Posts Tagged 'Sabrina Bong Bartels'

The Cost of Telling the Truth

truth-257160_960_720By Sabrina Bartels

Throughout my (several) years of education, I’ve been blessed with a wide variety of amazing teachers. And when I really think about what makes some of these teachers stand out in my memory is the fact that they built a relationship with me. The things they may have done and said may have been small to them, but they meant the world to me. They showed me how much influence and power simple words, actions, and caring can have on a student.

Here’s one example: during my junior year of college, I fell ill with the dreaded “swine flu.” It was right before midterms, and it was awful. I had emailed the professors whose midterms I hadn’t taken yet, explaining my situation and how I was leaving campus early. My wonderful philosophy professor (Dr. Theresa Tobin) emailed me back, telling me to take care and that we would figure out the midterm situation when I returned. It was such a relief to know that I wasn’t going to fail my midterm, or that me being sick would count against me. I am not sure she knew exactly how much peace of mind she gave me that day I went home.

All relationships are built on trust, and I unfortunately had to break the trust of one of my students recently. In terms of confidentiality and mandatory reporting, I had to report the situation. The student begged me not to, even though we had talked about how I had to. Despite all that, it didn’t make anything easier. And with how the situation is unfolding now, I wish things could’ve been different.

It’s taken a lot of discussions with my coworkers to come to grips with the fact that I had to report the situation the student told me about; even though I know I did the right thing, I still worry about my students and the situations they must face. I am also sad, confused, and frustrated by the fact that my connection with this student may be permanently affected as a result. I am worried that this student will not talk to me at all anymore, or may refuse to meet with me and discuss his concerns. I worry that his trust in me is broken. My relationships with my students are precious, and I do not take the fact that they confide in me for granted. Even though my students know the limits of my confidentiality, it doesn’t make things easier when I need to report something that they say.

I’ve talked a lot about the hard aspects of my job, and this is definitely one of them. And of all the difficulties I mention when it comes to counseling, I believe that this is the part I struggle with the most. It’s not easy to feel like you’ve “betrayed” a student’s trust in you, especially when the majority of your career is spent building trust and relationships with your students. It’s even harder when that student actively resists meeting with you, which makes it much more difficult to follow up.

I’m still figuring out how to proceed from here. This isn’t the first time that I’ve had to report something, and it sadly will not be my last, but it is one of the first times a student has resisted talking to me as a result of my reporting. I keep telling myself every day that I did what was right, even though it definitely wasn’t easy or what I wanted to do. My hope is that the situation will work out for the best for my student, and that he is able to go forward living a happy, safe life.

The Power of Listening

heart-love-romance-valentine-mediumBy Sabrina Bartels

Middle school counselors had a hero in their midst this past week. Sycamore Middle School’s counselor, Molly Hudgens, made headlines when she was able to prevent a student from going on a shooting rampage.

Last week, a 14-year-old student entered the counseling office and spoke with Hudgens. As the conversation went on, Hudgens asked the student if he had a gun. He showed her the gun in his waistband. By the end of their 45-minute conversation, the student surrendered the weapon to Hudgens.

The whole story is simply amazing, but then came this quote from the sheriff: “He advised Ms. Hudgens he was going to kill some teachers and a police officer and not students. He came to her because he indicated she would be the only one to talk him out of it.”

This quote was so amazingly powerful for me. Here was a student with a lot on his mind, not unlike many middle school students. Here was a student who was going to act impulsively, again, much like other middle school students. But instead of going down a path that could’ve ended with a lot of lost lives, he went to the counselor. And that made all the difference.

I thought about this as I drove up north this weekend. Some days, I come home feeling like a failure. Those are the days when I wasn’t able to find a perfect solution to “fix” the problems that my students are encountering. If I had my way, I would have a magic wand that would automatically solve all my students’ worries, concerns, behaviors, and fears. All of my students would have homes to live in, food to eat, and friends who treat them well. No kid would be abused, neglected, bullied, or abandoned. But through this story, I realized that I don’t always need the perfect solution. Just because I can’t perfectly solve their problems doesn’t mean that I’m failing them as a counselor.

Molly Hudgens did an amazing thing. She listened. She empathized. She did all of the things we learned both through grad school and through real-life experience. But most importantly, she earned this student’s trust and respect. It was through this simple act (though it’s not necessarily easy to do this!) that she was able to prevent tragedy.

