Most of us have memories of a high school counselor -- and for most of us those memories are good ones. Especially in a large school -- as so many are these days -- the counselor may serve as an important, indeed vital, safety net for students who do not see a clear path through this challenging period of life. School counselors help students adjust to the pressures of school and the many stresses of family life, validating the experiences of students while also helping them to adjust to the requirements of growing up and the expectations of the adults in their lives, from parents to teachers to employers. In an era in which many students have few responsible adults to turn to help them engage in the demanding, confusing, and sometimes dangerous process of growing up, school counselors are more important than ever.
High school is a period of increasing academic demands as students move into courses that are intellectually often much more demanding than what the students faced in middle school and as many students shift their attention to the college admission process. Students who had no difficulty succeeding in elementary school and middle school may suddenly find themselves struggling and unsure how to act or to whom to reach out to in this unexpected situation. For many high school students, the almost mythical task of growing up -- which had seemed to be something that existed always just ahead of them in time -- has suddenly become real. They may feel, in academic, emotional, and social terms, that time has run out on their childhood and they have no idea how to identify the right path to take into their own future.
Students who as younger children were highly popular may find themselves on the "wrong" side of high school cliques and high school social pressures to engage in sex. (Although for many students, the pressure to engage in different types of sexual acts will have already been present in middle school and even in the later years of elementary school.) Such demands can make it extremely difficult for students to focus on their academic tasks and so it may fall to the school counselor to help provide help to students so that they can minimize the disruptive effects of such social pressures so that they can focus more of their energy on their academic work (Lee, 2001, p. 164).
Additionally, depending on the school and the neighborhood from which it draws, the students may face a number of physical dangers from gang members (or "gang-affiliated students -- those on the verge of becoming active in gang activities). And, of course, high school students (like children of all ages) may face any number of serious problems at home, from the death of a parent to divorce, to addiction in the family to sexual, physical, or emotional abuse from parents. A high school counselor can help to mediate any of these problems as well as to link a student to other resources, from a 12-step group that helps the children of alcoholics or drug addicts to a social worker in a department of child protective services to a therapist (Lapan, Gysbers, & Kayson, 2007, p. 17). Although we might like to it to be otherwise, a school counselor is one of the adults responsible for keeping students safe -- something parents can no longer do entirely on their own.
The broad range of a school counselor's job is summarized below:
Professional school counselors are certified/licensed educators with a minimum of a master's degree in school counseling making them uniquely qualified to address all students' academic, personal/social and career development needs by designing, implementing, evaluating and enhancing a comprehensive school counseling program that promotes and enhances student success. (American school Counselor Association)
While the primary function of a high school counselor is meeting the needs of his or her clients -- the students of the school -- the counselor also meets some of the needs of the teachers and staff and administrative members. Often teachers will have questions about a student's behavior -- wondering whether it is a "normal" response to the pressures inherent in being an adolescent or if it is something sufficiently unusual or problematic to have the child be referred for a range of counseling.
A school counselor can help teachers begin to untangle the problems that a child is having and to assess whether such problems are more purely academic or have such a significant social or psychological element to them that academic counseling alone will not be sufficient to help keep a student on track (or get him or her back on track) and so must be coupled with other kinds of support (Stone & Dahir, 2006, p. 48).
Some of the ways in which school counselors can support other educators are described below:
Secondary school counselors are professional educators with a mental health perspective who understand and respond to the challenges presented by today's diverse student population. Secondary school counselors do not work in isolation; rather they are integral to the total educational program. They provide proactive leadership that engages all stakeholders in the delivery of programs and services to help the student achieve success in school. Professional school counselors align and work with the school's mission to support the academic achievement of all students as they prepare for the ever-changing world of the 21st century. This mission is accomplished through the design, development, implementation and evaluation of a comprehensive, developmental and systematic school-counseling program. (American school Counselor Association)
Professional educators -- including counselors, teachers, and administrators -- can feel all too isolated in the midst of the pressures of their jobs. Counselors can help bridge the gap amongst different professionals, reducing their stress and thus helping them better serve the students in their case while at the same time taking care of themselves better.
Ripple Effects from Counselor's Primary Role
In this role, the counselor can either administer a number of different evaluations or tests or refer students to other professionals who can provide tests. Such referrals might include a referral to a psychologist to test for a learning disorder, an optometrist to determine if a student is having problems because of an inability to see the board well (a surprisingly common problem) or to a psychiatrist to be screened and treated for mental disorders from depression to schizophrenia, which is often first manifested in adolescence.
Making such a diagnosis is not within the professional scope; however, the school counselor can still have an important role in helping students get the behavioral health help that they need by being attentive to the way in which students' class performance changes and looking at any dramatic changes in school performance (Schmidt, 2003, p. 92).
Such changes can be caused by any number of reasons -- sometimes very serious ones -- and the school counselor is on the front lines of helping students get help for the range of problems that students may face (Holcomb-McCoy, 2002, p. 19). Even problems that seem tangential to school performance can affect the way that a child learns and so come under the umbrella of the counselor's job -- at least to some extent.
In other words, a school counselor (and this is of course often true for teachers as well) will often find himself or herself filling duties and performing tasks that he or she never was formally trained to do. While this can be extremely stressful to the counselor, it is also a vital (and understandable) part of the job (Studer & Alton, 1996, p. 54). Often the only person that a student knows of that is there to provide help to him other is the school counselor. And, because of this, the counselor is the first person that a student in trouble will turn to. This requires -- but also allows -- the counselor to become something of a gatekeeper for the students in his or her care (Sandhu, 2000, p. 84).
Counseling and Standard-Based Educational Reform
Standards-based educational is highly controversial. Or, rather, it is not controversial in the sense that most people believe that standards for education are very important. (Indeed, it seems difficult to believe that very many people believe that there shouldn't be standards for teachers and students.) However, there is a great deal of controversy about how standards should be instituted and the ways in which school counselors can best support students and their fellow educators in working with a system that has in many ways been imposed from above and does not necessarily meet the needs of the particular school (Schellenberg, 2008, p. 119).
One very-well designed study surveyed the experiences and beliefs of counselors vis-a-vis the federal No Child Left Behind Act. The researchers found that while counselors support excellence in education, they are troubled in many ways by an over-emphasis on standards.