Posts Tagged 'sabrina bartels'

Reflections of a Middle School Counselor

downloadBy Sabrina Bartels

When people ask me what it was like being a first year counselor, I often mention that there are some things grad school never prepares you for: that first, super awkward conversation about hygiene; the first time you have to call Child Protective Services about the abuse of one of your students; the patience you must show every time a kiddo tells you that another student is looking at them in a funny way … AGAIN. In some ways, working in a middle school is “baptism by fire” – you just have to jump in, do it, and reflect afterwards. The things you hear, the things you see – some of those things you really don’t know how to respond until you are in the middle of the situation.

For me, I also experienced a bit of a culture shock in my first job. I went to a parochial school for my elementary and middle school years. My entire 8th grade class was 15 students, the majority of whom I had gone to school with since kindergarten or first grade. All of our parents knew each other, since they volunteered at different school events together. Things changed slightly when I went to public high school, but in different ways. Sure, my graduating class was bigger (I think we were around 230 kids for my senior class,) but it was smaller than a lot of other schools. The city I went to high school in also has a very quaint feeling to it (I often tell people it was like living in the movie Pleasantville.) I loved it, and thrived there, but it still gave me a nice sense of security. I would say that it wasn’t until college that I began having classes with multiple students of different ethnic backgrounds, or was greatly exposed to people who didn’t have the same upbringing as I did.

So you can imagine my naivety (and shock) going into West Allis, which is a much more diverse area. There are some students at my school who are shouldering adult burdens that I can’t even imagine tackling when I was in middle school, much less now as an adult. Their strength and resilience are just amazing.

This past August, our school district asked Dr. Christopher Emdin, author and professor at Columbia University, to give a keynote to start the school year. Listening to him, I wish he had been there my first year of counseling. Not only is he a phenomenal speaker, he tackles the subject of urban education with humor, common sense, and empathy.

If you are a first-year educator, please do this: get a copy of Dr. Emdin’s book called “For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood … and the Rest of Y’all Too.” Read it. It will change your life and how you work as an educator, regardless of where you work. I promise you. And if you ever get a chance to hear him give a talk, please do it. He is wonderful.

I love his book “For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood …”, and the chapter I found most prolific (for me) is called “Code Switching.” Dr. Emdin notes that not every student in every classroom feels validated for who he or she is. Some students come to school and can successfully navigate between their “home” culture and their “school” culture because they are very similar. I think about my own upbringing – my rules at home were pretty similar to what they were at school: work hard, listen to adults, ask questions, things like that. This is very different from some of my students. I remember one of my students telling me that school wasn’t important because it wasn’t teaching him about real life. When I asked what he meant by that, he explained that school was not going to teach him how to care for his younger siblings, stay safe in an increasingly dangerous neighborhood in Milwaukee, or help his parents with their financial struggles. To him, school was a barrier, an inconvenience that took him away from his real goals in life: get out of his neighborhood, help his parents, and look out for the little kids. I had never heard this before.

The idea with code switching is helping students consciously realize when they need to “code switch” from their home mode to school mode. It also invites teachers to learn the slang and culture of each of their students. Dr. Emdin gives a great example of his book: having students imagine themselves at the local park, watching people play basketball. Then invite the students to talk the way they would with their friends. Encourage them to use this as the “privileged” language in class for a while. After this, ask students to imagine themselves at a fancy Ivy League school with manicured lawns and meeting with the adults at this school. How would students speak then? What does that privileged language sound like?

I always like when my students come into my office using slang, even when I don’t know what it means. First of all, it is a great bonding opportunity with students – they can teach an adult some of the up-and-coming slang that is popular. (Of course, when I use these around my nieces, they roll their eyes at me and tell me I don’t sound cool …) Secondly, this gives me the chance to see where my kiddos are coming from. I remember one student telling me that the slang she used was directly from her family, who were all from a certain city in Mexico. She told me all about how the slang her family used was different from her close friend’s family, who was also from Mexico, but a different city. And the added bonus of staying up to date with the cool new terms? When I hear kids using certain slang in the halls, I can figure out what they’re saying and (for the most part) whether it’s a compliment or not.

