Dear new counselor,
You will tell the kids “you can do hard things” until you’re blue in the face. Tell it to yourself. YOU can do hard things. And there will be so many hard things, hard things you’ve never even imagined. But you’ve got this.
In my experience, first year teachers are well supported and wrapped around by a team. The expectation is to try your best and learn as you go and that you’ll make mistakes but it’s ok if you grow for them. For counselors though, it seems a bit different. The expectation is that we walk in day 1 as experts. Knowing all the things and knowing how to do all the things. It’s really tough to be brand new in a position and being expected to be an expert right away. Some of it we put on ourselves. You don’t have to be an expert! It’s ok to say “You know, I’m not sure. This is new to me. Let’s figure it out together.”
But if you’re looking for some advice as you go into your first year, here are some words of wisdom for you:
Balance being a team player with establishing boundaries.
You want it clear from the start that you are there to serve all school stakeholders and that you value a team approach when helping children be socially and academically successful in school. Pitching in to help with small things is a great way to start with this. At the same time, it’s important to begin to establish boundaries early on because it’s easier to do it in the beginning than after you’ve already taken on more than you should. For example, helping a couple teachers finish up a bulletin board before Open House shows you’re a team player, but it’s unlikely to set a precedent that “Ms. Hightop is available to make bulletin boards.” Volunteering to stay late at the first three after school events? That’s being a team player but could also lead to folk thinking you’re always free after school. I think one of the most important boundaries to establish is the one around your work time at school. For example, my faculty know that my lessons and groups come first and that I don’t cancel them for anything less than an emergency (specifically an emergency that no one else is capable of handling).
Emphasize connection and relationships with teachers.
Having good relationships with your teachers can make or break a lot of things, including your happiness, your sense of competence, and the success of your counseling program. This doesn’t mean they have to be your BFFs. You don’t have to go get margaritas with them every week (although I actually don’t think it’s wrong if you do). You need your teachers to trust you – trust you to follow through on what you say you’ll do, trust you to do what’s best for their students (because elementary teachers are quick to turn “mama bear” over their students), and trust you to not step on their toes. One of the best things you can do is to show your teachers how your work as a counselor helps their work as a teacher. In grad school, you learn about different consultation models and you think that consultation means scheduled meetings with teachers in your office. In real life, consultation happens in 60 second increments when teachers stand at your doorway after they drop their class off at PE. Take advantage of these moments!
Focus on quality over quantity and content over cute.
I love cute things. I shop a lot. I use cute fonts. But cute comes second. School counselors have limited time (you know this already from your internships!) and are constantly, constantly, needing to prioritize. The priority is to do a few really amazing things. You will be bombarded with interesting ideas – on Instagram, on Pinterest, on blogs, and from colleagues. You do not have to do all of the things. You will do a better job doing “less” but doing those few things phenomenally. And while I think that things can definitely be cute and effective, make sure to ask yourself what purpose does the cuteness serve and who does it serve. Adults love metaphors. Students sometimes have a tough time with them. Cursive is fancy. Most kids can’t read it. Don’t be critical of yourself, but be critical of what you focus on and what you use.
Reach out for help. Find colleagues to lean on.
You can’t do it alone. You need to find two groups of people. The first group is “your people” in the building. The people on the same wavelength as you, people who you feel supported by. For me, this was my co-counselor, the librarian, the math coach, and the literacy coach. Some years I’ve also had some classroom teachers that I connected with in this way. You will probably cry at school (not just your first year…but every year) and that’s ok. You can cry in your office. But it’s nice to have someone else’s office you can go to.
The second group of people you need to find is counseling colleagues to reach out to. I have a group of counselors that I email with regularly. And a few others on a group text. These people are incredibly important to me and my well-being. Consulting with counseling colleagues is something I do regularly, even seven years in! Even with a co-counselor I considered a best friend and trusted with everything, we both still needed others to consult with.
Grant yourself grace, the same grace you grant everyone else.
You are a beautiful and well-intentioned human who will make mistakes. It’s expected. And it’s ok. Apologize, do better next time, and let yourself move on. This is easier said than done but I think it’s crucial to grant ourselves the same grace that we grant to everyone else around us.
You’ve got this! You have the honor and privilege of getting to impact hundreds of lives and you’re going to do amazing. Please feel free to reach out to me if you want to bounce ideas off of someone!
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