To me, this demonstrates the true power and strength of the relationships we create every single day. The little things that we may take for granted – all of the smiles and hugs and chats that we have with our students every single day – may be the exact things that make us heroes to our students. Those are the things our students treasure. Those are the things that make the difference.

Here’s to Molly Hudgens, a hero among school counselors! To read about her experience, click here.

Having a Crush or Being Crushing?

red-love-heart-valentines.jpgBy Sabrina Bartels – When I was in elementary school, one of the boys in my class shoved me to the ground during a routine game of tag. As my friend took me to the office for my skinned knee, she smiled and whispered, “I think he likes you. My mom said that when a boy is mean to you, that’s him showing that he likes you.” I was skeptical of her viewpoint. But three days later, that same boy who is the reason I have a scar on my right knee passed me a note that said I was pretty.

That was my first experience with a boy being mean as a way to show affection. And it wasn’t just physical things either. As I got into middle school, I would watch boys tease girls or make fun of them in class, only to have them turn around a few days later and tell the girls that they had a crush on them. I remember one boy shouting at a girl in class that she was one of the dumbest people he knew, but then asked her out a week later. It was confusing, but something that I eventually grew to accept. It must be “a boy thing.”

Now that I’m working in a middle school, I find myself hearing a lot about boys who are mean to girls. There are boys who shove girls in gym class, insult them in front of the entire class, take their phones, or French-lock their lockers (turn their locks the wrong way, making it near impossible to get into their lockers). Many times, groups of girls congregate in my office, asking why boys are so stupid and do the things they do. And almost every time, their friends or I will suggest that it’s the boy’s way of expressing their crush.

Recently on Facebook, videos and posts have been circulating about the harsh physicality that boys show to girls when they have a crush. One particular post made me pause. It said “Don’t tell your daughter that when a boy is mean or rude to her it’s because he has a crush on her. Don’t teach her that abuse is a sign of love.” A person then responded, “A million times YES. Do not spread that bull. There is NO love in abuse.”

Reading that post really hit me.

Every time I tell one of my girls that a boy did something mean because he has a crush on her, I am validating the boy’s behavior. I’m saying it’s okay. I’m saying that it’s “a boy thing” and that they will eventually grow out of it. But that’s the thing: Not every boy grows out of it. A lot of them do, I’m sure, but some don’t. Some take that belief of “it’s okay to be mean because that’s how I should be showing a girl I like her.” And then there are some girls who go through life thinking that “it’s okay if he’s mean to me; that’s just how boys are.”

I always thought by telling these girls that a boy is acting that way because he likes her, she will be flattered. She will look at boys’ behaviors differently. I never thought that I would unconsciously be implying that boys can treat girls poorly, and it’s okay.

I think about the people that I know who have been in physically or emotionally abusive relationships. So many times, I have heard people say that they “deserved” the abuse; they antagonized their significant other or “nagged” them after a bad day. Some people say that they took someone for better or worse, and that the “worse” part is now. Others say that this is just the way their significant other is.

Would I be able to look at them and say “Oh, it’s just his way of showing that he loves you?” Or “Don’t mind her, she’s just being a typical girl?’

Of course not.

But here I am, talking to my middle school students, excusing people’s behavior because it may be the way they show affection.

That post on Facebook was a huge wake-up call for me. It showed me the power that my words can have, and how carefully I need to choose my words. It also emphasized the point that cruelty to anyone is wrong, whether it is a joke or not. And I, as an educator and an adult, need to stop excusing it. Boy or girl, no one should be mean to show affection. No one should be mean to others, period.

So the next time that student comes into my office, wondering why another is acting rude to them, I will not tell them that it’s just that person’s way of showing affection. I will not brush it off. I will have a talk with my students about appropriate ways to show affection. I will not allow them to be mean, and dismiss their behavior by saying it’s just a phase, and that it’s okay.

Hopefully, this will help the next generation recognize their worth, their importance, and the kindness and gentleness of love.

Keep Calm and Counsel On

15575925446_77cbfd6e29_b.jpgBy Sabrina Bartels – As exciting as it is to get closer to the end of a school year, I am also learning about the complete and utter chaos that happens as we inch closer to June. In addition to helping my 8th grade students get ready for graduation, I am also preparing to welcome my new 6th graders to the school. With the hellos, goodbyes, and everything in between, I’ve come up with five tips to help you keep your sanity before summer begins.

