Life long on the job learning…creating a guidance program from scratch (part 1)

As I blogged on several occasions previously in April 2015 I started working as a university & careers advisor or guidance counselor. In this post I want to summarise how the guidance program I have designed has evolved over the last two years and describe my plans for next year. This post covers what I have done over the past 2 years and the 2nd part will cover my plans for next year.

All this time I have also been a classroom subject specialist for both Biology and TOK, although I was new to teaching TOK too, and initially very under funded but thankfully that has begun to change.

I believe that school guidance counseling has major three aspects that all need to be developed in order to best support students:

  1. Good structures and knowledge surrounding the processes and administration of the program. This can be simple if students are only applying to the UK through UCAS (currently the gold standard in organisation) but the complexity can increase exponentially as students apply to other countries.
  2. Good knowledge of courses and universities, which tends to come with time, visits and conferences.
  3. Good knowledge of students interests and an ability to actually counsel them.

Academic year 2014-2015

I started this year as Director of Boarding with five hours a week teaching, at a school that had only been open for 11 months. I was meant to be planning a boarding program, recruiting students, advising architects but it didn’t work out. By the end of the year I was a University and Careers Adviser. At the time I was also grade 10 (UK year 11) homeroom teacher and grade 10 was our eldest cohort of students.

I officially made the transition in April and have written about those early months here. Essentially my starting point consisted of working out how to garner resources for the office and focussed on essentials like getting the school registered with UCAS, Admissions Testing Service and CollegeBoard among others. It was a research intensive time where I spent a lot of time signing up for resources (I requested prospectuses from every university in the UK and others), finding networks of colleagues I could plug myself into like Swiss+ counselors group, OACAC and the UCAS Adviser group all of which have been lifelines over the last two years.

This was very much a planning phase but at the time I really didn’t have enough experience to structure a program.

Academic year 2015-2016

My teaching contact hours were pushed up to 12 hours a week as my former grade 10 students moved into their first year of the IBDP. Still with no final year students, this year I had plenty of time to carry on my research and building my network of experts that I could draw on with questions.

At this stage my guidance program was still underdeveloped. In the first term, What I did, then, in retrospect, was largely unsuccessful, but it did help to focus my thinking on the first and second elements I have identified above. Up until this point had been largely planning and getting necessary registrations and resources in place and I quickly realise that while important, that wasn’t what counseling was about.

Despite lots of time with which to meet with students, relatively, during this year, my knowledge of courses and universities was severely lacking and, with a background of a classroom practitioner, a feeble ability to actually counsel students. I struggled with the gap between what I knew I had to do and my abilities to do it.

The turning point came for me around Easter of that year when I was given permission to bring on board a platform to help students with their research of universities. I had had to fight quite hard for this and only obtained it through the use of some political game play, and I knew that it would help to bridge the gap  for my students in my lack of knowledge of institutions in the US and elsewhere.

In addition I was able to organise a morning workshop in June of that year. This was my first and only whole group workshop with the grade 11s that year and I thought it would be enough to get them 12 students registered on UCAS and College Board and give them time to begin working on their personal statements. I had planned 3 hours for this but had not factored in how long it takes students to register on UCAS and begin to fill in the application form!

During this year I also wrote the policies for predicting grades, writing references and comments, as well as for student visits to university open days. I also organised my first Future-you festival.

Academic year 2016 – 2017

It was this year that my program really began to take shape. Working more with colleagues and capitalising on changes made in the structure of the timetable I have been able to get more scheduled time in front of students. Extended homerooms on Wednesday mornings and grade 11 core periods have meant that this year has been much more structured for the rising grade 12. The structure this year was as follows (I haven’t included university visits or the careers work that I organise also:

  1. Grade 11 Term 1:
    • A workshop in focus week on BridgeU and university research in general
    • A workshop at the end of the term to review progress on BridgeU. A general theme here is that I a stressing to students the need to structure their CAS and choose an EE that will support their applications to university.
  2. Grade 11 Term 2:
    • Began regular one-to-one meetings (aim for one a month) to review university matching and CAS planning etc
    • Hosted group sessions on the UK and US application process (I had universities come into deliver these).
    • Began the personal statement writing process with a workshop mainly giving students time to think and write.
  3. Grade 11 Term 3:
    • Continued one-to-one meetings and brought the rate down depending on students personal ideas and where they had decided to apply.
    • Ran personal statement writing workshops with two deadlines – 1st draft on May 1st and 2nd draft 1st June (the second was flexible so that students could focus on exams).
    • Ran two workshops on registering with UCAS (I learned from the previous year that it can take my students an hour to run through this). I also made some video materials to support this (I thought students would rather watch than read – but they don’t even do this!). Student have all managed to complete all sections except personal statement and choices.
  4. Grade 12 Term 1:
    • Ran several homeroom sessions to provide time for students to work on personal statement.
    • Had plenty of one-to-one meetings on an ad hoc basis in order to advise on personal statements and completion of UCAS forms.
    • Ran Admissions Testing Service exams and interview practice.
  5. After term 1 I didn’t see that much of the grade 12’s, unless they specifically asked to see me to go through additional applications. This is an area that hopefully will be developed more next year, but essentially, without solid relationship building students are disinclined to visit their counselor and get advice on offers, finances etc.

When I returned to school in August, none of the grade 12 students had written a first draft of their personal statement. I am not sure why I expected them to have done so!

This year the structure has been much tighter for the grade 11s and I hope that next year will be more so for these students as they move into grade 12.

Aside from the regular timetable changes the DP & MYP coordinators decided to make field week the 3rd week in August and I managed to bag some time with both the grade 11s and grade 12s.

There are many reasons why it is very helpful for students to have curriculum time given over to letting them complete their applications. Mainly it reduces student stress but it also valuable time for the students own formative development. The difficulty is convincing colleagues who have no experience in this area that this is the case.

Next week I will write about my plans for next year.

 

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