NLTA Vice-President

Dedicated to my grandfather, Baxter Langdon; small in stature but walked tall with integrity...

Friday, 15 February 2013

An Article re: Guidance Counsellor Roles (2007)

The View from the Inside:
An E’value’ation of Guidance Counsellor Roles

As a means of providing some context, I am writing this article wearing two hats: that of an Elementary / Junior High School Guidance Counsellor and a proud, new father of twin boys. Though being clearly different roles (but equally scary at times), the similarities become blatantly evident over a cup of cold tea, a couple of biscuits, and a repeat performance of Saturday morning cartoons.  There are a multitude of keywords that characterize both roles however it is the ‘bility’ words that appear to be most prominent: responsibility, liability, accountability, common-sensibility [sic]…; the primary, startling point being, I am responsible for 700 students during the school day as opposed to the two that are crawling before me this morning.

During a false sense of quiet time, my mind wanders to the expectation that I am to theoretically play a direct and active role in addressing the “educational, personal / social, career growth, and developmental needs” of all 700 students in my school and providing support to their 1400 care-givers during the course of a school year; I use those descriptors as they are clearly outlined within the Department of Education’s Guidance Policy.  Now, we are all very much aware that a large number of students and families do not avail of direct guidance intervention or programming on a daily or even weekly basis; BUT, is this the key point? Do we need to re-direct our attention back to the masses and move toward the expansion of effective Guidance services for all of our students? Does it require a re-direction of focus or the addition of sufficient human resources that allow for effective responses to the demonstrated needs within each of our school communities?

In taking an active, preventative approach to my Guidance practice, one would assume that a great percentage of time is spent offering school-wide guidance programming, classroom-based guidance initiatives, and entering formal counselling relationships with a significant caseload of students. To the contrary, the reality within the current model sees comprehensive assessments (requiring 30 plus hours on average per assessment, with numbers reaching 30-40 annually in certain schools), daily social support for students and families (not unlike that expected of a social worker), and crisis response as related to discipline and safety concerns, monopolizing the time of Guidance Counsellors. When considering that Guidance Counsellors are allocated to schools based on a ratio of 1:500, that they are often responsible for multiple schools, and commonly have teaching duties, the true effectiveness of these school-based social agents is compromised.

Though we all do our part to encourage safe & caring environments, recognize positive behaviors, and nurture positive work ethics, the reality appears to lie in a deterioration of ‘values’ structures and commitment on the part of many students as it relates to personal achievement. Though still relatively young, with my reminiscing going back all the way to the 1980’s, I can recall junior high kids lining up to assist with the most menial tasks of putting out chairs (after-school!) for the Christmas Concert that night; then those same kids all having parts in that concert. Or the only students sitting on the stage during Phys. Ed. Class being those with casts from toe to hip; and they would be sneaking a basketball shot or two when the teacher wasn’t looking. Though our pedagogical approaches have been re-vamped and modernized, a lot can be said for ‘what used to be’.

Prioritizing ‘values-based learning’ and championing preventative measures (e.g. group and individual counselling) that meet the developmental challenges of our students would combat the lack of responsibility for learning that has invaded our schools and has created a culture of learned complacency, ultimately resulting in an increase in discipline referrals, absenteeism and behavioral incidents. Educational frameworks cannot be limited to working our way through waitlists and maximizing the effectiveness of response protocols, but rather need to be viewed as an opportunity to invoke personal growth, critical thought, and achievement at the most basic level; that of each individual student.

An investment in teacher / specialist resources is essential to academic achievement however one needs to look to the daily, life functioning of our students before any major advancement can be made in terms of academic performance. In its simplest form, the situation manifests itself when a student or parent approaches my office and I end our discussion by making the following statement, “I have to apologize however, my caseload is full but I can make a referral for counselling services external to the school if you are interested.” Though Guidance Counsellors find themselves involved in highly important tasks, further investment in the developmental needs of all children and families would serve to address the many underlying circumstances that lead to behavioral difficulty and underachievement; at a stage where significant change and intervention is possible and effective.

 A quote that I often use to guide my practice and daily interactions is “Values are Caught, not Taught!” (Lawrence Kohlberg). As a Guidance Counsellor and a father, I place a great deal of credence in this philosophy and promote values-based learning as a means of attaining personal and academic advancement. Guidance Counsellors find themselves in a valuable, strategic position to influence and impact individual student growth and values structures, given that the time and resources are available to do so. It is through such student development that achievement, positive behavior, safety and advancement follow in due course. Ultimately, it is a case of using our common-sensibilities [sic] to provide effective intervention, guide decision-making, and initiate long-term change.  

 Trent Langdon      M.Ed., C.C.C.


Sunday, 6 January 2013

An article re: 'School Counselling Services' written in May of 2011...

