Student Well-Being Opinion

Wilderness Road

By Howard Good — August 11, 2004 8 min read
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Just because students don't get personal attention doesn't mean they don't need it.

In a public education system whose terminology is composed largely of misleading euphemisms and impenetrable jargon, the term “guidance office” may be the greatest misnomer of all. This isn’t a knock on the work ethic of high school guidance counselors. I’m sure many important activities occur down at the guidance office. It is just that none of them qualifies as guidance in any meaningful sense.

To guide, Webster’s Dictionary says, means to “lead or direct … in a course or path.” It also means to “instruct and influence intellectually and morally; to train.” Moreover, a guide is defined as, among other things, “one who ... directs another in his conduct or course of life.” By these definitions, guidance counselors aren’t actually guides, and what they do isn’t actually guidance.

So what do they do? A 2002 survey by the National Center for Education Statistics found that guidance counselors spent the most time on course schedules and the second most time on college applications. They spent the third most time on attendance, discipline, and other school problems. Nowhere was there reference to time spent directing the intellectual and moral growth of students or serving as their friends and mentors.

The reason for this should be apparent: too many students and too few guidance counselors. According to the NCES survey, the nationwide ratio of public high school students to full-time guidance counselors is 315-to-1. In my local school district, the ratio is worse, a staggering 400-to-1. Given such numbers, it is impossible for guidance counselors to give close personal attention to each student. They are lucky if they can even match student faces with names.

But just because students don’t get personal attention doesn’t mean they don’t need it. At a time in life when they are searching for the place they belong, young people are literally dying from a lack of adult guidance. One survey found that nearly 3 million Americans ages 12 to 17 considered suicide in 2000, and that more than a third of them actually tried to kill themselves. “That is mayhem,” said the executive director of San Francisco Suicide Prevention. “It means there is real chaos in homes and schools everywhere.”

Under pressure from the federal No Child Left Behind Act, most schools today see their primary role as helping students achieve high test scores, rather than a sense of belonging. When Dr. William Glasser, the physician-founder of the Quality School Consortium, holds workshops, he interviews six junior or senior high school students in front of a large audience. He always asks the students, “Where in school do you feel important?,” and they always look at him as if the question came from outer space. Feeling important simply isn’t part of their experience or expectations of school.

Their predominant experience is that school is an unfriendly place where teasing and gossiping prevail and no one is willing to talk to you about your problems. The researchers Karin Oerlemans and Heather Jenkins, in a survey of high school students who were chronically absent, found that teachers and administrators aren’t listening to students, and perhaps don’t know how to listen to them, or how to interpret what they are saying. School, in effect, ignores the students it should be nurturing.

Students who feel ignored—the clinical word for it is “alienated,” lacking a sense of belonging—may do more than cut school. The psychologist Irwin Hyman of Temple University has noted that one characteristic common to recent school shootings is that the shooters were alienated from their school cultures. Alienation has also been associated with academic failure, sexual promiscuity, and substance abuse.

Faced with a restless, alienated student body, and the vast potential for disorder that implies, school officials tend to obsess on discipline. The rural high school my oldest daughter attends may not have a full complement of Advanced Placement courses, but it does have a half-dozen employees dedicated to monitoring and controlling student behavior. They include a school resource officer (that is, a cop), a behavior-intervention specialist, a social worker, and a substance-abuse counselor. In addition, the vice principal spends most of her time patrolling the halls for loiterers and the bathrooms for smokers when she could be spending it supporting classroom instruction.

Faced with a restless, alienated student body, and the vast potential for disorder that implies, school officials tend to obsess on discipline.

Bigger schools come equipped with even more elaborate controls—metal detectors, surveillance cameras, walkie-talkies, drug-sniffing dogs—to keep students in check. The irony is that the police-state atmosphere does nothing to address the underlying causes of student alienation. If anything, it is yet another powerful reason for students to feel alienated. Educators talk all the time about putting “children first,” but students know from daily experience that school policies and rules take precedence over their own needs and interests. They can’t even walk down the hall or sit in the cafeteria without feeling harassed.