  1. Stay organized. I made a HUGE mistake when I started getting disorganized in March. My desk began looking more and more like a disaster, and I remember shaking it off and thinking, “I’ll have plenty of time to take care of it before June.” Wrong! Now, I find myself tearing my desk apart to find that one, crucial piece of paper that I had haphazardly tossed into one of several “important” piles on my desk. When you find that perfect organization system – file folders, boxes, or binders – be sure to keep up with it!
  1. Make time for yourself … As things get crazier, it’s easier for you to keep running full-steam ahead without any thought for yourself. While it feels helpful in the moment, it can lead to you burning out very quickly, and sometimes sooner than you expect. I know that there are always nights where you could do work at home; I am more than guilty of pulling out my laptop and trying to squeeze in another hour or two of work after I leave the school building. However, we as educators also need time to decompress. Take a walk, watch a movie, eat some ice cream, or spend some time with your kids. You’ll thank yourself later.
  1. … but also stick to a schedule. When things become more unstructured, that’s when you need the routine of a schedule the most. What does this mean? Take your lunch break (don’t skip out!) and stick with anything that is part of your weekly routine. If you go to bed at ten every night, shut your laptop off and go to bed. Yoga lesson? Go to it. Visit a classroom every 4th hour to check in with a student? Walk up there and check in. Now is not the time to change up your routine; this will leave you feeling exhausted, confused, and out of control.
  1. Write everything down. I have about five deadlines going through my head at the moment: when our PBIS application needs to be submitted, when I need to finish my PDP, when I need to finalize my SLO and get it to my principal. And, of course, this is in addition to all the meetings, students, and parents that come up on an as-needed basis! The only way I get through everything is by writing it down in my planner. Whatever your system is to remember all of your appointments, keep it up to date. This not only reminds you of when everything is, but also serves as a gentle reminder that you can only accomplish so much in one day!
  1. Don’t panic. Easy to say, but hard to do. As I write this, I am surrounded by papers that I need to complete for my transition meeting tomorrow morning. For this transition meeting, I need to note which students I need to talk about to the high school counselors. With 42 students down, and 35 more to go, I’m definitely experiencing a little panic! And then when I get to work, I panic about whether or not I will be able to see every student who wants to see me. But I’ve learned that I just need to take a deep breath sometimes. By staying calm, you feel more in control and have more faith in yourself to accomplish the task at hand.  And your students will always appreciate when their counselor is calm!

In Memory of “The Patron Saint of Awkward Teenagers”

sunset-1060710_960_720.jpgBy Sabrina Bartels – On Easter, I found out that my beloved Debate and Forensics coach, Sharon Sharko, unexpectedly passed away. As the news quickly circulated around Facebook, her friends, colleagues, and former students all began sharing their favorite memories. I couldn’t shake the idea of blogging about a teacher who had such an influence on my high school career, so if it is okay with readers here, I’m going to dedicate this blog post to Sharko.

We never called her Ms. Sharko. Okay, maybe I did the very first time I met her, but stopped after that. She was always just “Sharko.” It took away the formality that usually exists between teachers and students. That lack of formality led to Sharko creating close relationships with all of her students. We were able to walk into her office at any time, before, during, or after school, and we would be greeted with a smile and a witty comment.  She would offer all kinds of advice for us as well, from what college would be best, to how to ask someone to prom. She was a wealth of knowledge on so many different things.

She also had a knack for knowing people. When I first joined her debate team, Sharko decided to pair me up with a quiet girl named Linsey. Linsey and I were debate partners for only a year, but we still talk to this day. In fact, she was a bridesmaid at my wedding. The next year, Sharko paired me up with a boy named Ken, who knew more about politics and government than I ever cared to learn. Somehow, our personalities meshed and we really clicked as debate partners. These two people that I believed had nothing in common with me have ended up being my lifelong friends. I am forever thankful to have them in my life. In fact, a lot of my core group of friends from high school were from the Debate and Forensics Team!

Sharko’s knowledge of who I was (even when I maybe didn’t know) extended to my forensics career. She placed me in a category called “Public Address,” which involves a speaker writing a speech around a controversial issue. Under Sharko’s guidance, I began to blossom as a public speaker. I learned how to use hand gestures and subtle movements to emphasize my points. I learned how to project and how to inflect emotion in my voice. A category that I had started out hating soon became my passion. I would go on to be conference champion my sophomore and senior years, and take home two silvers and a gold in state competitions.

