At many schools, in fact, counselors are becoming quasi administrators--often with the official administration’s blessing. From the perspective of some principals and superintendents, counselors are competent and close at hand to fill the gaps as increasing paperwork and data collection are mandated for schools.
The resulting conflict between the structured and unstructured duties performed by counselors has led some states--for instance, Florida and Virginia--to try to legislate a balance between the two. And the Congress is considering a grants plan for elementary-school counseling programs that would require for qualification that no less than 85 percent of counselors’ time be spent in direct student services.
I, along with most counselors, support such legislation. But we must do more within our schools to assert our understanding of our calling and gain the means of fulfilling it. Several easily instituted measures, while perhaps not solving the dilemma of conflicting duties, would help put us back on the track to counseling’s proper mission.
Historically, counselors were introduced into schools to provide students with vocational guidance. Then, as new options enabled more young people to continue their education after high school, counselors became educational-guidance consultants. But families have gone through major changes in the last three decades, and we need to change with them.
As families have become more fragmented, children are left on their own much more commonly than in the past; they face complex pressures from their peers and on the streets. Counseling for them must focus on activities that impede learning and indeed threaten to infect or even end some of these young lives. Prevention and intervention strategies for dealing with such barriers to learning as drug use, gang involvement, and emotional disorders should be counseling priorities.
Yet counselors will almost unanimously agree that they spend too much time on tasks such as scheduling. Scheduling? In the face of the problems confronting many students, it’s almost ludicrous that an army of trained and sensitive professionals spends so many hours with computer printouts--to determine how English II can accommodate students who also want to take art appreciation. But developing the school’s master schedule and juggling changes claim perhaps the greatest share of a counselor’s structured time.
Assignments like college advising, career advising, registration, testing, and in-class presentations fill the rest of that time. No wonder, then, that personal, social, and legal issues encountered by students, parents, and teachers go all but ignored unless one of two conditions exist: Either the counselor is personally aggressive enough to demand time in the day to nurture those responsibilities, or a crisis occurs that overshadows all structured duties for the hours or days required to manage it.
Most counselors say that at least 25 percent to 30 percent of students will have behavior problems during their school career. Counselors’ ability--or inability--to devote themselves to their unstructured duties, can, in terms of direct intervention, affect a significant portion of the student population.
In addition, 50 percent of students are likely to be referred for counseling by teachers or parents because of symptoms indicating potential behavioral or emotional problems. Counselors’ unstructured responsibilities in fact, then, involve not just a few students but the majority; of all their duties, these are the crucial ones.
How can we as counselors instigate the changes needed to enable us to serve students? First, we must survey our schools and students to determine their needs. Second, we must convince our administrators to implement more computerized processes and use more paraprofessionals and volunteers.
Two types of informal research can shed light on the school climate. We should begin by tracking graduates in their first, third, and fifth years out of school. Are they achieving? Do they remain in the colleges where we helped place them? Are they employed?
A mailed questionnaire will likely yield only minimal results. I suggest that we should be interested enough in students to know what they are doing after graduation and to contact their colleges or employers to determine how they are faring. We are looking simply for an indication of how well the school is preparing its graduates.
In addition, we should informally survey current students, teachers, and parents about their views of our performance. Conferences, in-service training sessions, or even questionnaires could provide this information.
With such input, we can devise a counseling plan. We can identify areas in which students say they do or do not receive help. We will know where our graduates excel and where they do not meet expectations; we will know what parents want from us.
We will find that students need more emotional support, that parents want more guidance for their children’s next step, that teachers want help in developing an atmosphere conducive to learning. We will have a list of priorities.
Armed with this research, we must persuade administrators to try some relatively inexpensive tactics that will help us deliver on our mission. Paraprofessionals can take over some of the scheduling duties. We can rely more heavily on teacher recommendations to fill certain courses rather than continue time-consuming one-on-one interviews. Volunteers can help with assembling college-entrance materials and arranging career and college fairs. We can institute a “homeroom” or advisory period each week to spread across the faculty some of the routine paperwork that many counselors currently must tackle alone. And we can entrust scheduling, attendance records, and other clerical chores to computer technology.
At the same time, steps we can take toward professional improvement will reinforce our efforts to fulfill our unstructured duties. We must, for example, be familiar with local sources of professional help for physical and emotional difficulties; we should be able to instantly refer families who need such services to the appropriate individual or organization. Likewise, to address academic problems, we need to know who in the community provides tutoring or special-education support. We should be acquainted with the learning centers springing up across the country that offer a variety of programs.
Counselors must also be willing to be flexible with their time. Some parents can’t attend a conference at the end of the school day. We may sometimes have to work evenings--to conduct parenting seminars, for example--or meet families before school begins in the morning.
Home visits may be necessary. In communities in Georgia, New Jersey, and Missouri, teachers and counselors follow their students into the family, helping them secure food stamps or community assistance, medical attention, and housing.
As a result of such efforts, families become more involved with schools, children begin to show progress, and the schools’ burden actually decreases as barriers to learning are removed.
For our students’ sake, we cannot afford to wait for the Congress to pass legislation or for school officials to remove administrative tasks from our work load. We must act immediately to advance the legitimate and important mission of counseling.
A version of this article appeared in the May 02, 1990 edition of Education Week