Moving on, handing over: 1

Making the decision to move on is not easy. Particularly when you have spent the last four years building a program from scratch. It has been a fascinating ride, and I have learned so much in the process, not just about guidance counselling, but also more generally about working with colleagues and about wider school aims and objectives. I still have a lot to learn and I could certainly still do more in my current post but at least there is a skeleton of a program. I leave it to others to add meat to the bones.

In this post and the next, I thought I would prepare my handover notes to a colleague who will be taking over my role when I move on to China. It’s a good opportunity to reflect on what I have learned in the last few years and to think through how things might be improved.

I have created the concept map below which I think neatly covers the different aspects of this diverse role and reflects how I have broken up the role in my mind as I have developed the program at my current school.

Download (PDF, 1.64MB)

Aims of School Guidance

School guidance programs should support the wider aims of the school’s mission and vision, of course. To this end they should be developed to maximise the formative development of the young people they serve. In practice, and in conjunction with other departments within a school, this means helping students to think about and plan for their futures as well as develop writing and conversation/interview skills among others. When implemented well they can help catalyse students into gaining more from their school life by becoming active members of the school community.

Working with students

The most obvious point of interaction for a guidance counsellor is working with the students in the school. I recognise that different schools have different ways of organising their programs, depending on their specific context but there are particular tasks that I believe schools should channel through their guidance counsellors.

In my context, I have developed a program that focusses on “career” education in grades 9 and 10 (Y10 & 11). In practice, this means that we focus on interventions for students that will expand their horizons in terms of the jobs that are available to them. For example, many students (if not all) have heard about doctors, and have some idea of what they may do professionally – normally they have all been to one. But many students are unaware of the other professional routes in healthcare like physiotherapy, radiography, biomedical research, nursing, paramedic science. The aim of our program in these early grades is to expand students knowledge about these topics.

The Future-You festival (FYF) acts as a focal point for this with other activities interspersed throughout the year as shown in the following table.

Grade 9Grade 10Grade 11Grade 12
Career Investigator (Delivered as part of the FYF)Futurewise Career Profile Futurewise if not completed in grade 10University Application support
Future-You festivalFuturewise Career Discussion & CV writing workshop (as part of FYF) Persuasive writing workshopsPersuasive writing workshops
Future-You festivalFuture-You festivalInterview skills training including body language
IBDP subject choice guidanceUniversity & Career researchFinancial Aid application support and post offer decision support
Individual meetingsIndividual meetingsIndividual meetings

This “career” education aims to engage students with research and thinking about their future. We hope that by doing this, students may be better informed when making their subject choices in grades 9 and 10, particularly with an understanding of how the subject choices for the Diploma impact on the options they have for further study.

Once students move into the Diploma program we aim to help them successfully research, apply and enter a university that it is a good fit for them.

In grade 11 we provide online tools to help students identify these options and this is supported by two whole grade workshops in term 1. From January we move to individual meetings (usually one every three weeks) supported by three whole grade workshops in term 2 and three in term 3. These workshops (add link), supported by the English department, focus on helping students develop solid persuasive writing skills that they can use in their personal statements or motivational letters.

Finally, in grade 12, we support students with their applications – it is surprising how long it takes a young person to fill one of these in! We continue with individual meetings and block out deadlines to help students manage the process. As part of the FYF we coach students on interview technique and body language, as well as give each student mock interviews to help them prepare for the requests that they get. Grade 12 reaches fever pitch around December as we push students to have everything prepared early, but students still need ongoing support and help with replying to offers and dealing with any potential fall out on results day.

Working with parents

Alongside working with students we strive to provide support to parents as well. This often comes in the shape of face to face meetings to discuss concerns or specific questions that families have. Questions can vary widely and depend, in the international context, on what the families own paradigm and passports are.

We also run presentations and information sessions for parents which we also normally open up to the wider public. These vary in content but we currently run one a term. This year in term 1 we held an introduction to Dutch HE following on from my tour of Dutch Universities. In term 2 I provided an information session on applying to a range of different university systems.

Team culture: teachers and counsellors

“I am applying to Bangor” the student said. “Oh, great! I applied there too!” says I, “It is an excellent school for Biological Sciences”.

