In this final post in my series reflecting on my first years experience of setting up a University & Careers guidance program I write about working with colleagues, students and their parents.
Advising students is the central role of any guidance counselor, and for me actually represents the biggest challenge of the job. My background is as a science teacher having been a Head of Biology at my previous school and working with students in the ways required of a guidance counselor, while not entirely new to me certainly present a challenge for my style. I suppose that stepping into this role has been a major catalyst in growing my thinking about education in general. There have been some other factors, like the push from the IB for the integration of ATLS into teaching that have got me reflecting recently on the dynamic of learner-teacher and how this should be manifested in my own practice. I intend to write more on this soon, I just hope that it is possible for the leopard to change its spots.
Stepping into the shoes of guidance counseling I had to become very aware of my own preconceptions and prejudicies that I have carried with me from my own experience, and put these too one side. Guidance isn’t about telling students what you think is best for them in terms of your own limited understanding of where they are at and what options you think are better than others. It is much more about conversation, gaining trust and advocating for the student in what can be a very difficult time for them. They are adults and yet not quite, and whilst dealing with a lot Biological adjustments they can be going through some of the most pressured situations academically, socially and at home.
Looking back it seems as though the skills that I was introduced to and began to learn through Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction and meditation such as paying attention in the moment and bringing awareness to sensations, feelings and thoughts could not have come at a better time. They prepared me to be aware of the “baggage” in terms of my own ideas/prejudice that I was initially bringing to the role, as well as my tendancy to feel like the more that I talked at a student the better at counseling them I was.
Over this year I have come to see the role as more about questioning, about striving to build that authentic relationship with a student to help them to begin to articulate their own motivations, thoughts, worries and perceptions. Doing this will help them to bring more awareness to their own search for the right next step for themselves.
I still have a long way to go to fully develop the questioning and listening skills required to do this job well but I have made a start and I am aware that this is an area for improvement for me not just in counseling but in my teaching practice in general, as I strive to give kids the tools be become aware life-long learners in their own lives.
The actual practice of counseling comes on a cycle and this year because we had no grade 12 I was able to spend a lot of time working closely with our grade 11s in the first term, a luxury that I will not have next year as my teaching load increases and grade 12 comes through for the first time.
The hardest part was having the knowledge of different universities and courses, with which to advise my students and help them prepare their research and build their lists. None of my students are applying to just one country, and my knowledge was fairly limited to the UK and fairly prejudicial concerning what I knew about that system. This was a major driver for me to lobby the management at school about the need to get a system in place to help students and parents do their research. At this first stage the net needs to be cast quite wide, results can always be removed but they can be hard to find! This is why I opted for BridgeU, they offered a very competitive price for their services but they were also truly global unlike some of the other systems available and their offering comes with a calendar of when to work on the various projects with students, meaning that planning the delivery of particular interventions and meetings with students was simplified. I have posted about BridgeU here and here.
Working with your community
This year I certainly learn’t a lot about internal and external communication within a school environment this year and a lot about parents, partly because I became one myself, a process that had enabled me to empathise much more with parents but also because I have been working so much more closely with them.
Working with parents in this role is tricky one because, putting it bluntly, they pay the fees. This is a thought that I have struggled with this year.In a fee-paying school that runs as a business i.e. to make sales and profit, what are you selling? Who are the clients? the parents or the students?
If your child needs life saving treatment and you out them in a private hospital, you pay the hospital to pay the doctors to work in the interests of saving your child’s life. The hospital is run as a business to make a profit and it is selling its services. The doctors work for the child in the sense that they are saving this individuals life, not for the parent. You would have to be an idiot or mentally ill to think that as a parent, you had the skills and training to save your child’s life in this instance.
Things are much the same in a school like ours but sometimes parents do think that they have the skills and expertise and in my experience much more ready to challenge yours. There are many reasons for this, the communal respect that the teaching profession holds not being a minor reason but I am mindful of the Dunning-Kruger affect which states “The less people know the more the think they know”. This is a measurable effect and has been demonstrated in a few studies.
This is all well and good in work that is obviously highly skilled and one that requires a lot of expertise and training. But can be the same be said of guidance counseling or teaching? Well my experience this year would tell me that yes it can. Obviously to teach well requires years of experience for most people; I’ve been doing it for eight years and I am still along way from mastering it. For counseling the same is true. To understand how to mentor and question to serve students as a guide, as well as become an expert at the changing admissions landscape for several countries not just the UK or the US requires years and years of expertise. Unfortunately some parents that I have come across don’t seem to realise this. Speculation on the reasons why could fill another blog post. The fact is these are skilled professions and educating parents suffering from the Dunning-Kruger effect can present a real challenge to the work of the counselor.
When I first start this work, I was unsure of how to handle this dynamic and was a trifle fearful of upsetting the parents as the fee payers. I guess part of this can be solved by having trust that your senior management will back you and trust you to know your job.
When I first started this role my Head told me that he didn’t rate the counselor in a previous school. They said that the counselor was telling students what they could achieve but telling them not to apply to the “name” schools. In this one year I have come to question this attitude from that Head, perhaps they too were suffering from Dunning-Kruger, but also because I firmly believe that nobody should be telling the kids what they can and can’t do. If I have learned one thing advising isn’t about telling, its about guiding and advocating for students. Even as a dad to a one year old daughter I don’t want to be telling her she has to do something when she is older, I don’t want to have preconcieved ideas about that. Instead I hope to be able to guide her to follow her interests and model the hard work that she will need to put in to achieve whatever she wants. Financially I am already planning to allow her to have the opportunities that she wants to pursue.
I am beginning to have more trust in myself and my convictions but I also recognise that part of this process is about also trying to mentor the parents as well as the students to help them through this confusing and difficult terrain.
One aspect that needs further workis communication with parents. I was astounded by a conversation I had with a parent this year who, after one of the university presentations commented on how it was a shame that not more of the parents were there, going on to say that she had spoken to another parent that morning who had no idea that this event was taking place.
To put this in context, I had sent a letter out to parents, posted a message on ManageBac, put it on the ManageBac calendar, put an announcement in homeroom and put it in the school newsletter.
The parent continued to tell me that none of the parents use ManageBac, the schools curriculum and communication platform, before suggesting that I set up a What’sApp group instead to let the parents know. I was polite and maintained composure but inside I was really riled by this conversation.
I wonder whether we need some communication routines to be developed within the school? And whether our parents need to be educated a little more about taking responsibility for reading the information schools send out? Another parent told me how she was annoyed when teachers didn’t immediately respond to her emails.
Again this is a topic for another blog post I suppose but I am still wondering about where the buck stops? Obviously as a school we need to get more intelligent about the way we communicate with parents and communicating the expectations that we have of parents to keep up to date with school news but on the other hand teachers and staff working with pupils shouldn’t be expected constantly find new ways to communicate with parents and reinvent the wheel. For one thing it just wastes time, time that is better spent in other ways like reflecting on practice, working with students, planning etc. The list goes on.
Any solutions? Answers on a post card please.