One of my favorite memories with Sharko revolved around the first forensics meet of my senior year. I had been procrastinating (as usual) with writing my speech. The day before the meet, Sharko had asked if I wanted to practice my speech. I had to admit that I hadn’t written it yet. I remember she rolled her eyes at me (she was used to me waiting until the last minute for everything; she had, after all, had me in her AP Politics class and witnessed me crank out five-page papers two hours before class.). “Make sure you have one tomorrow,” she reminded me as I left for the day.

I went home, watched some TV, listened to music, finished my homework, and around midnight, decided it was a good time to start my speech. I wrote an 8-minute speech in an hour and practiced it twice. Okay, to be honest, I read it once to my mom that night, and once to my dad in the car as we drove to the meet.

I made it through my three rounds and then found out that I was able to go to the power round. A power round is when judges take the top five or so speakers and have them compete head-to-head. I remember Sharko wasn’t fazed in the slightest when she found out I was in the power round. She told me she had every faith in me that I would make it to that final round.

Once the power round was over, we all filed into the auditorium to get the final results. The emcee had the speakers from each category come to the stage and receive their awards. “Public Address” was called up, and I walked to the front with all of my fellow speakers. They announced the fifth place speaker, it wasn’t me. Fourth place, it wasn’t me. I remember Sharko was beaming at me for being in the top three. And then they announced third place, and it wasn’t me. That’s when Sharko and I exchanged looks of shock. At the end of the meet, as I clung to my second-place trophy, Sharko hugged me and said, “Imagine if you had written your speech a week before!” She then said she was proud of me, and that I represented our school well.

As I got older, my relationship with Sharko evolved from student-teacher to colleagues. When I decided to become a school counselor, she sent me the following message: “I think that your sense of what to say and do is going to be so helpful for kids at any age and I am very proud of your accomplishments. Counseling isn’t the easiest career, but as I said, you will be excellent.” We would talk about Forensics and the struggles educators are facing today. My last message from Sharko said, “I know teachers shouldn’t have favorites, but you were one of mine. And when you think about it, being a teacher is kind of like being a sculptor, you have to have good material to generate a work of art. And, you Sabrina, were really, really good material. Hope to talk to you soon!”

But my last memory of Sharko isn’t even my memory. It’s my husband’s.

Just last year, he and Sharko had jury duty together. The two had lunch together and reminisced about high school and Sharko’s career at Greendale. According to Rob, Sharko had talked about what a great counselor she imagined I was. I was so flattered that she told my husband this. I remember telling Rob that I should Facebook Sharko and ask her to have coffee with me, but work and life got busy. I never got around to it.

Sharon Sharko helped make me the person I am today. At her memorial, someone said that Sharko was the “patron saint of awkward teenagers.” And it’s true. When I was a shy, unsure, timid teenager, Sharko took me under her wing and helped me discover a confidence in my speaking abilities. She helped me foster a love of helping people and standing up for what I believe in. That’s what she always did. She loved and accepted every student that walked through her door, regardless of age, confidence, and beauty. She took you and made you a better person. A better speaker. A better advocate. She was always there for her students, both when we were in school and out in the real world, guiding us, supporting us unconditionally, and helping us become the wonderful, expressive adults we all are today.

Rejection: Sign of Failure or Brilliant Inspiration?

J._K._Rowling_2010.jpgBy Sabrina Bartels – Looking back on my life, there are several authors that have created stories which have had a significant impact on me. The Notebook by Nicholas Sparks taught me about the power of true love. The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch taught me the importance of living every day to the fullest. The Alchemist by Paulo Coehlo showed me the power of faith and destiny; Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen stressed independence as a young woman. I could go on for pages and pages about wonderful books I’ve read, but one particular author not only inspired me with the novels she wrote, but on a personal note as well. That person is J.K. Rowling.

Let me start by saying that I LOVE the Harry Potter novels. I was 11 when the books first came out, and essentially grew up with the main characters. At first, I saw the books as great stories about a kid learning about himself and going through a lot of similar things I went through (while I did not get to go to a magical school, I do remember being very angsty, just like Harry was in book 5.) Now that I’m older, and still reread the books, I see the important lessons I learned: the dangers of prejudice, the importance of family, the strength of friendship, and the power of forgiveness. Not to mention that J.K. Rowling’s personal life was an inspiration in itself; she wrote Harry Potter as a struggling single mom who thought she had fallen to the lowest of lows.

