I still remember walking into a large high school auditorium for my first faculty meeting with the entire district. I felt like a small fish in the big ocean as a new faculty member. I was excited and nervous, and I had already been working in the summer to meet parents and students, answering questions about schedules and registering new students. I was excited to transition to a role to assist students and families. Previously, I was director of admissions at a local college.
Counseling Then and Now
The counseling center team I joined was friendly and very supportive. I hit the ground running and sent a personal introduction letter to families. At that time, the main role of the school counselor in our district included academic advisement; personal, career, and college counseling; and collaboration.
Fast-forward to 2022, during a pandemic, and things are very different. Student and family needs have changed dramatically over the years. We’ve become virtual counseling experts and use technology every day to manage our caseloads and communicate with everyone. As the role of the counselor continues to change, it’s important to be aware of trends, resources, and best practices to assist students and families. Self-care is also important. I’ve changed my priorities to have better work boundaries, exercise, and maintain a healthy lifestyle.
How to Manage Communication With Students and Parents
Be diligent about email and phone calls. Although it’s challenging, I usually return calls and answer emails within 24 hours. If this isn’t possible, let parents and students know when they can expect to hear from you. Email filters and labels can help you quickly identify and prioritize messages. You’re frequently the first person that parents contact, and it’s important to keep track of your communications. Find someone at your school who is a tech guru, or you can watch helpful videos about Google on YouTube.
Your priority during the day is always meeting and assisting students. I use free resources, including SignUpGenius, to schedule meetings with juniors, and Remind and Google Chat are also great ways to communicate with students. I also started using Google Voice to text students and parents without using my personal cell number.
Counselor attention to detail with students is key. According to Tyler Anderson, a second-year counselor at my school, “Make it a priority to identify at least one unique fact, interest, or hobby for each student on your caseload. Create a system for organizing brief notes about your students to provide additional context and conversation starters for future meetings. This shows students that you are invested in them and will strengthen your relationship. Spend time reviewing yearbook pictures, and quiz yourself to ensure you can recognize and acknowledge each student by name when you pass them in the hall.”
Ask lots of questions. There’s no such thing as a silly question. Questions like “How do you write recommendations? What should I be doing right now, and what are the priorities? How do you effectively manage your caseload?” will help you get insight into how to be a successful counselor.
Participate in Professional Development to Grow and Share Knowledge
Continuous professional development and adaptation is important for counselors because our role is constantly changing. In my career, I pursued additional education, including graduate courses, webinars, and training in diversity, mental health, trauma, college counseling, and career exploration. There are many free webinars sponsored by professional organizations like the American School Counselor Association and the National Association for College Admission Counseling.
You can also join counselor Facebook groups. My favorites are ACCEPT, High School Counselors’ Network, New York State Association for College Admission Counseling, and College Admissions Corner. The American Counseling Association and the College Essay Guy are comprehensive websites that provide many free resources for counselors.
Get a Mentor and Build a Network
I’ve served as a mentor for several new counselors over the years. Even if there isn’t a formal mentor program at your school, find someone you respect and ask them to mentor you. During my earlier years, I stopped by our principal’s office each week to sit and chat with him after school. My weekly goals included meeting with my colleagues to ask questions. Their feedback helped me know what to expect on the job, and I also created a monthly timeline of my responsibilities and added important items to my calendar.
By joining our local counseling association, Capital District Counseling Association, I was able to meet other counselors from colleges and high schools in the area. We shared ideas and supported each other. When you’re ready, you can submit a proposal to present at a conference to share your expertise. You could partner with a veteran counselor or moderate a session after your first year. I started presenting at conferences to share my expertise after three years.
Cultivate Relationships for Career Building and Student Support
One of my strengths is the ability to create meaningful relationships with people in our community. These essential connections have provided me with important knowledge to help me become a better counselor and help my students.
During my first year, our superintendent sent me to a conference at Harvard University for aspiring doctoral students. This was the first time I had considered returning to school for another degree. While working on my EdD, I was invited to attend meetings with district leaders to learn about the district K–12, listen, and observe.
I’ve continued to meet with district leaders on a regular basis. I visit their offices to ask questions and learn more about the curriculum. Our district science supervisor has helped many of my students obtain summer internships and participate in research opportunities because I emailed her to ask questions and refer my students. She came to my office to meet personally with a few students to discuss the best options for course selection.
Visibility is also important for counselors in terms of building relationships. Get out in the hallways between classes when you can. As a new counselor, set a goal to meet a few people each week. Each day, I try to personally connect with a few teachers face-to-face instead of emailing them—many people appreciate the effort. This isn’t always possible, so I try to connect with faculty to update them as I’m able to.
What would I say to my younger self while sitting in that auditorium during my first year? “Give yourself a break!” Don’t stay too late. There were many nights when I stayed until 5 or 6 o’clock. The bottom line is that it all gets done. Your mental health is most important. Take a lunch break each day, and set boundaries to make your work more manageable. Mistakes are OK—just do your best. Surround yourself with positive people who will lift you up when you need a pep talk.