As the school’s university counsellor I probably should have had a bit more of an idea that this student had decided to apply to this particular university, particularly considering this was rather late in the year – around April or May of Y13.

Follow up conversations made me aware that this student’s homeroom teacher had initially made the suggestion that this student applied to Bangor.

Let me get out in front of this. I am not trying to suggest in this post that teachers should not speak to their students about their university applications. I am not suggesting that teachers should not even offer advice to students and help them make sense of what can be a very confusing time of life, but teachers do need to think before they speak.

I have heard of schools where the guidance counsellor takes an aggressive, defensive approach in working with teachers. If you so much as whisper the word “university” to a student without their knowledge they may have words with you.

I have heard of teachers being reprimanded by the school counsellor for sharing a book list of subject specific reading with the Y12 and 13s and writing to them in an email that reading would be an excellent way to improve their university applications.

This wasn’t covert. The teacher wasn’t trying to go behind the counsellors back. They cc’ed the counsellor in, thinking they would be pleased that the teacher was trying to engage students to do things beyond what was merely required.

In my world then this is perfectly acceptable, as reading widely is an educationally excellent thing to encourage young people to do.

The teacher was called to the counselling office and made to apologise for that action.

This same colleague still gives me a cool reception when our paths do cross.

As a teacher, before I became a counsellor I wanted to encourage interested students to read my subject at university. I think this is natural. As someone who taught DP and A level and interacted with 17-18-year-olds pastorally, I was naturally curious as to where the students I met were applying, and what for.

It is frustrating when this information is never shared. When Teachers are never told when students have applied, or have interviews or get offers of admission. “Why do they need to know?” Is usually the question posed when this is raised.

Teachers do need to get with the school’s program and get behind the counselling team. Speak to the counselling department if they have ideas about individual students or groups of students and feel that you have the expertise to share. Global university admissions is an ever-changing landscape and teachers are not always up to speed. Also, teachers may not take into account other cultural factors like international diversity, when recommending institutions, which may hugely impact a students future happiness.

I would also submit, from experience, that teachers are not natural counsellors. I have written about this tension between teaching and counselling elsewhere and won’t bring it in here again. But teachers don’t necessarily know how to pose questions to draw out students thinking on such subjective matters about a students future, and they also may not have the full picture, painted by the families worldview.

Just like the teacher that ignores a school’s behaviour policy and does their own thing in their classroom, undermining their colleague who sticks to the behaviour policy, to the detriment of the whole team and school culture, the teacher that doesn’t engage with the counseling team to communicate ideas and discussion points about students, just serves to undermine the counseling department. This can lead to damaged reputations and undermining of the school’s reputation.

But it works both ways. Counsellors need to make teachers feel included. They need to seek students consent first to share the information (internally) about where students are applying and where they have been successful. This information serves to catalyse the team on the celebration and helps to build ongoing fruitful relationships between students and the staff that work with them. Why do teachers need to know? Because teachers care, becuase teachers invest their time, more than anyone, to work on behalf of students, because teachers know just when to put in the right word of encouragement, just when a student might need it.

It allows a whole team celebration of the students achievement and contributes to building a strong team culture amongst the staff. So counsellors and teachers: work together!

The future-you festival

In my first year at my current school I was one of the grade 10 homeroom teachers. At the time, the grade 10’s were the eldest grade, the school having only opened the previous year with all grades up to grade nine.

That year our Head of School organised for some parents to come in on an afternoon to speak to our grade nine and ten students about their various professions.

The session lasted a couple of hours while different parents rotated in front of our small cohort of 18 students to tell them they needed a passion.

The next morning the feedback in homeroom was less than excellent. The major theme that came across was that the kids would have liked some choice about what they saw and who they listened to.

Later that year I was given the chance to set up the university counselling program and part of that required me to organise careers day.

In the first year I was responsible for it (my second year at the school) my main aim was to introduce choice for students.

That year we held it in May and the event ran from after lunch until 7pm. From 2pm until 4pm we had a series of career focussed workshops. These were bookended by a keynote and plenary session. The latter were compulsory for all students, but, during the time in-between, students rotated through workshops that they had previously signed up for.