A lot of Dr. Emdin’s book is geared towards teachers (I do not co-teach a class, for example), but I would argue that every educator could learn something from it. He has great insight on camaraderie and courage, which I also took some advice from, and think every educator – administrator, counselor, and teacher – could benefit from reading. It makes you reflect on your practice and how you can grow from it. I’m not saying that it will prepare you for everything (again, you will NEVER know what it’s like to have some conversations with students until that opportunity presents itself,) but it will give you a good heads-up about working in a more urban environment and what you can do to help build relationships with your students. I will definitely be using some of his tips and ideas with my new 6th grade class that just started at the middle school. I look forward to sharing how this works with them!

If you would like to learn more about Dr. Emdin, I encourage you to check out his website!

Cell Phone Chaos: How Social Media Has Changed Middle School

iphone-410311_960_720By Sabrina Bartels

When I was a sophomore in high school, I was becoming a pro at participating in both Debate and Forensics meets. Our team would meet at our high school early in the morning, get on a school bus, and then head out to a different school to compete. During this time, many of my fellow speakers acquired cell phones, since our meets rarely ended on time, and gathering all of us on the bus was quite an adventure. I, however, did not get a cell phone. When asked by my Debate coach why I didn’t have a phone, I cheekily responded, “it’s because I’m Amish.”

Fast forward a few weeks to parent-teacher conferences. My Debate coach – who was also my Politics teacher – sat down and met with my mom. As they were talking, my Debate coach commented, “You don’t look like what I expected.”

My mom was used to this. She laughed and said, “Because I’m Caucasian and my daughter is Asian? It’s because she’s adopted.”

My Debate coach laughed too and said, “No, because Sabrina told me she was Amish! I was expecting you to come in a bonnet and a buggy.”

My mom was mortified. And I’m sure it comes as no surprise that it took a LONG time before I got a cell phone after that stunt.

It’s funny to think back to that instant and to a time that I did not have a cell phone constantly on me. It’s even scarier to think of how cell phones, and other methods of communication, have evolved over my lifetime. When I was six, I remember my dad had a pager so that we could reach him at work in case of an emergency. That was pretty high-tech! It wasn’t until I was in high school that more people started carrying pagers and cell phones. And by the time I started college, almost everyone had a flip phone. By the time I graduated four years later, iPhones were the new trend. It was startling to see that people could check their emails or Facebook from their phones, or take amazing pictures without the aid of a digital camera.

When I think back to those times, I become more and more appreciative of the fact that my parents held off on getting me a cell phone as long as they did. Working in a middle school, I see how easily it is for people to get consumed by their phones and social media. A lot of my students are constantly on their social media, whether that’s texting, tweeting, Snapchatting, or taking pictures for Instagram. And to be fair, it’s not just teenagers (I must admit that I’m scrolling through Facebook while I write this post.)

There was this fascinating article written by a teacher named Benjamin Conlon called “Middle School Misfortunes Then and Now, One Teacher’s Take.” In it, Conlon details how social media and cell phones have completely revolutionized the whole middle school experience. It’s fascinating to read his example of what an embarrassing middle school incident was like in 2008, versus 2018. What was once a one-time incident that could easily be forgotten can now be turned into a meme or another viral video.

We often say that teens have it much easier than we did back in the day, and in some respects, it’s true. Technology has made information more accessible. But in the same respect, it’s a double-edged sword. Technology has made it harder for students to leave the stress of school at school. When I had a fight with friends at school, it started and ended at school. The only way we could contact each other was calling each other on a landline phone. Now, students can text or Snapchat each other, post rude messages on Facebook, or spread hateful comments on Instagram. They feel invincible, hidden behind their computer or cell phone screens.

