Moving on, handing over: 2

This post continues from yesterday’s post.

Working with colleagues

For any guidance department to be successful it needs, like all good teachers and their departments, to not work in a silo.

Getting colleagues on side is hugely important. In a culturally diverse staff body, many colleagues bring very different sets of values which colour their view of guidance. It is essential that guidance counsellors work closely with teachers; by understanding the educational heritage and philosophy of colleagues we can best ensure that the team works together to support students supported by a common understanding and vision.

Specialist colleagues are involved either officially or unofficially with the administration of the guidance program and I make a point of sharing thanks for this support by highlighting the efforts of particular colleagues with the SLT.

The English teachers and teachers of other languages are well placed to offer support in writing techniques, although it is important that they understand the aim of the different types of writing that different university applications require.

Counsellors I have spoken with have sometimes said that they don’t like involving English teachers because they can give conflicting advice. I think that this is a mistake. The English teachers I know and have worked with in the past have much stronger skills than me when it comes to coaching students writing. With proper time for discussion, collaboration and planning any differences in opinion and outlook can be adjusted for and the team can work on the same page.

The development of writing skills is important but staff can be involved in helping to prep for interviews also. In actually delivering mock interviews I have relied on a variety of staff as I feel that the most beneficial effect is gained for students when they interview with someone that they don’t know. I have also used the drama teachers to coach students on body language.

The real challenge for the school here is getting these relationships formalised. This is a priority, as the teachers who give up their time to plan and deliver support to students need to recognised and compensated for this. It isn’t fair to simply expect them to take this on.

Another aspect of working with colleagues comes with getting them on-side to understand the procedures involved in making and supporting university applications.

All teachers support university applications by supplying written comments and predicted grades for the subjects they teach. The school needs a policy for making predicted grades which must be clearly articulated to and understood by teachers so that the team is predicting grades in the same way.  In the same way, teachers need to understand the timeline and process that their students are involved in. In an international school, students may be applying to many different university systems, each with their own nuances. It is helpful if teachers have some understanding of that. One of the most unhelpful things that a well-meaning teacher can do is to continually offer an extension to deadlines for students.

Teachers need to understand how their comments are used to help the counsellor construct a reference and to understand what makes these comments different to a report. Generally, they must be positive and evidence-based. It doesn’t escape my notice that teachers, often, could do with support from the English department in terms of structuring their writing (PEE/A; SEX; Claim, Warrant and Impact).

Finally, in some cases, teachers may be called upon to write full references. The processes for this and requirements for the writing need to be carefully explained and understood.

Finally working with colleagues, also includes organising the transcript production process and having some input into the production of the DP handbook and making sure that the information within it aligns with the guidance handbook.

Working with outside organisations

Ultimately the role of the guidance counsellor is about working with organisations outside of school: universities.

I once heard a Head tell a conference that that role of the guidance counsellor was 50% in school and 50% out of school.

Our work involves liaising with universities, of course, but this can take many forms.

Firstly university visits. These require planning within the school, to agree a suitable place and time that visits can be generally held. Currently, we try to avoid clashes with lessons and encourage universities to visit at lunch or after school.

If I had more time, I would love to allow these visits to include a tour, perhaps the observation of some teaching (this has gone down well in the past) as well as the delivery of the universities presentations. I feel that this goes a long way in building a relationship with that institution, and allows them to better understand our particular context.

I also make a point of reaching out to universities after I have met them at conferences after our students have applied to them, and after students receive an offer (or not). Again, this keeps the lines of communication open and helps to build more of a relationship with your partner on the other side of the desk at that institution.

In terms of non-university institutions, we are currently using BridgeU and UniFrog as platforms to help students do their research and plan their applications. I have been planning to write a comparison of the two all year, and I hope to get this published soon. It has been useful to get feedback from students regarding the two programs.

We also work with Inspiring Futures and use their Futurewise and Career Investigator programs to support our career guidance programs in grade 9 and 10.

To improve

What would improve this guidance program and help it meet the aims of formatively developing our students?

Well, a couple of things.

I think to start some of the skills, like CV writing, earlier, in grade 8 for example, would help students begin to think about what how they can maximise their final four years in school to really develop themselves. Once students are introduced to the concept of a CV and, perhaps, realise that they haven’t got that much on there, yet, they can start thinking about what they can do to get stuff on there. The caveat here is that is isn’t about getting stuff on the CV its training kids to think about what they learn, about themselves and the world, from the activities they do do.

I think also that relationship with colleagues who support the department; teachers who help with writing, for example, need to be formalised, recognised and given the space to commit their working time to this, otherwise, apart from the risk of overburdening already busy teachers, you are effectively running a program on good-will and favours which can’t last forever.

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!

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.

Thirteen reflections at the end of my first guidance cycle

This week, on Wednesday, the IB results were published and this marks the beginning of the end of my first cycle of working with students as a university adviser/guidance counselor. Here I aim to summarise the key points that I have learned about this work this year.

I blogged about this work last summer, aiming to reflect on my first 15 months in post.

As a summary I started in this work in April 2015. With very little real experience (although I guess I thought I had plenty at the time) and was tasked with founding the university and careers counseling program in a school that was still being set up.

