Creating a University & Careers Guidance Programme (Part 4)

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.

Giving advice 

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.

Careers Day

Creating a University & Careers Guidance Programme (Part 3)

In the third post in this series about my experiences setting up the guidance department at my school I describe which agencies you need to ensure that your school is registered with to support students applying to the UK, US and Canada as well as some information on the Athletic Scholarship system in the US.

Putting the school on the map pt 2: Essential Registrations

The other side of putting the school on the map when setting up the guidance department is to ensure that the school is registered with the various international agencies through which students apply and take tests. In the case of the UK this is UCAS for applications and the Admissions Testing Service for certain specific tests needed for certain tests in the UK. Registration for the latter is not essential as there may be an open centre near your school.

Register with UCAS as an application centre is essential if you have students applying to the UK. You should register as soon as you can and take advantage of all the free training that they offer. They also hold a International Advisers conference in June each year. I haven’t attended it yet but have heard excellent feedback about it and will be attending this academic year.

Be aware that applicants to UK may need to sit additional testing if applying to Oxbridge or for Med/Vet Sci courses etc. All the information is on the UCAS site but you may wish to have your school registered as a test centre for some of these tests.

For applications to the US and Canada and a few other universities students may need to take the SAT or ACT. While you don’t need to register for your school to deliver these tests you can of course at the relevant site. Again however students can take the tests at registered open centres nearby.

What your school will need is a CEEB (College Entrance Exam Board) Code. These are controlled by the college board and schools outside the US can apply for a code by emailing:

Students will need to give the CEEB code of your school on the CommonApp and on any standardised tests that they make take. In this way you will ensure that any results of these tests will be sent to you as the high school counselor.

For US applications you may also wish to register your school with the CommonApp. It is not immediately obvious as to how you do this but you can do it by registering as a school counselor on the website.

There are many other resources out there that are useful to sign up to but these are the ones that I have come across this year as the essential agencies to ensure that your school is registered with, on top of making sure that your details are in the database of as many admissions officers at as many universities as possible.

Not necessarily “essential” for college applications but certainly very useful to you as a college counselor would be registration of your school with CIS; their forum on Higher Education is very very valuable. In addition I would strongly recommend registering with IACAC. It only costs $50 and you get access to their facebook group (a life line) as well as the Annual conference. I haven’t yet attended but have been assured that it is another excellent resource.

Athletic Scholarships in the US

Finally I had the issue in this first year that one of my students had decided that he wanted to apply for scholarships in the US to play basketball. This area of applying for atheletic scholarships is a whole other minefield but the IACAC Webinar Wednesday and the CIS forum both provided materials that helped me navigate this process. To be clear this student is still in school and so I am not charting a path to success here, merely documenting what it was that I learned about the process of apply for atheletic scholarships in the US during the last academic year, hopefully most of it is correct and I am more than willing to be corrected if it is not, thats how I learn.

There are three federations which support college level sport in the US: The NCAA, NAIA and NJCAA. Different universities and colleges in the US will belong to one of these federations. From what I have worked out this year from my office in a school in Switzerland, it seems to me that the NCAA is premier association, while the NAIA is almost like a second “division” although the NCAA has three divisions, so the NAIA comes below this, while the NJCAA supports sports in two-year US colleges.

Before a student can apply for an athletic scholarship they have to register with one of these bodies. These bodies assess each athletes eligibility for a sport scholarship. If you have a student who is playing a sport  at a high level and is interested in this route then their work for university has to start earlier than most. As a college counselor you probably don’t have the expertise to assess the students sporting ability so its best that starting in G9 or 10 they start speaking to their coach about their suitability for University level sports. They should certainly get themselves on to a summer sports camp at a university in the US where they can be assessed but where they will also be able to get advice from coaches about which federation and which division they should be looking at. Another way to help is to have students go on to the team pages of particular colleges and look at the profiles of the team members that should give you and them a good idea of about what it takes to get into that college’s team in terms of physicality and skill.

Once the student-athlete knows what federation and division they should be aiming for based on advice from coaches they need to register with the divisions eligbility centre. It is the eligibility centre that will give the yes or no for a student to obtain a scholarship not the university.

Students need to begin this process in G9 or G10 and they need to get familiar with the rules as each federation has very specific rules on what qualifies and what doesn’t for athletic scholarships in each sport.

Students should also build a CV that details their academic and their sporting acheievements, film their practices and games and build a profile on Instagram and Youtube or any other social media platform where the coaches they write too once they are eligible can get an idea of the students level.

Creating a University & Careers Guidance Programme (Part 2)

This is the second post in a series of four dealing with my experience in setting up a university and careers counseling department in a start-up school in the school year 2015-16. At the time I had little background in this area. The first post covers how I approached the resources I would need and this post looks at building relationships with external agencies and institutions, the next post deals with essential registrations that need to take place when setting up your department.