More than Cardigans and Pamphlets of Change…

I ask for a second of your time to partake of some self-directed imagery and visualize your personal construct of the Guidance Counsellor. Would it be that of the cardigan-wearing, brief-case toting, bearded gentleman that arrived at your Grade 9 class for the long-awaited, highly-anticipated, life-changing, pamphlet-based lesson: “So, You Are Becoming a Man…”?; or the reciprocal closed session, “So, You Are Becoming a Woman…”? Well, as I attempt to forage for other examples I quickly realize that this is my personal construct so I will gracefully leave it at that. Though blatantly anti-climactic, the moral of the story is…times have changed and the Guidance Counsellor role has subsequently expanded; but has arguably become less-defined.

So the challenge is to define the entity that is ‘counselling’ as it exists within the context of a school (The Department of Education has taken on this mission and we anxiously await its conclusions). One might assume that traditional counselling practice would be a role so intrinsic to the Guidance ‘Counsellor’, that a clear definition of such a competency (as it exists within the school environment) would be easily accessible; but as per the history of humankind, assumptions prove problematic. Our counsellors find themselves in a unique situation as they attempt to practice amidst a mosaic of job roles and responsibilities in an environment that does not easily lend itself to effective and efficient practice.

As it stands, the current ratio of guidance counsellors to students in Newfoundland and Labrador is 1: 500. Given this reality, one’s daily schedule quickly becomes saturated with multiple ‘cold calls’,  ‘surprise’ clients (further to those you have ‘penciled in’), and referrals that grow exponentially as you make your way through the hallways or into the staff room. Add circumstances such as teaching responsibilities for some counsellors, duties being spread across four or five rural schools, and expectations to implement all components of a Comprehensive Guidance Program, the ‘TIP-OVER’ point quickly approaches.  These work-related requirements and self-imposed expectations of an ‘open door’ policy lead to experiences not unlike that of a ‘drive-thru window’ or a ‘call center’. Assisting students through the ‘daily grind’, responding to ‘in-the-moment’ personal crises, preventative interventions, and staying ‘tuned in’ to the school climate, significantly contributes to the ‘academic machine’ however and encourages it to remain in motion. 

Now before you attempt to topple my mini ‘soapbox’, I would be the first to argue that these same responsibilities and ‘time-takers’, that counsellors face from day to day in our practice, are essential services within their respective school communities. We, as counsellors, are guilty of ‘aiding and abetting’ the model by virtue of our altruistic, care-giving personalities (in line with our classroom teaching counterparts). It is however, a unique ‘counselling’ environment that requires exploration outside of the safe confines of policy.

In order to find the information we seek, let’s have a look at the standard that currently exists. The Department of Education’s Guidance Policy outlines the roles and responsibilities (e.g. comprehensive assessment, school-wide guidance initiatives, individual / group counselling…) that are prescribed for the Guidance Counsellor. As demonstrated above however, the realities of our role (and the environment in which we practice) make it extremely difficult to define.

The opportunity to engage in a traditional counselling model or framework which typically includes a set number of scheduled sessions, a clear counselling plan, goal-setting, and effective termination of the counsellor-student relationship, is more often than not, unattainable within our schools (and is but one service, amongst a multitude of supports provided to individual students). In addition, the hectic pace, inaccessibility during down times (e.g. summer months),  and the degree of need within our schools usually requires that we refer to external agencies for long-term counselling support as the expertise of these professionals lies within the areas of addictions, eating disorders, anxiety, etc.

In these recent times of heightened accountability and diligence, Guidance Counsellors (along with Educational Psychologist s and Instructional Resource Teachers) currently find themselves working their way through the intricacies of tracking assessment referrals in our schools (via the Department of Education’s Referral Tracking System). Guidance Counsellors are now preparing for the same with regard to the tracking of counselling services being offered to our students. So where do we go from here to find some balance and make an attempt at defining ‘counselling’ within the school system?

Here is my humble take. Instead of attempting to quantify ‘counselling’ time by hours / minutes formally  ‘in session’ and numbers of students coming through the turnstile, let’s qualitatively track the types and sorts of interventions (which may very well include traditional counseling services) and highlight the successes seen through our ISSP / IEP and inclusionary processes. It is essential to focus on the multitude of variables that make up the dynamics of our profession and contribute to counselling as a collective whole.  The roles of identification, daily monitoring, check-in, crisis-response, formal analysis & assessment, life skills development, file management, consultation, family support, counselling, behavioral support, a ‘safe zone’, an ally, an ‘ear’, a ‘shoulder’…  As a school-based practitioner, we hit the entire spectrum and it becomes more about engineering a framework of success for the student, more so than the specific service of counselling.

We are well aware that for every student who maneuvers through the school system with minimal support and meets with great success in adulthood, there are those that require intensive measures to ensure they simply make it through on a daily basis.  All school-based professionals contribute to this mechanism of support in some capacity. It is the varying points on a continuum of service that begins at 8:30am and carries through to 2:30pm (and exists as a reliable ‘background’ support when the student is not in school) that addresses barriers to change and allow the student to avail of unused opportunities.

We cannot be too restrictive and prescriptive in our definition of the ‘counselling’ service as it exists in our schools such that we underestimate its true value and range of influence (as part of a student’s educational experience).

… and yes, I learned a lot from that pamphlet in Grade 9!

Trent Langdon