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Q&A: Elementary Principal Discusses Double Life as a Counselor

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At Driftwood Elementary School in Port Orford, Ore., Vivian Locke leads a double life as both principal and counselor for the 250 students who attend the school.

Although the rural district's decision to combine the school posts was made primarily for financial reasons, Ms. Locke, who is in her second year at Driftwood, says there are good philosophical reasons for the dual role as well.

The "counseling principal'' talked with Staff Writer Joanna Richardson about the school's unusual approach to guidance and administration.

Q.
Why did you decide to take on this job? Is it common for other schools in the state to combine school positions?

A.
This was something I had wanted to do for a very long time. I had been a teacher for 20 years and, along the way, I had gotten my counseling endorsement. Then I got very interested in staff development about 10 years ago and then moved toward administration.

When the job description came ... announcing this particular position that was half counselor and half administrator ... [it] was the perfect match for the kinds of things I wanted to do.

Historically, in Oregon, we do have lots of job combinations. Dual jobs are certainly common in rural places. Before I came, the superintendent was both superintendent and principal here [at Driftwood].

But this was particularly unique in that it was a counselor-principal position. I'm the first person to hold the job in this building.

I get a lot of questions from people when I tell them what I do. Most want to know how you make the balance between child advocate and disciplinarian.

But I've met a lot of people in Oregon in administrative programs, and I'm surprised at how many of them have counseling backgrounds and are moving into administrative positions. But they're not combining the positions as I am.

Q.
Do you find it difficult to strike a balance?

A.
Well, this ties in a lot with my general philosophy. I think ... there really is no separation of roles. The combination is effective. It bases a lot of school decisions on what's best for students and it allows me to move away from the bureaucratic expediency that sometimes takes over when one is in an authoritarian position, making all the decisions.

I have a lot of knowledge of developmentally appropriate practices. And I try to experience life through the eyes of students.

I think what it all boils down to is that this is the direction that education is headed, with this idea of the model of continuous learning and improvement and the idea that the administrator is a teammate and helper. We're moving away from the whole idea of the principal as the decisionmaker. I have found that counseling skills have been a critical help in that way.

Q.
Do you think this approach could work in secondary schools?

A.
I think it would be much more difficult with older students because you get into confidentiality and advocacy problems. It would be harder to be able to keep those lines separate.

Q.
What kinds of counseling techniques do you use with the students that you might not have used as an administrator?

A.
I do a lot of group work in addition to other things. I think what makes this work is we use a lot of trust and proactive prevention. I do a lot at the individual level, just by being visible and available to the students.

I also meet with small groups on a regular basis. This may be more for students who have a particular need they want to address.

I'm starting a divorce group right now of students who would just like to get together and share some of their experiences. And sometimes teachers send me students with special needs like self-esteem or anger control. And I work with them in small groups to help them understand better ways to handle things.

Q.
Do you find that students are responsive? Or do some seem confused by the combination of positions?

A.
I begin the school year by going into the classrooms. I literally have a hat in my office that has "counselor'' and "principal'' [written] on it. So I take that with me, and I talk about my job in both areas.

With the counseling, I tell them that what they share with me will be confidential, except, of course, when safety and welfare are a concern. But I tell them that, outside of that, I will keep things to myself unless they tell me it's all right to do differently.

And, as principal, I tell them that I do have a very definite structure of things that would result in discipline measures. And I tell them that they'll have to follow that.

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