How can you help your middle schooler through their social media struggles? Here are my suggestions:

  1. It’s really okay to wait for a phone. To be fair, I am not a parent. I know a lot of parents have told me that they gave their middle schooler a cell phone because they walk home. That makes sense. However, that doesn’t mean they “need” a smartphone. A flip phone or a prepaid phone that allows your student to call or text someone in an emergency is just fine, gets the job done, and causes a lot less drama in the process.
  2. Talk about password privacy. The amount of middle school drama caused by students sharing each other’s passwords and then posting things “for” their friends is ridiculous. Teach your student that passwords are absolutely private. Only family members should be able to go on your social media.
  3. Check your student’s social media. I had a parent this past year who religiously checked their child’s Facebook and had his email linked to her phone so that she could track what her son was writing to others. Some people thought that was a complete invasion of privacy. This mom saw it as her son thought twice before he sent or posted anything he didn’t want her to see. This also allowed her to see what others posted, and who his friends were on Facebook.
  4. Set specific rules up. Some parents have rules that their student only gets their phone from 4-7 pm at night, and it must charge downstairs overnight. I really do think this is helpful. The number of students who have confessed to me that they stay up all night watching YouTube videos or texting is pretty high.
  5. Practice what you preach. I am just as guilty of this, but I usually do try to make a conscious effort to put my phone away when I’m with my family and friends. This is especially true when my nieces and nephew come over. I don’t want them to think that they can get away with sitting on their phones the whole time because “Aunt Sabrina gets to.” This also promotes time for kids to get to know their parents and family members more. That interaction is super important!

Also, remind your students that you have been there, you’ve lived it, and – better yet – you survived! That in itself can be more reassuring than anything.

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.

The Importance of Mental health: A Letter From One Marquette Student to Another

counselorBy Sabrina Bartels

Earlier this month, the Journal Sentinel published this article on Markus Howard. If you haven’t seen it yet, check it out.  After reading it, I felt compelled to write a little note to him.

Dear Markus,

To start with a cliché: you don’t know me, but I know a little bit about you. I am an avid Marquette fan, having graduated from Marquette with my undergrad degree in 2011 and my Master’s in School Counseling in 2013. I have watched games where all the odds have been stacked against us, and seen you help lead the team to victory. Earlier this month, you helped elevate the team over Creighton, scoring a historic 53 points and whipping Marquette nation into an absolute frenzy.

And because of your skill, my 8th graders have started taking notice. They talk about how great you are and how much they want to be like you. They talk about going to Marquette someday and playing in the Fiserv Forum. I’ve had kids try to imitate your three-point shot so they can use it during their own games. They talk about someday beating your free throw point average.

You are an absolute hero to them because of what you do on the court. For me, you are a hero for what happens after the game has ended.

You may not know it, but I’m hoping my students are watching you because of the way you portray yourself. You make sure to stay humble. (I just saw an interview you gave after the Creighton game, and when asked about how you are so effective at what you do, your response was “I play on a great team.” Nothing about how you scored about half the points Marquette made that night.) You give back to the fans. You volunteer and work hard. You are a great leader on the NCAA Division I Men’s basketball Oversight Committee. But most importantly, you’ve gone public on the importance of mental health in athletes.

As a counselor, mental health is my daily job, but it’s often hard to put it into perspective with my 13- and 14-year-old students. My kiddos come from a wide variety of backgrounds, and all of them come in with a different perspective on counseling. Some students love having me at school, so they can talk about their problems. Some just think I’m a friendly person to have around. But then there are some who view counseling as weak. They don’t want to ask for help, for fear of how that makes them look. And these are the kids that I struggle connecting with the most. It’s almost like we have little boundaries up that are hard to overcome.

The fact that you talked about seeing a psychologist as “just another practice” has really opened up the door to a lot of my students. Suddenly, talking to a mental health professional is not taboo. It’s not weird; it’s not only for people they think are “crazy.” It’s for everyone who needs someone to talk to. And my hope is that my students start to embody that mentality, that counseling is something that can help everyone, regardless of age, race, orientation, socioeconomic status, etc.

You’ve also opened the door to talking about mental health openly. A lot of my students think that mental health – good or bad – is a very private thing, or something that could never happen to them (“I’m a good student, so I can’t have anxiety”). And while it is in some respects private, talking about how mental health has affected you or someone you know can open doorways to others sharing their own personal experience, which all helps reduce the stigma associated with mental illness.

It was also important for my students to hear why spending time with people you love is important. Some of my students are going through a phase where it isn’t cool to spend time with family, or people in general who love them. In an age where isolation is all too common, having someone whom they look up to emphasize the importance of connection is all the more special.