Putting the School on the map pt 1: Building Relationships

Aside from the getting materials into place and organising them which has been an ongoing activity throughout the year the next big task I felt that needed to be started was that of contacting and communicating with admissions representatives and student recruitment representatives. It was immediately obvious to me that the guidance office had an important role in putting our school on the map from a university admissions perspective. We needed to market oursleves to these institutions because universities who knew we were here would be more likely to visit us when they were in the area on European recruitment drives or attending conferences. Having more university visits, I also felt was essential for building parent confidence in us and demonstrating that the school was taking guidance of students seriously.

I began this process before the summer holidays in fact now that I think of it. I was first introduced via a colleague at work to an marketing executive for Laureate Education who own both Glion Institute of Higher Education and Les Roches. This person put me in touch with Glion and I arranged my first site visit to these campuses on the day before the 2015-16 academic year started.

From there I was quick to respond to any emails that I received from university professionals who were interested in visiting our campus. This was particularly challenging. I have already mentioned in this post about receiving hundreds of emails from outside agencies all demanding your time. Part of the job requires an ability to sift the worthwhile from the less worthy. The fifteen minute inbox technique that I was introduced to in on of our inset days has proved especially useful here. Initially I was open to most universities that contacted me. During the course of this first year, due purely to email, I had visits from:

At the time our school was going through and still is going through accreditation with the council of international schools (CIS). CIS run a Forum on Higher Education and last year this was held in Edinburgh; next years is in Barcelona. The International Baccalaureate also run a Higher Education Symposium and in addition there is the IACAC Annual Conference.

I wasn’t sure which of these would be most appropriate for a new college counselor and which would be the most effective in helping me support students. To help make the decision I sought other counselors views through a medium which has been incredibly helpful in getting questions answered: Facebook.

On FB there are three groups that I have found particularly useful. The first I joined and was put onto by my DP Coordinator is the IB Counselors, Coordinators and University Relations Group, the second is the UCAS Advisers Group and the third is the International Association for College Admission Counseling Group which you can only join as a member of IACAC.

Each of these groups has been extremely useful in getting answers to rookie questions and for clarifying information. There are loads of counselors and university representatives on these groups who are more than willing to share and support.

I first used these groups with questions about the advice that the DP coordinator and I were giving to the grade 10s last year as they finalised their DP options but the advice that I got regarding conferences was that the IB symposium was largely useless for someone in my position, especially as I already knew the IB having taught Biology DP for eight years. I was advised to aim for the CIS forum or the IACAC conference.

I eventually decided to go to the CIS forum as we believed that as a school it would be better suited to our needs.

I found the CIS forum incredibly useful both for the chance to talk about the processes of college counseling with experience colleagues and attend some very insightful workshops that covered the mechanics of applying for Engineering courses or applying to study in Canada, but also for the chance to network and meet university representatives. At this event I deliberately targeted American Universities as these are the institutions that I personally know the least about and are also the furthest away; until we have larger numbers of students I think it will be doubtful that I will be heading out to the US on a work trip. I did also spend some time talking with UK and Canadian Universities and learned about the CIS UK Universities European Tour. I was able to make contact with the organiser of this so that our school would be contacted in future when these Universities were visiting.

Many of the people I met were surprised that my education group had a school in Switzerland; they had come across our campuses in Dubai. Following on from this event I made useful contacts that were useful in getting our school on the map so to speak. A  number of conversation subsequent to this event led to me making connections with QMUL and RHUL, both of which I subsequently visited when in London for some UCAS training and one of which ended up coming out to visit us as part of our first “future-you” festival the careers event that I organised in the third term.

The CIS UK Universities tour unfortunately didn’t make it to Switzerland this year due to the events in Brussels in April that shut the airport down for a while.

However CIS did run a college night in Geneva in September which I attended. From all these events I built some excellent connections that our school will take forward and I was directly able to arrange visits from:

Positive relationships with Universities will help to drive more visits to our school, make universities become aware of our school and help us work with universities for the best outcomes for our students, ideally so that they will trust as a school to listen to our recommendations.

When universities visit us I like to show them the school, give them a chance to observe some teaching as well as meet with our students. This side of the role really does take time and effort but it will certainly be worth it in the long run in terms of the outcomes for our students and also to allow parents to have confidence in our ability to advocate for their children.

Building these types of relationships led to me being invited on two counselor fly-ins this year. One of which (to ESADE) I have already blogged about. Another opportunity came up that I wasn’t able to participate in and this was with the Karl Benz school of Engineering.

In the next post I will write about the agencies that your school needs to be registered with including UCAS, The Admissions Testing Service, CollegeBoard, CommonApp and others including the process of supporting students who are applying for Athletic Scholarships in the US.

Creating a University & Careers Guidance Programme (Part 1)

I was originally planning to write up my experiences in a single blog post but it got too long and so I have broken it up into four separate posts: this one which will focus on my efforts to organise the counseling space and resources. The second two posts focuses on a) building relationships with other institutions and b) the agencies you need to be registered with, while the final post deals with the internal dynamics of advising students and communicating with parents.

This last year has been incredible in so many ways but also very, very hard. This post is partly a record and reflection of my experiences but I also write with a few other counselors in mind whom I met this year who were in a similar position to me: working in small or new schools and carrying the responsibility of setting up the university and careers provision.