After the plenary from 4pm to 5pm we held a short university fair, hosting universities from Switzerland plus a few others.

Following this we hosted an author who spoke about her book and work that supports international students making transitions to study at international universities.

In my second year, the academic year just finished, we moved the date back to March. Unfortunately, with the extra classroom hours I was working, I simply didn’t have the time to organise a university fair – the amount of time that goes into simply emailing contacts is extraordinary. However, we did run an evening event again this year. This was organised by my colleague in the schools marketing department and took the form of two guest speakers, with dinner and wine for attendees. Next year we have decided to call this part of the evening “future-you conversations”.

This year I am hoping to expand what we do slightly with morning skills based workshops on top of the afternoon career focussed workshops. These will be run in conjunction with inspiring futures who offer two days of their advisor time to members. We bought membership for next academic year.

Grade 12 will have a session on interview skills to support students who will have interviews as part of their university applications but also as many of them will be interviewing for jobs in the next 12 months.

Grade 11 will have a session on persuasive writing for their personal statement. This will hopefully provide them with some raw material with which to begin their personal statement drafts later in the year.

Grade 10 will have a session on cv writing as they will be looking for work experience this year as they have a work experience week in June.

Grade 9 will use the inspiring futures career investigator.

Going Dutch: An overview of Dutch HE

Earlier this year I was lucky enough to take part on a week long tour of Dutch universities. All in all, we visited nine universities across the country from The Hague to Groningen taking in Leiden, Utrecht, Maastricht and Middleburg amongst others.

The week was fairly intense with two campus visits a day, but we (the 14 other guidance counselors and myself) were all very well looked after as we were whisked from one city in the Netherlands to another. This was some of the very best CPD I have done. As the Netherlands is such a small country it is relatively easy to get a good overview of the different options for students who wish to study their degree in English in this country, in a short space of time. To get the same feeling within the US, for example, would probably require many years and many visits for a counselor living internationally.

A Different System and a Different Philosophy

The Dutch Higher Education system differs from the UK and runs on a binary system. There are Research Universities which are primarily concerned with research and teaching of more traditional theoretical subjects; their degrees are three years in length. There are also Universities of Applied Sciences. Their programs are four years in length and are concerned with practically orientated subjects e.g. Physiotherapy, Nursing, Education, Accounting and Finance etc.

Alongside this, the vast majority of courses in both types of institution do not select students based on academic grades. The Dutch government’s philosophy, as it was explained to me, is that any student who completes secondary education successfully should be given a chance to study at university. What this means in practice is that IB students need only pass the IB Diploma with 24 points and they will be admitted. For A level candidates this means passing three A Levels.

A major difference here, however, is that students are selected post-entry. The Dutch operate what is known as “binding study advice”. This means that any student who does not pass their first year is unable to continue with their course.

A relatively small number of courses are selective, however. In the past the Dutch government has specified quotas for certain courses and also selected students for those course centrally (this was termed “numerus fixus”). This year the government has moved away from doing the selection centrally and begun to allow universities to do their own selection.

An International Outlook

One of the first things to become really obvious when visiting campuses and meeting students was the diversity of the places we saw. Many of the English language taught programs were composed of up to 50% non-Dutch students and these non-native students didn’t appear to be coming from one single country of continent. Instead, on paper, there appears to be a real variety to the languages, experiences and cultures that a student can expect to meet and interact with on a Dutch campus. The official statistics we were quoted felt as if they matched the picture that was painted by the students we met and quizzed.

A Range of Options

There is a huge variation in the types of institutions on offer along with the types of courses on offer. Dutch universities are certainly not one size fits all. For such a small country there is an excellent range in the type and style of universities. University College Utrecht is built around the campus model, where all students live and study together for the full four years of study. Groningen and Maastricht offer a university life that is much more integrated into the life of the city that houses them – different faculties and university building spread out amongst the city.

For students looking to escape the big city environment, Leiden and UCR in Middleburg couldn’t be better placed. Both Leiden and Middleburg as towns have widely different vibes, yet both are small, picturesque and undeniably pretty but the courses on offer and living arrangements at the universities over the course of their degrees are different.

