Wednesday, August 18, 2010

My Journey to Becoming a School Counselor

I received a question from a reader about my journey to becoming a school counselor.

Q. I came across your blog and would like to ask you a few questions.  I am currently a Junior, working towards my bachelors in psychology and my masters in mental health counseling.  I would just like to know what your schooling was like, how fast you got a job, and just pros and cons of the job itself.

A. I started my college career at The Pennsylvania State University, where I double majored in psychology and women's studies. I was passionate about creating social awareness and helping people, but I was unsure what career I was interested in after graduation.  I thought about attending graduate school for Counseling Psychology, but I just was not sure about it. I spoke to a professor in the Counselor Education program at Penn State and discussed my interests with her.  She suggested I look for a program accredited by Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP) Mental Health Counseling.  I enrolled in the Mental Health Counseling program at Shippensburg University of Pennsylvania.  (I also wrote a post about finding a master's program that is CACREP Accredited).

During my first semester in my graduate program, I was introduced to the field of School Counseling. In Introduction to Helping Services, one of my first courses, speakers from a variety of different fields within the realm of counseling came to speak to our class. They represented College Student Personnel Counseling, Mental Health Counseling, Community Counseling, and School Counseling. I was not really sure what School Counseling was.  Sure, I had a guidance counselor in high school... I thought all they did was schedule classes. I was totally not interested in sitting at a desk all day. School Counseling was the same thing, right?

WRONG! The School Counselor who came to our class spoke of individual counseling, career development, advocating for students, and working as an integral part of the school leadership team.  He spoke of lessons he facilitated and school wide programs he planned. I was entranced by his presentation. Something clicked for me like never before; I did not know it was possible to do all the things I was interested in as a career. I always wanted to do something that would enact social change. Being a school counselor would give me the opportunity to advocate for students and give them a voice.

I knew that night I wanted to change my program of study to School Counseling. It took a little while to get through the process, but I declared my program as Secondary School Counseling. I researched the program and realized I could take additional classes and become K-12 certified. I took 60 credits in 2 and 1/2 years to finish the program. (Our program only allowed me to take 12 credits at a time). My courses were amazing. I not only learned about the material being covered, but I learned so much about myself.  I also made amazing friends in the program. We still hang out with each other and keep in touch. ***I can't stress enough how important it is to have colleagues you can talk to about the work you do. Being a counselor can be stressful and it is awesome to have people who understand what you are going through and support you.***

The School Counseling program required three internship classes, Practicum, Field I, and Field II.  For my Practicum I worked at a small, relatively rural, middle school. I really enjoyed working with the middle school population. I worked with students individually, in groups, and I also assisted in organizing a 6th grade transition program. I worked with student council to make a video for incoming 6th graders.

For my Field I worked at a boarding school for students in 3rd - 8th grade, primarily from urban areas. I worked with students in 10th - 12th grade. I facilitated classroom lessons about career awareness and applying for schools, facilitated groups, met with students individually, and planned programs.  During my field I, I realized that I wanted to seek out more opportunities where I could work in an urban setting.

My Field II was probably the most interesting situation.  I arranged my Field II at an urban PreK-5 school.  I went to an inservice training for the school district and they offered to hire me as a Long Term Substitute School Counselor. I was pretty shocked to say the least. (Two of my colleagues were hired the same way.) I accepted the offer and worked as a Long Term Substitute counselor in a Pre-K - 3 building. I was the only counselor at the school with over 500 students. It gave me the opportunity to start my own programs, facilitate classroom guidance lessons, run groups, and collaborate with other school staff. I also started my blog during my Field I as a way to catalog what I was doing and share ideas with others. Check out some of my older posts to see classroom lessons I facilitated during Field II.

My Long Term Substitute position began in January and ended in May. I was trying to decide if I wanted to stay in the area or not, but the district did not offer me a job right away. I moved across the state to Pittsburgh, PA because my fiance's (now husband) job was out that way. I had interviews before I even moved out there. I had an interview the day before graduation in Pittsburgh and had to drive back that night.

I accepted a job as a Long Term Substitute school counselor at the Allegheny County Jail. In my previous fields, I facilitated groups for children of incarcerated parents. I was very interested in the position because I believed it would give a different perspective on incarceration.  I enjoyed working with the students at the jail. I facilitated classroom lessons, aide the students in credit recovery, and met with students for individual counseling.

I was asked to stay on at the jail, but I accepted a Long Term Substitute school counselor position at a K-8 charter school instead. I enjoyed working at the charter school; I loved the staff and the students. There was just one big problem, I did not have a space to meet with students.  I shared an office with two special education teachers. I enjoyed working with them, but I was very frustrated that I did not have a place to meet with students. I tried to make the best of it by using spaces such as conference rooms, book nooks, and other people's offices when they would allow me. I did a ton of classroom guidance lessons to make up for the lack of individual time I was able to see students. Check out some of my lessons I did while I was at the charter school.

I interviewed many other places while in Pittsburgh, but I did not receive any job offers besides the two I mentioned. It was very frustrating because I wanted to be the "real" counselor. I was so sick of being a substitute. Being K-12 certified allowed me to interview for positions for a variety of levels, but it was difficult because there were so many applicants and I was not originally from the area.  It was also frustrating because I did not have any connections at any schools besides where I was working.  Although I was frustrated about being a Long Term Substitute, I gained valuable experience and got tons of ideas.

At the end of November, I was offered a job in the district where I did my Field II.  I moved back across the state and have been working as a 4-8 school counselor in an urban setting ever since.  I am one of two counselors in my school. The other counselor works with students in PreK - 3. Our building is a PreK-8 school with over 800 students. In my current job I facilitate groups, classroom lessons, and individual counseling. I consult with parents, teachers, and other staff. I organize programs and collaborate with other staff. The administration at my school is awesome. The principal is very supportive of the counselors and their role in the school.

To address the reader's question about pros and cons, I wrote a follow up entry to this post: Being a School Counselor: Loves and Challenges.

Below I listed two helpful books for new counselors. The Elementary / Middle School Counselor's Survival Guide has great resources for new counselors, including examples of forms, letters, and other documents.  A Year of School Counseling, has ideas for themes for each month as pages to copy and reprint (including super cute bookmarks!).

What was your journey to becoming a counselor like? How fast did you get a job? Share your story in the comment section below or on School Counselor Blog's Facebook Page.

Danielle is a K-12 Certified School Counselor, Nationally Certified Counselor, and blogger at School Counselor Blog, a place where school counselors share innovative ideas, creative lesson plans, and quality resources.  Contact Danielle via email, follow her on twitter, and become a fan of the School Counselor Blog Facebook Page.

 
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