislike Their School Counselors...Explained By a School Counselor!

It is a rainy afternoon so I decided to sit at my desk and share a post with my fellow counselors. I often try to wait for an inspiration of something positive and uplifting, but today is not that kind of a day.  In fact, my post is going to reflect the weather outside my window...ominous. So, I am going to start out pretty disheartening, but I think if you can hang in there it will end on a palatable note.

This post reflects my soul today...forgive me!
I decided to write this difficult post based on my interaction with some pretty burned out school counselors within the last couple of months. Our interactions really had me thinking that counselor burn out is an issue that needs to be discussed within our profession.  In our wonderful social media groups and blogs, we often share the ups and downs of our experiences (which is awesome by the way).  It is really helpful to have a network of colleagues who support, uplift, and guide you when you are having a bad counselor day.  The people who usually participate in these groups are looking for insight, encouragement, and direction for their profession.  I have been a recipient of this support and I appreciate all the school counselors who have encouraged me over my career.  So, saying this, this post is NOT ABOUT YOU!  I wanted to get that message out so no one feels that they are being targeted in my writing today.  This post is about those colleagues (who probably don't read blogs anyway) who are not so supportive of others, don't care to receive feedback (or can't take feedback), and stay enmeshed in their own narrow minded world.  This post addresses the school counselor who has the bad reputation in a school.  This person is known as rude, snide, critical, and seems uncaring (okay, you get the picture). So, this may not be you,  but you may work with a person who falls in this category.  Now that I made that clear, let's proceed to my point!

Okay, so not everyone likes us...I get it.  I am not liked by everyone, but my goal is to be consistent, reliable, and on top of my game as I can humanly be.  If I make a mistake (which happens despite my best efforts), I also try to make it right as I can.  However, I found that this is not the case for all counselors.  Case in point (and the reason for this very post), a colleague shared a letter from a student who was looking for some true "guidance" from any counselor at his school.  The student went to three different counselors and felt disregarded by each of them.  He wrote an impassioned letter to a teacher, who he felt really listened, and said to her, "why can't you be my counselor? You helped me more in 10 minutes then my counselor has helped me in three years.  Why doesn't the counselors at this school like me?"  My heart broke when I read his letter and the teacher said to me that he was so disheartened by the treatment he experienced that he refused to go back to them.  Unfortunately, this seems to be systemic in this one particular school and the mode of operation for that department.  The counselors in that school have a bad reputation for being uncaring, unhelpful, and students often ask..."what do those counselors do all day?" In fact, many students will recall their bad high school counselor as adults before they will remember that bad History teacher.  Money Watch Magazine said it best..."students reserved their scorn for their high school counselors -- not teachers."

Why Students Dislike their Counselor?

When polled by students, here are the top answers of why most students do not like their counselor (Source: Lynn O'Shanghnessy):

1. The counselor did a fair or poor job in helping them prepare for a post-secondary option.
2. The counselor never got back to them after they put in for an appointment.
3. The counselor never really listened to their concerns.
4. The counselor failed to show empathetic regard.
5. The counselor simply was too busy to talk to them (i.e. testing, meetings, etc).
6. The counselor lacked knowledge about the subject and failed to direct them to where to find an answer.

Why Some School Counselors are...well, BAD?

I think that the majority of school counselors start out as caring professionals who want to help kids.  However, for some school counselors (remember, not you), something happens to change them from caring to passive, unreliable, and even callous.  Typically, school counselors who acquire the bad reputations are those who have been impacted by vicarious trauma themselves.  In fact, the act of caring to the point that you are drained of empathy is a real problem for people in our profession.  This draining of empathy often occurs after school counselors spend a lot of energy caring for others over a long period of time.  Researchers have coined this type of burnout as compassion fatigue or secondary PTSD

How do you know when you or a colleague is experiencing burnout or compassion fatigue? When looking at burnout in school counselors, Michael Nobles found there are four distinct stages:

Stage 1
Are you or your colleagues always available to families or students?  Also, do you or your colleagues tend to over-identify with students? For instance, a school counselor may fail to eat lunch, miss family events, or begin to think about students constantly (even in their dreams). 
Stage 2
Are you or a your colleagues realizing that you are working way too much and making the decision to reduce the time on your job?  After this reduction in commitment,  have you started to feel discontented or stagnate in your job?
Stage 3
Have you or a colleague felt frustrated with your job, become less tolerant of others, or failed to sympathize with your students. Have you started to avoid students or withdrawn emotionally or physically from work?
Stage 4
Finally, have you or a colleague become listless and apathetic? Have you found yourself sitting in the office all day, failing to see students on a regular basis, and even starting to miss work?

When burnout is allowed to continue without self care or help, it can have negative implications on students, colleagues, and our personal lives.  Some of the immediate dangers include: little interest in work, impaired relationships with your colleagues and students, and even physical and emotional withdrawal from work (i.e. missing copious days of work or hanging out all day in your office at the computer).  

Tips for Becoming a Efficient, but Caring School Counselor

One of my favorite television characters was Ziva David from NCIS.  She was tough, but showed great care and concern for those she was sworn to protect.  Maybe her character was based on the concept of the Israeli school counselor who is considered to be an expert problem solver.  In fact, these school counselors have adopted a quarterback concept which means that they are very effective in their role.  According to Edutopia, their roles are clear..."promote a positive school climate, encourage strong relationships with multiple faculty and staff members, assist parents in providing proper guidance and support for their children, arrange and support programs to build students' social-emotional competencies and sound character, bring in community and Internet resources around career and academic planning, and to provide direct services where possible or arrange for them from elsewhere when necessary." Although we have standards set by ASCA, not all school counselors may not understand or even want to ascribe to the ASCA standards.  Therefore, here are some tips you can employ or suggest to your colleagues to become an efficient and caring counselor in your school. 

1.  Advocate for all students, not just for the few who are going to college.  
2.  Increase communication with outside agencies to bring resources and assistance to all students.
3.  Stay informed about changes in policies on the national, state, and local level.  That means you may need to go to conferences, workshops, and attend staff development opportunities.
4.  Be visible which means you need to get out of your office.  Go to classrooms, stand in the hall, eat in the lunchroom, attend or sponsor an after school club.
5.  Answer all your emails and appointments within 48 hours. Jeff Ream, the Counseling Geek, suggests setting aside 15-30 minutes a day to answer and go through emails.
6.  Take students seriously when they make threats...especially suicidal threats.  Don't be like the counselor from "13 Reasons Why" who has become the poster child of a bad school counselor!!
7.  Exercise self care!  This is a school counselor ethical standard that is often neglected!!

I hope that this post was taken in true true spirit in which it was written...not to put down counselors, but to recognize bad behaviors that can put a negative light on our profession.  I recognize that school counseling is not all roses and sunshine and there will be truly overwhelming and negative experiences; however, recognizing the signs of burnout is imperative! Although it is difficult to change others, you can recognize and encourage others to renew their passion that they once felt as a new school counselor.  In addition, here are some additional resources that may help or can be shared with your fellow colleagues.  

What can you do now to prevent burnout?  Take the summer to renew, refresh, and revive yourself so that you can support our most precious resources, our students!!

Additional Resources

3 Habits of Effective (Yet Caring) School Counselors by the Counseling Geek

Importance of Practicing Self Care by Confident School Counselors

Archives from the For High School Counselor Blog

How to Fix a Broken School Counselor

Tips for Avoiding School Counseling Nightmares

What To Do When You are Last On the List

End of Year Tips for the Overworked School Counselor