In August 2014 I moved schools. The aim of my new job was to begin developing a boarding program for my new school. Unfortunately for me, in early September of that year the company that owned the school took the decision to place the boarding program on permanent hold.

The resulting two years have been a period in which I have learned an awful lot, met and worked with some truly inspiring colleagues, and had the opportunity to really reflect on and experiment in my teaching practice.

Losing the boarding project opened the door to another really exciting opportunity: the chance to found, set up and run my own College Counseling Department or Higher Education and Careers Department or University and Careers Counseling Department (Yep those are the three titles we have run through this year and we are sticking with the last one!).

To say that this last academic year has been challenging and stressful would be an understatement but it has also been a real honour to build something from the ground up, make decisions and have the opportunity to advocate on behalf of an interesting mixed cohort of kids, from a variety of very diverse backgrounds. I have learned a lot about myself, my own perceptions, my own prejudice, my limitations and my strengths. I want to use this post to reflect on my experience in the first year of setting up a careers and university advisory service in a school.

I officially started the role in August 2015 but I began preparations for it back in April of the same year. This was a start up school environment that at the time had just, in March of that year, received authorisation to begin teaching the DP and were also prepping for our MYP authorization visit that would come in October of that year. Thus everyone was busy, not just with the normal rounds of lesson planning, delivery and reflection; not just on the unit planning, horizontal and vertical articulation that comes with the MYP but also with the additional paperwork that comes with trying to get a school authorized to deliver a curriculum.

So I was effectively on my own. Where would you start to plan a university guidance (at the time I thought it was just university guidance) program? You have an office space and thats it. You have no real background in the area save working in secondary teaching for six years, some of which you have been a sixth form tutor in the UK and a Boarding House parent for 16-18 year olds.

Organising the Counseling Space & Resources

I started by buying maps. Maps of the continental US, UK, and the World. Large ones around 1.2m x 1.0m to put on the walls. While waiting for these to go through our schools insanely long procurement process, I then downloaded the UK University League tables and registered online with every university as a students and ordered a copy of their prospectus. Those that wouldn’t post a copy to Europe, I downloaded a digital copy and saved. Later these were uploaded to the University Guidance Group that I created on ManageBac as a place to share resources with our G9-G12 students. Along the same vein, I wanted to make sure that our space set aside for guidance counseling was warm and welcoming, a place where parents and students felt that they could just drop into. Always at the fore-front of my mind was that we were a very new school, in a very competitive area (26 or thereabouts international schools in the area) and I believe that the university and careers provision that any secondary school offers has to aim to build confidence amongst the community of student, parents and teachers that it is competent. Parents will seek out the “best” schools for the their children and while you there are thousands of different views of what may make a school best, I feel that after a solid academics program (parents want to know there children are learning), a guidance program that helps students identify their strengths and interests and guides them to the next natural step after secondary school successfully is a major want for secondary parents. A school that doesn’t offer that, especially one that you are paying for, will surely send red flags. Hence, ordering maps and materials for the guidance office, to help build the environment for students and parents seemed like a natural place to start. At this time I also ordered books and guides and I continued to do this over the course of the next year. The books I now have in the office aside from the prospectuses are:

An additional resources that I came across last year that I make parents of students aware of is the gettingin podcast by panoply.

One of the essential tasks that went on alongside relationship building (see below) throughout the year was the creation of a variety of different resources to use both externally and internally of our school community. Early in the year I created the G11 counseling timeline and drafted the G12 counseling timeline which I will be finishing this summer. I scaffolded this process for myself by comparing the timelines produced by a variety of other schools that I had contact or a connection with.

At the same time I began to synthesise and summarise the key steps and information that lay at the heart of applications to the countries that my job description asked me to be responsible for – UK, US, Canada and Switzerland. For each of these countries I produced and essential information document, only two sides in total for each one that gave an overview for parents and students of the application process for each country.

Once all of these documents were created I decided to group them together into the first iteration of the University Guidance handbook, the development of which has carried on throughout the year as I have written new documents which have also been added to the handbook. I am hoping to be able to complete version 4 of the handbook over this summer break.

Early on in the year, and with input from a variety of the my colleagues, in  preparation for the CIS forum I created a school profile document. This document summarised our school, giving key information to admissions representatives. It was so liked by our marketing department that they subsequently hijacked it for use with prospective parents!

Throughout the year I also created a variety of forms to help with managing my meetings with students. These included permissions for students to miss class to attend university presentations, or open days, interview forms, teacher recommendation request forms and a university research form to help students build their shortlist of universities. I am not sure how useful some of these will be now that I am using BridgeU which provides a natural scaffold for structuring the timings of meetings with students which I will develop further for next year.

Towards the end of the year I worked with the DP and MYP coordinators to begin drafting policies for use in our community. These were the language course selection and university guidance policy, the predicted grades, teacher comments and recommendations policy as well as the attending university open days and guidance office events policy.

Finally in terms of resources, I was successful in April of this year in convincing the management at school that our community would benefit from the use of a guidance platform to primarily help students in their course and university research. I have blogged about the rollout of BridgeU here and here, so I won’t write too much here. In the final section of this blog on guiding students I will expand a little more as to why this was really important for me and my students.