Remember the old TV comedy “Cheers”? Its theme song described the friendly neighborhood tavern in which the show was set as a place where “everybody knows your name.” Some educators suggest that school should be a place like that (though, presumably, without the bar stools). “Our children need to know school as a place where they feel a personal connection,” William R. Capps and Mary Ellen Maxwell wrote in The American School Board Journal, “a place where someone knows their dreams and fears, a place where they feel safe.” The question is how to get there.

I can tell you it isn’t by doing what we did when I was on the local school board. All of us had heard horror stories about the high school guidance program from parents—how students had been shunted into academic dead ends; how they had been told not to worry about taking advanced math, advanced science, a foreign language, or the SAT; how they had been advised to apply to colleges for which they were unqualified; how they had been allowed to daydream and drift. We were determined to fix that.

First, we coaxed into retirement two guidance counselors who had been at the high school since it opened in the 1960s, replacing them with younger, more vibrant counselors conversant with the latest theories on adolescent development. Second, we added another secretary to the guidance office to rescue the counselors from the sea of paperwork. Third, we remodeled the office to make it an appealing place for students to hang out. Fourth, we bought computer software specifically designed to help students with college and career planning. Then, tired but elated, we sat back to watch what would happen.

To our astonishment, nothing did. Guidance stayed the same sad mess it had always been. A thin layer of academically gifted students at the top continued to receive special attention, as did a somewhat thicker layer of academically challenged students at the bottom. But the vast majority of students, the students in the middle, those the classic study The Shopping Mall High School called “the unspecial,” were still just “a great gray mass,” and, as individuals, effectively written off.

I have only recently realized why our efforts miscarried. It was because we weren’t bold enough in our thinking. We envisioned guidance in traditional terms, as confined to the guidance office, where the ratio of students to counselors remained hovering around 400-to-1. We really had no right, then, to expect the new counselors to do any better than the old counselors did. To give all students the kind of guidance they deserved would have required our adding about 40 counselors, thereby reducing the student-counselor ratio to what it is at private schools, about 10-to-1. My district, with its anorexic tax base, could never swallow such a thing, and probably neither can yours.

What we should have done was taken guidance out of the guidance office and given it to teachers. Colleges follow just this model. Professors, of which I’m one, are responsible for advising students as well as teaching them. I have 15 to 20 student advisees every year. They are mine from the time they declare journalism as their major until they graduate. I do many of the typical tasks of a guidance counselor: approve their course schedules, write letters of recommendation, and so on. But because I see the students in class, and not merely during infrequent advising sessions, I’m familiar with them and the quality of their work and know when they need a kick in the butt or a pat on the back. We have a relationship, a bond. They come to my office for more than my signature on forms. They come to bounce around ideas, borrow books, get reassurance, and sort out their feelings about college, journalism, the future.

In a public education system whose terminology is composed largely of misleading euphemisms, the term ‘guidance office’ may be the greatest misnomer of all.

Guidance of this kind doesn’t require any special training. All it requires is a little friendly interest. And "[b]etween a teacher and a student,” as Dr. Glasser has pointed out, “a little friendly interest can go a long way.” Mrs. Krevoruck, my 9th grade English teacher, was the difference for me. I can still remember my happy embarrassment when she drew me aside one day after class and extravagantly praised a poem I had written for homework. It was like getting permission to become who I am.

“A system of education,” Jerome Bruner said, “must help those growing up in a culture find an identity within that culture. Without it, they stumble in their effort after meaning.” Every adolescent needs adult guidance, as the epidemic rates of teenage depression and suicide show, and teachers are the ones best situated to provide it. But under the present system, relatively few teachers have the motivation to do so. High schools are filled with stumbling students, and school itself is often the biggest stumbling block.

Which leads me to a story about the great explorer and guide Daniel Boone, who blazed the Wilderness Road, the route used by thousands in the first westward migration. When Boone was an old man, someone asked him if he had ever been lost. He thought for a moment, then replied, “No, I was never lost, but I will admit to being bewildered for three days.”

It is inevitable that adolescents, living through perhaps the most confusing stage of life, will occasionally feel bewildered. What isn’t inevitable—what is, in fact, indefensible—is that they should ever feel lost and alone.

Howard Good is a professor of journalism at the State University of New York at New Paltz. He lives in Highland, N.Y., where he was for many years a member of the school board.

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