So thank you. Thank you for speaking out and using your voice to inspire others. Best of luck the rest of this season.

We are Marquette!
Sincerely,

A grateful school counselor

Changing Climate: Counselors Getting Crafty!

By Sabrina Bartels

At the start of this school year, the Student Services department decided to help “beautify” our building. Here are some fun things we did to help our school climate!

  1. “Be the nice kid” quote. This was one of the most difficult things we did, but it was definitely worth it. We started by purchasing white paint and painting over a small section of the brick wall. We then projected a picture of the quote on the wall and traced the lettering, before finishing off the words with a couple coats of paint. It was finicky and stressful, but we’ve gotten tons of compliments on it. If you’re thinking of adding this quote to your school, we recommend picking up a variety of brushes to accommodate the different fonts. Also, this is a team activity – all the painting can get very tedious for just one person! Be the nice kid
  2. Drake bulletin board. Our students love this one (and also use it as an excuse to sing the song “Hey Keke.”) We saw a bulletin board on Facebook that used the quote, so we adjusted it a little to fit our school and added our own picture of Drake. We hope that it encourages our students to start thinking about their post-secondary education paths. It’s also a fun way to incorporate a little pop culture into school! Bulletin Board
  3. And speaking of education paths … we added a bulletin board outside of Student Services so we could post our own educational paths. Our students love seeing where all of us went to school! We’ve also used our new bulletin board to post inspirational quotes for our students to read. Educational PathwaysEducational PathStudent Services board
  4. Inside Out bulletin board. We also created a bulletin board that offers students a gentle reminder about what we do in Student Services. So often, we have students who don’t know what our roles are, or what they can talk to us about. Inside Out
  5. Pennants. In September, we sent out emails to (almost) all of the colleges and universities in Wisconsin, asking for pennants and any “swag” the colleges had to promote their school. The responses we got were overwhelming! Around 15 schools (Marquette included!) not only sent us pennants, but were super generous in sending us t-shirts, temporary tattoos, stickers/decals, water bottles, and more! Thanks to their kindness, we are able to start discussing post-secondary education right now with our students. We wanted to hang them over the bulletin board outside our office, but are trying to find something better than duct tape to hold them up.

WEB and 6th grade orientation: Watching my 8th graders become leaders

Blue_lockers_at_IATCSBy Sabrina Bartels

At the end of last school year, we introduced a new concept to our 8th grade students called WEB. WEB, which stands for Where Everyone Belongs, promotes a welcoming environment in schools and encourages students to be leaders in their school community. At my school, we asked teachers to recommend students they thought would be good leaders and help us run the 6th grade student orientation. The results were, in my opinion, amazing.

There were two really great moments that stood out to me as an adult on the WEB team. The first moment was when I looked at the initial list of students being recommended as WEB leaders. There were several students I “expected” to see on the list: the kids who were always polite, responsible, and volunteered for multiple opportunities throughout the year. But there were also a good number of students who I considered “emerging leaders”: students who absolutely had leadership potential, but were not typically picked first for leadership opportunities. I think of some shyer students, or the boy who was a little outspoken during class, or the kind girl who really struggled in terms of attendance. Some of those students never believed in themselves to be leaders. Talking with some of them and giving them an application to be a WEB leader was such a rewarding moment. The smiles on their faces, and the pride they felt when they heard that teachers had suggested them, were amazing.

The second moment was seeing the leaders in action during the 6th grade orientation. I will be honest: I was a little nervous during our training days. Some of our students were still very shy and reserved. There were some students who were reluctant to practice some of the activities because they were embarrassed (we had a lot of activities that required moving, dancing, and doing things in silly voices.) We frequently discussed as a big group how all of us adults were embarrassed as well, but that we had the mindset that we were doing this for the 6th graders. Several of our students took comfort in that fact that we were embarrassed and nervous too! The day of the training, our students were fantastic. They completely surpassed my expectations.

