The Importance of Counselors

counselor-1294858_960_720By Sabrina Bartels

Last week, I had the honor of participating in a panel discussion focused on youth mental health. The event was a collaboration between several organizations, including Marquette Law School, Marquette’s College of Education, and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Individuals from across the country and from many different walks of life joined together to talk about the mental health crisis and what we can do to help support children and teens as they navigate these difficult struggles.

Of all the panels, I really liked the one where teens talked about overcoming and living with mental health concerns. One of the girls was a middle school student. When describing her middle school experience, she mentioned that she sometimes goes to her school counselor, but that it’s hard to see her because she’s so busy. The student said that her counselor’s door is closed a lot because she’s with other students, or “in a six-hour meeting.” It made me crack up (because it’s true, we have a lot of meetings!) but it also made me a little sad. Here was a student who really needed to see someone, but her counselor wasn’t available.

Which made me think of my own students. I’ve been lucky this year to have a slightly smaller 8th grade class, but I’m still as busy as ever. I thought about all the sign-up sheets on my desk, and how sometimes, it takes me one or two days to follow up with these students. Not because I don’t want to talk to them, but because every day can be filled with chaos and crises, and I am never guaranteed enough time. I think about students who like to check in with me, but whom I can’t always consistently meet with on the same day, or even the same time. As one of my kiddos put it, “You just never know what’s going to come through your door next, do you, Ms. B?” And for the record, he’s absolutely right.

I am so incredibly blessed to work in a district that recognizes the importance of counselors, psychologists, and social workers, and why we are so necessary. I’m also really fortunate that my administration recognizes the work we do. They’ve excused us from lunch duty and hallways sweeps. They limit the number of students who test with us. I’m lucky; I can’t say that enough. But I recognize that not every counselor is in my situation. At my school, the student to counselor ratio (on average) is about 310 to 1. In the state of Wisconsin, it’s around 454 to 1. And the ideal ratio? 250 to 1.

Why is this important? Because the more “stretched” we become, the less effective we are, and most importantly, the less time we have for kids. That means students who are struggling with bullying, mental health issues, academics, or trauma may not see us when their need is highest. This also means that we lose a window of opportunity to get to know the student on a deeper level. For some, it’s okay; the student will keep reaching out to us and we will have that chance. But for some who may already be nervous or scared to reach out, if they can’t have us at that precise moment the window closes and may not open up again.

Are we bound to miss students sometimes? Yes, of course. Sometimes, we have another student in our offices, and we have to tell the other one we will talk to them later. That’s part of our job. But the more counselors, psychologists, social workers, and outside agencies that are available, the less time they have to wait, the quicker we can address the problem, and the sooner students can return to class with a less-burdened mind. With their mind at ease, students have more brain power for school, which can help them achieve their full academic potential.

We’ve heard that these things we teach and model – emotional regulation, conflict resolution, and organization – are “soft skills.” These so-called “soft skills” are not that soft. These are skills that are so important to a student’s every day functioning as an adult. Their social/emotional success is just as critical to their learning as reading and math. That is what we are trained in. That is why we’re needed.

The event really sparked my enthusiasm, and continued to stress the importance of mental health professionals. But it was the youth panel that reminded me of why I do what I do, why I advocate for counselors, and why it’s an important job. The most inspiring thing is that these students haven’t given up. Neither should we.

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