After 11 years as a principal in three very different schools, I’m hard-pressed to consider any working relationship more important than that of a principal and school counselor.
Luckily I’ve had three dynamic counselors with whom I’ve worked, all with very different skill sets, but each equally as effective. I learned early on in my career how critical is the role that a school counselor plays in cultivating a positive school culture and assisting me in meeting lofty goals for student achievement and well-being.
A school counselor’s job is multifaceted. One minute they could be meeting with a classroom community teaching an important lesson on problem-solving, and the next, tending to a crisis that will take hours to stabilize.
They work with our most vulnerable populations in schools and support teachers when they feel overwhelmed and helpless. School counselors calm anxious parents and work with small groups of students in social groups. Without school counselors, many of our students might fall short of reaching their true potential.
Each of the school counselors I’ve worked with has taught me to be a better principal, communicator, and parent, and I consider myself lucky to have had them by my side. Reflecting on my relationship with each of them, I can clearly see where actions I’ve taken as a principal have supported the growth of our relationship, as well as mistakes I’ve made that could have jeopardized our work together.
As we look toward the start of the new school year, now is a great time for principals and school counselors to evaluate their working relationships and set the stage for a successful year ahead.
3 Ways to Improve Principal-Counselor Relations
1. Clearly define roles, responsibilities, and expectations. Given the pace, breadth, and complexity of our jobs, it could be very easy for a principal and school counselor to step on each other’s toes.
I’ve heard from my school counselors in the past that not a day goes by when they don’t have to solve a problem or make a split-second decision that could have major ramifications for a member or members of our school community. Without clarity around roles, responsibilities, and expectations, making these decisions (or not) can be incredibly challenging.
In my transition into a new working relationship with a school counselor, it’s always been helpful to start out the year with a discussion about each other’s roles, responsibilities, and expectations. The American School Counselor Association offers a helpful template that can serve as an agenda for this annual meeting. This template walks both parties through discussions around student outcomes, goals, time allocation, and resources.
In addition, I recommend having conversations about responsibility of student discipline and how each of you will approach conflicts between students—basically, who sees whom when?
Starting out the year with this conversation will hopefully resolve any ambiguity and set the stage for working toward a common set of goals.
2. Build mutual trust. For any relationship to be successful, both parties must be able to fully trust one another, and this is no different when considering the relationship between a principal and school counselor. Both hold a great deal of confidential information about students, staff, and families and often need to consult one another when confronted with a complex case.
Should one or the other not be available, each needs to trust the other to make a decision in line with their values and vision for the school. A principal and school counselor should be able to speak with members of the school community with one voice.
To build trust, I recommend listening, soliciting feedback, and showing appreciation. Each of these is critical to any relationship and cannot be forgotten when a principal and school counselor work with one another.
Listening to one another is important—when you’re listened to, you feel valued and know your words matter.
As principal, I’ve always solicited feedback from my school counselor. It wouldn’t be uncommon for me to ask, “How could I have communicated that better to the parent?” or “What could I have done differently to support that student?” Asking for feedback from my school counselor has allowed me to grow both as a communicator and leader.
Finally, showing appreciation can make the other feel valued. Neither job is easy, and many days you can walk away from work feeling deflated; however, knowing that you and your work are appreciated makes it easier to wake up the next day and tackle the problems that lie ahead.
3. Establish regular communication cycles. It isn’t enough to rely on happenstance. Both a principal’s and a school counselor’s days can be very busy, and I’ve learned that regular, ongoing communication will ensure that trust continues to develop. These meetings also ensure that both parties are meeting expectations.
Consider a weekly or biweekly meeting with standing agenda items that include:
- Identifying or providing updates on students or teachers in need. You’ve each inevitably worked with students or teachers who’ve needed help, and it’s important for one another to know where things stand and what next steps might be. Have a group of students resolved their issues on the playground? Does the teacher have what they need to support a student’s challenges? Is there anyone in the community who is struggling right now?
- Data review (attendance, behavioral referrals, etc.) and action planning. This information tells a story, and it’s important for a principal and school counselor to review timely and relevant data to understand which students or teachers might need some extra support.
- Feedback. Ask one another what stands out about each other’s work since the last time you met and if there is anything you could have done differently.
Between faculty meetings, professional development, new family visits, and scheduling, now is the time to lay the foundation for an effective and collaborative relationship. Whether it’s a new principal-counselor relationship or one that has been in existence for years, these tips should put you on the right track for a successful year.