I had students volunteering to run groups on their own instead of in pairs when the number of 6th graders exceeded our estimates (I was especially proud of one of my students with anxiety, who bravely volunteered to run her own group and did amazing with it!) There were 8th graders going out of their way to welcome students who were extremely nervous. I saw my shy students burst out of their shells and participate fully in every activity, which encouraged our 6th grade students to do the same. Many of our leaders even took it upon themselves to organize the 6th graders in the lunch line – something none of us had asked them to do, but man, were their efforts appreciated! In my opinion, the day went smoothly, and my 8th graders impressed me beyond belief.

I am excited to see how WEB transforms our school climate. We will have activities throughout the year that our WEB leaders will run, and I think the 8th graders are just as excited as we are about this. Seeing how WEB has already helped many of my students become stronger leaders makes me excited for the future. I anticipate great things for this year!

Counselor Book Review – Mockingbird

books-933333_960_720By Sabrina Bartels

Near the end of the school year, several of the staff members at my school decided to form a book club. However, we did not pick up the latest adult novel and dive in. Instead, we decided to focus on young adult and children’s literature. We compiled a list of books – some old classics and some newer ones as well – and picked those that we thought would help us gain insight into our students. We also chose books that we thought our students would enjoy reading, since getting students to read is crucial to their academic success. And trust me, there were a lot of books to choose from!

The first book we chose was called Mockingbird, by Kathryn Erskine, and I found myself learning so much from this novel. I’ll start by saying this: I think every educator should read Mockingbird. Anyone who regularly works with kids should buy or borrow a copy. You’ll be so glad you did.

Mockingbird is narrated by ten-year-old Caitlin, who has just lost her brother in a school shooting. What makes Caitlin so incredibly unique as a narrator is that she has Asberger Syndrome, which is on the autism spectrum. Many describe Asberger Syndrome as being part of the higher functioning end of the spectrum. Oftentimes, those with Asberger’s (and autism in general) struggle with social communication. In the book, Caitlin experiences difficulty with understanding people’s emotions based on their facial expressions. She also has very black-or-white thinking; everything is either right or wrong, with no in-between. As you go through the book, you are able to see Caitlin’s thought process for certain events, which had a huge impact on me. It really opened my eyes to how some of my students with autism may be thinking or feeling.

I remember learning a lot about autism during my undergrad years, but you can only learn so much from textbooks. This past year, I started working closely with a student who has autism. Similar to Caitlin, he is high functioning and very intelligent, but struggles with social communication. There are times when he and his teachers — or he and I — don’t see eye to eye, despite all of our best attempts. I remember he and I frequently talked about why he had to complete a certain assignment when he already knew and understood the material. I also remember an incident where he refused to give up his cell phone, even though he was using it in the locker room (where phones are not allowed.) When I explained that we can’t have cell phones in locker rooms for privacy reasons and that people sometimes take inappropriate pictures, he said that he should be allowed to have his phone because he would never do that.

Though Caitlin does not experience the same situations in the book, there are times when I feel like her inner dialogue may explain my own student’s thoughts and feelings. Being able to read how her logic plays out makes me understand my student better. Seeing how Caitlin reacts to situations – and seeing how those situations mirror my student’s situations – really helps me understand what I can do to be a better counselor for my students with autism and Asberger’s. I’ve learned that having a facial expressions chart could be very helpful for my students who struggle labeling their emotions. I can continue to demonstrate and model appropriate social behavior (looking at someone, listening with my whole body, etc.) I can continue to work with parents and outside therapists, which is a huge component to student success. By having everyone on the same page, you are better able to meet the needs of the student and ensure that you are all giving a consistent message. Finally, I learned that patience really is key. If Caitlin’s counselor, father, and teacher were not as patient, I don’t think Caitlin would’ve made the growth she did. It made me feel better to realize that I am not the only one who sometimes struggles with patience, and that I as a counselor am not alone in this.

But this book is not only for adults. I think this book could make a world of difference to a student who has Asberger’s. It shows them that they are not alone. Sometimes, my student believes that he is the only one who experiences what he does, and the only one who has to get through a school day with Asberger’s. This would show him that there are others who go through similar struggles that he does. But it also promotes empathy from other students. Children who read the book will see how Caitlin reacts to various situations. They may then later see a student in their classroom who has a similar reaction. My hope is that they will remember the story Mockingbird and be kinder to others. After all, a little kindness and understanding can go a long way.


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