One thing that the Netherlands has specialised in, it seems, is the creation of liberal arts and sciences programs. These programs are selective (unlike most Dutch courses – see above) but not numerus fixus and run out of University Colleges, termed the “Honors Colleges” or “University Colleges”. Different University Colleges operate in different ways and they structure their courses differently, but they all allow some degree of flexibility to students who want to tailor make their own degree by studying a range of different modules and subjects. There is also one Natural Sciences program at Maastricht called the Maastricht Science Program; a good choice for students who would be opting for Natural Sciences in the UK.

Education at a price

The cost of studying in the Netherlands is extremely competitive. EU and EEA students can expect to pay at little as €2,004 for tuition fees (Liberal Arts programs are a little more at €4,000) while those students without such a passport will find courses costing anything between €6,000-€16,000. With a cheaper cost of living in general compared to the UK it makes a competitive alternative to studying in the UK.

Conclusion

Britain and North America have always been destinations of choice for international students. Not only do they boast some of the world’s highest ranked universities, but they offer degrees in English. In a globalised world the ability to communicate in English is highly prized skill the world over.

However, the Netherlands, either through choice or coincidence, has positioned itself extremely well to compete for international students and disrupt the UK, US and Canada’s market share.. The universities in the Netherlands are highly regarded and I wouldn’t be surprised to see them become more as time progresses. Typically these students are studying outside their home country. But, more than this, they offer undergraduate study in what is potentially a much more diverse student setting. Studying in English yes, but socialising in Dutch, and, with such variegated cohorts of students, potentially a mix of other languages as well. This on its own will certainly attract certain students. On top of this, the fees are much, much more competitive than either North America or UK and students don’t run the risk of graduating with tens of thousands of euros in debt as they surely do elsewhere. Finally, students know that so long as they are able to successfully finish high school then they are guaranteed a place, which takes the pressure off somewhat when you consider that UK universities will demand a specific point score with, perhaps, very specific conditions in individual subjects. All these factors combine to create a very attractive proposition. I think we can only expect Dutch universities to grow in their popularity.

Out with the old…in with the new

I started this website and blog in April 2016. Partly, this was to allow me to play around and learn how to set up a website and partly to enable me to share resources for IB Biology that I had created, in the hope that I would find more interaction with other Biology teachers online.

The last academic year has probably been the hardest of my teaching career for a number of reasons. Having a young family with two daughters under the age of two has certainly been a factor but my guidance role very much absorbed my time throughout the year; certainly more than the official 20% time I was contractually obliged to spend on it.

My DP classes have been fairly successful but I just haven’t had the time to devote to my lower grade teaching simply because I was still teaching a new subject – TOK – and becuase I was still setting up the guidance program – working with my first grade 12s in this regard and improving the process for the grade 11s and 10s (2nd year for those cohorts).

As such the website hasn’t developed in the direction I originally planned. I have been finding WordPress a little too clunky with which to build a website dedicated to IB biology. While it is obviously possible to do so I simply haven’t had the time to invest in this project this year between teaching, guidance and family life.

Time constraints considered, I now find that much of my thinking is lately taken up with my guidance program and naturally this means that most of what I want to write about is to do with the issues I face in this area. Writing my blog is primarily a way for me to get my thoughts straight with the added bonus of inviting comment and further discussion from colleagues.

So going forward I plan to:

1) Continue a blog at this website, writing about guidance and education issues as they crop up and time dependent.

2) Stop adding biology teaching resources, plans and ideas to this website, but build a new platform that I can also use for teaching based on google sites.

New google sites was created last year and I first tried using the platform as a wiki for a biology teachers workshop I led. It is super simple to use, although it does have a raft of limitations that I am hoping will gradually be removed over the next few years.

With inspiration from a colleague I began creating workbooks tailored to the IB Biology course for my students in 2012/13. This year I massively overhauled them to bring them in line with the new IB syllabus but also Ron Ritchhardts thinking routines (still a work in progress).

The development of a website feels like a natural extension of this work – the exercises in the workbooks need to be transposed to website form and no doubt this will take time, but I feel that I am getting some clarity on the direction my digital presence needs to take.