Posts Tagged 'school counseling'

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 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.

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!

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!

Learning About Emotions from the “Inside Out”


19995797742_df5785609b_o.jpgBy Sabrina Bartels – During my lazy weekends, I love to whip up some homemade pizza, throw a movie into the DVD player, and curl up under a blanket with my husband. While our pizza tastes stay pretty static, our ideal movie varies depending on our moods. Some days, we need a good action movie, complete with car crashes and flames. Once in a while, it’s a thriller that keeps us on the edge of our seats. And sometimes, when we are in a goofy mood, we find ourselves kicking back and watching some sort of animated feature.

I’ll be honest, I will blame our nieces for our love of cartoon movies. Whenever they come over, or Rob and I drive out to see them, they want to watch a movie. It doesn’t matter that they have seen Frozen more times than I count, or that they know every word to Wreck-It Ralph; a movie is always a perfect way to end the day.

This past year, we heard tons of great things about Inside Out, so we finally decided to watch it a few nights ago. (Plus, it just won an Oscar, which shows it is the epitome of excellence!)

Let me just start by saying this: Everyone needs to watch this movie. Seriously. If you are reading this blog post now, just hop over to Amazon and buy it. Or run out and get it from Redbox. It is that fantastic.

A quick summary: The movie follows the story of Riley, a middle-school aged girl who moves across the country. As you follow her journey about moving, fitting in, and finding her niche, you are introduced to her five key emotions: Joy, Anger, Sadness, Fear, and Disgust. Each emotion has its own personality: Fear panics over everything, Anger shoots flames out of his head and is constantly crabby, and Disgust rolls her eyes at almost everything. In truth, these emotions are perfect examples of what I see in my office!

The best part of the movie is that it examines each emotion and explains all of the layers that we as humans have. As you watch, you see how Riley has different sides to her, how certain emotions can take control all of a sudden, and the dangers of shutting down emotionally when things occur. It is such an intricate look at what it is like to be a middle schooler. For me, as an adult, it explained a lot about emotions, not only what I feel, but what my students must feel. And for any of my middle school students who see the movie, they not only get to laugh (and cry) at the movie, but they also get a chance to understand why they may feel a certain way. It is such a great tool when it comes to discussing emotions.

Most importantly to me, this movie now opens up the chance to have an honest conversation about emotions and mental health. So many times, people either feel the need to hide their emotions or sweep them under the rug. Having a movie completely centered around emotions shows that it is okay to express your emotions. It is okay, and even healthy, to be in-tune with them. On the opposite side, some people may feel that their emotions – especially if they are prone to feeling overwhelmed – make them weird. This movie normalizes emotions. It makes being angry and being sad okay. It doesn’t mean that you are a freak, or weird, or “different.” It shows that experiencing several emotions at once or feeling like your emotions are clashing against each other happens, and that’s okay.

In addition to watching the movie, I’ve been spending some time on Pinterest looking at some lesson plans that people have been creating to pair with the movie. These lessons span age ranges: four year olds can create masks of each of the emotions to help them express their feelings; middle schoolers can learn about how their emotions come into play with grief; and college students can use the movie to learn about perseverance and overcoming obstacles to be successful. I really encourage that counselors and teachers browse Pinterest if they are searching for lessons on expressing emotions!

Counselor vs. Control: The Ultimate Battle

97033289_57fab34574_o.jpgBy Sabrina Bartels – This past week, I started watching The Office on Netflix. I know that I’m a little behind the times, but it was a show that I really enjoyed back in college, and lost track of it when I started grad school. While there are many hilarious, and vaguely inappropriate, quotes that make me laugh, one of my favorite quotes wasn’t the punchline of a joke. It was from a character that had just gotten out of anger management classes. When a coworker makes fun of him for being in anger management, he simply looks at the coworker and says, “I can’t control what you do. I can only control what I do.”

I love this quote. I say it all the time to my students, whether they are struggling with drama or dating. Life would be so much simpler if we could all control what other people think and feel. It would be easier if we could read people’s minds, or force them to act a certain way.

Unfortunately, we can’t. Sometimes, we have to realize that we can only control our actions. If someone isn’t nice to us, we may have to be the bigger person and extend the olive branch first. If someone glares at us, we have to accept that we cannot force them to stop looking in our direction. We have the ability to control the outcomes of situations, whether that means walking away from a fight or accepting an apology.

But I also love this quote because it applies to us adults as well. It’s a quote that I have been thinking about recently. As a counselor, I always wish that I could control other people’s actions. Sometimes, I wish I could make students appreciate their parents more, or I wish that some parents would love their children a little more. I wish I could give people more time to spend with each other, or could convince another person to stop spending so much time with another individual. I wish I could make teachers and students understand each other; I’ve been working with a lot of drama between teachers and students recently. I wish our students could see us adults as “real people.” I wish some teachers could be more understanding about students and the situations they are dealing with at home.

Sometimes, it’s hard to give up that control. For some, giving up control means allowing yourself to be caught in a whirlwind of chaos. It’s giving yourself over to the unknown and the unstructured. It’s admitting that you do not have all the answers. It’s acknowledging that you are not perfect.

That’s really scary.

But as scary as it is, it can also be freeing. By realizing that you can only control what YOU think, what YOU do, how YOU act, you let go of the torture that comes with wondering how you can make someone do what you want. It’s never that easy. We can ask people to do things, both nicely and a little more harshly, but ultimately, it is that person’s decision. We have no control over it. And by wondering how we can get people to do exactly what we want, we become physically and mentally exhausted.

That’s my goal this Lenten season. Instead of giving up junk food, or hitting the snooze alarm, I am going to give up a little control. I am going to remind myself, every day, that I cannot control what other people do, I can only control what I do. I can’t control the parents, teachers, or students I work for. Instead, I can be there to support their decisions, listen to their concerns, and help guide their decision-making.

It’s a unique, and somewhat weird, vice to give up, but I have a feeling it will only lead to fantastic outcomes.

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