Recently, J.K. Rowling confessed that she kept her first rejection letters from Harry Potter and put it on her kitchen wall. She then shared it on Twitter to help inspire others. She said that keeping that rejection letter reminded her that she “had nothing to lose and sometimes, that makes you brave enough to try.” For me, seeing a rejection letter would be a constant taunt that I was not good enough. J.K. Rowling used it as motivation to keep pushing, keep trying, and keep working harder. She persevered through it all and came out with a story that will be told by generations to come.

I find this so inspirational for many reasons, but a big one involves the students I work with. Now that they are getting closer to high school, they are finding that their coursework is getting more and more challenging. Some of my students have never truly struggled before to understand a concept; now, they find themselves somewhat lost in higher level math, reading, and writing. And while some of my kids listen to my “this gives you an opportunity to grow” speech, some are so frustrated with themselves that they shut down.

One student in particular was in tears when she was unable to solve an equation. She told me she was dumb, and that she would clearly never understand algebra. As I tried to help her, she repeated that she would never understand it, gave up, and walked out of my office.

I hope my students are able to look at J.K. Rowling’s courage, and perseverance, and take heart in it. Just because they fell the first time, does not mean that they have to give up. They can succeed, so long as they pick themselves back up and keep trying. I have faith in each and every one of my students to do well, succeed, and live a wonderful life, just like J.K. Rowling had faith in her story and her characters. Had she given up when she received that first letter, I would’ve never been able to read Harry Potter or any of the wonderful novels she has penned since.

So now that break is over, I’m going to making a poster for my office with one of my favorite quotes on it: “The greatest joy is not in never falling, but in rising each time you fall.” – Confucius. I don’t have too many rejection letters to hang up, since I trashed all of mine. But maybe the quote and the story of J.K. Rowling will be enough to inspire my students!

Examining the Shortage of School Counselors

scales-303388_640By Sabrina Bartels – While chatting with my dad on the phone last week, he excitedly told me that he had seen a story about school counselors on the local news. At first, I wasn’t sure what to expect; there is often a very negative connotation to a school being on the news. However, this story was a pleasant surprise. It was a special report that begged the question: Is there a school counselor shortage in Wisconsin?

According to the report, the American School Counselor Association (ASCA) suggests a 250:1 student to counselor ratio in the schools. However, this ratio does not hold true in many schools. In the report, it was stated that the average student to counselor ratio in Wisconsin is 450:1.

It’s not that we as counselors don’t like having more students. I always think that the more students, the merrier. I also see it as the more students I have, the more lives I can help change. At the same time, as needs in the school are evolving, an increase in students means that I have less time for each student on my caseload.

When my parents were in school, they didn’t have a counselor until high school. Even then, my mom and dad say that they really didn’t see their counselor, unless they needed their high school transcript. My husband, who is only four years older than me, told me that he only saw his counselor twice during his high school career. This is in sharp contrast to what I do on a daily basis: There are students I may see one-on-one every day of the week!

I have students with varying needs as well that need attending to. I meet weekly with some students who have anxiety. For some, they are struggling with issues at home, and I meet with them maybe twice a week. I have students who are behavioral concerns that I meet with on a daily basis; students I meet with on an as-needed basis with drama; and students who I see every other week for academic concerns and organizational skills. And this doesn’t even touch on the responsive services I provide (for example, a student is crying and gets sent down to me,) and the times I am teaching!

I feel as though students nowadays have higher personal and social needs than we did back when my parents (or even I) were in school. With more parents working full-time or juggling multiple jobs, students don’t get as much “face time” with their families, or find it harder to find time to talk with parents. And with the boom of technology, students are finding more ways to interact (both appropriately and inappropriately) via Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat, Kik, Instagram, and Vine. This means that a lot of students may seek out their counselor for advice. In a middle school, that can be quite a number of students!

I do appreciate the fact that the news began to question the student-to-counselor ratio, since it means that more and more schools are seeking counselors. It means that counselors are making a difference in their schools. It means that people are seeing us counselors as important.

We are worthy. We are an integral part of a student’s development. Our focus on social and emotional health, as well as our emphasis on academic and career readiness, is critical to students. We are helping students navigate the choppy, dynamic, and sometimes terrifying waters associated with growing up.

It is so incredibly gratifying to hear that people reach out to their counselor. It reminds me that what I do on a daily basis has worth and that it really matters. There are nights when I come home and feel as though I did not make a difference; seeing that Wisconsin is calling for more counselors lets me know that I am doing something, even if I’m just listening.

Check out the report here!


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