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What Does a High School Counselor Do?

Jim Starr

Question: On a percentage basis, what topics do counselors cover with students?

With the inception of the “No Child Left Behind” act, there has been a disproportionate emphasis on testing as the sole indicator as to whether federal standards criteria were being met. As the site “testing coordinator,” I easily spent 6-7 weeks a year planning, implementing, and summarizing our state proficiency exams. That meant 6-7 weeks without much direct student contact, other than in emergent situations. Hopefully, the pendulum is slowly swinging back in a direction that will allow counselors to counsel.

A rough estimate would be: 20% college, 35% social/emotional, 55% academic.

Academic Counseling 55%

I would lump a variety of things under “academic,” such as course selection, schedule modifications, credit acquisition and review, not getting along with a teacher, parental concerns about their student’s performance, etc. Some times during the school year, in addition to the test coordination noted above, counselors are pretty much consumed with a particular aspect of the job – e.g. for two weeks prior to the start of school and three-four weeks into the first semester, much of the time is spent ironing out the scheduling process (balancing class sizes, changing a student out of pre-calculus or chemistry, moving someone from beginning to Jazz choir when the instructor “discovers” their talent, etc.) And in the Spring, several weeks are focused on getting ready for the next school year by meeting with every student in 8th – 11th grades in groups for course advisement and selection.

Social/Emotional Counseling 35%

Social/emotional contacts include everything from dealing with suicidal ideation, the death of a classmate or staff member, pregnancy, depression, and child abuse to relationship problems, self-concept issues, and anger management, to name calling and rumor control. While a school counselor isn’t intended to be a mental health therapist with an on-going caseload, there is definitely a need for psycho-social assessment, crisis resolution, short-term “therapy,” and referral out into the community when indicated. Time permitting, topical group counseling can be very effective to address such concerns as non-assertiveness, smoking cessation, and self-esteem. It’s also not unusual to engage in “couple counseling” with students who are struggling with their relationship or its dissolution.

College Counseling 20%

Finally, college advisement, broadly defined, includes looking at whatever post-secondary direction a student is leaning. Sometimes the military provides just the direction and structure a particular student needs, with more opportunity for career training than he/she otherwise might receive. Job apprenticeship programs allow students to work full-time, then take necessary night classes to advance in their chosen field, e.g. electrician, plumbing, construction. For some students, starting at a community college is a good transitional step into a larger, less personal four-year school. For others, a two-year Associate’s Degree is enough to step into a chosen career. I spent a fair amount of time writing letters of reference for 12th graders applying to colleges/universities, ROTC Scholarship Programs, and, occasionally, to one of the military academies. Letters were also required for any National Merit Scholarship Finalist or Presidential Scholarship contenders. A good letter of recommendation is like giving a gift, so I took it seriously.

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