Now our first graduates have got their first set of results and this is the culmination of the last four years of work, since we first opened our doors. When I refer to counseling, I am referring to academic/university guidance not social or emotional counseling. Here is what I have learned:

1. There is an inherent tension between teaching and counseling (part 1: emotional) and I am not convinced that it is good to have one member of staff doing both. As a DP Biology teacher, I am responsible for getting the best out of my students, whether they like it or not. Often that means holding kids to account for the quality of their work and work ethic. Obviously counselors do this too with their deadlines etc but the relationship with students is different. This can be a problem when students may then be annoyed at you (as teacher) for bringing them back at lunch, for awarding poor grades(!) or giving some other sanctions as a teacher, that then makes them perceive you negatively. At worst this can damage your relationship with a student and prevent a student from wanting to come and see you as a counselor, making it all but impossible in some cases to counsel them effectively. This may make them want to go elsewhere for advice. I still haven’t found a solution for this problem.

2. There is an inherent tension between teaching and counseling (part 2: practical). This year I have been teaching 17 hours a week (G9-12 Biology & G11-12 TOK). To say the least my working weeks this academic year have been rather full. This has made it very difficult to make my non-teaching periods match up with the student’s private study periods. My Head’s argument (whose aim for our school is to be the best day school in our country) is that the school cannot afford a full-time guidance counselor. But unfortunately I am only able to work with students and families when I am not teaching and if these times don’t line up with when a student is not in class then it can make for very poor provision. Of course I offer times outside of class, and after school, but with all the other non-academic demands on students this isn’t always a solution. I am hoping that timetabling will take into consideration my request to have two days of non-teaching time to give me the dedicated space to meet with students and their families. Another side of this coin is that when no one else in your team has experience of your job and then at best can only imagine what your job is like (see Dunning-Kruger effect), it can make for difficult relationships with colleagues. I am convinced that my departing VP views me as a cover-dodger because I always have to respectfully decline their last-minute requests that I cover a lesson normally because I was in a pre-arranged meeting with students. My teaching colleagues often wonder my I have so little teaching.

3. Clear boundaries and communication with students and their families matter. In my first set of feedback for the schools University Guidance program (clue is in the name) one student commented that they gave me 3/5 because, despite helping them identify a course they would love and match their academic interests, in the country they were interested in studying, (the student told me that they were not interested in applying elsewhere), I wasn’t able to give “global apprenticeship advice”. Basically I wasn’t able to spew out results to the families various and diverse requests like google can. All that, despite my flexibility in responding to the mother’s requests for info to the best of my abilities for over two years. Clearly this family thought that “University guidance” meant “post-18 life advice”. I now send a letter to all rising grade 11 families making it clear that I “only” provide advice on university applications to North America, UK, NL and CH.

4. Being a team player is really important and doesn’t come naturally to some teachers. Lots of teachers think that they know how to counsel students. I am guilty of this one. In past lives I have thought that I was well placed to advise students where to apply to the chagrin of my counseling colleagues. I do understand that teachers are on the whole giving of their time and advice. It is what they do; they want to be helpful and have a healthy interest in young people and their outcome. Unfortunately, from the counselors perspective it isn’t helpful, especially when advice is given without even at the minimum informing the counselor of the advice that has been given to a student. I am not saying teachers shouldn’t give their students advice but this advice needs to coordinated (I may expand on this theme in a future blog post). To combat this, I need to get more time in front of staff, explaining the need for good solid guidance in our context and the benefit for the students. This needs to happen alongside going through policies with staff.

5. Working with colleagues from a whole school perspective can be really, really challenging, especially when you are not empowered with any actual authority. Taking time out the day to have conversations is really quite important in changing mindsets.

6. With the above in mind, it is also necessary to have time with the whole staff to be able to lay out your vision for counseling at the school to get buy in from your team.

7. Predicted grades seem to some people (parents particularly) to be a form of black magic. In addition there are cultural differences in what predicted grades are, notably between North Americans and Europeans. This year we changed our policy on this and I will blog about this elsewhere.

8. It is important that transcripts make it clear what the numbers mean. Timing of mock exams and their results should be clearly marked up.

9. Counseling is a formative process and encourages meta-cognition in students, which brings school wide benefits as students set goals and become motivated. Programs need individual and group time during the school week.

10. Don’t feel you need to give time to people trying to sell you something.

11. Routines are just as important in counseling as they are in teaching and parenting.

12. Having a clearly defined structure and plan to your guidance program (within whatever constrains you may have to work with). In the first year of this cycle I was teaching 12 hours a week out of a maximum of 24 teaching periods. I only had 12 grade 11 students and so it was quite easy from that perspective. However, at the time I was still learning the ropes (I still am) and was hugely inexperienced at sitting down with students “counseling” them. I had no idea really of how the cycle progresses from the end of grade 10 to the end of grade 12 and despite not teaching all that much I had no official curriculum time with my students. In addition to that, apart from my time, I was denied any other resources to work with. I was consistently denied funding for any sort of database that would help me generate course/university lists for my students for example. This year I had 17 hours of classroom teaching time, but due to changes my line manager brought into the structure of the school day I suddenly had times in the week where I could get in front of all the students together. In addition I was allowed access to some resources that required money and so my current grade 11 students have benefited from more focused time and tasks to support their own search.This has been picked up in my feedback at the end of the year and I have planned changes for next year to improve this further which I will blog about.

13. If you have no guidance from above don’t be frightened to make your own decisions. My line manager is fairly absentee because they are pulled in so many directions themselves. This has hugely frustrated me this year because I am a rookie and I need to bounce ideas off of someone. I have also been really unsure as to how to proceed at times. However the best thing to do is make a decision and run with it. This summer I decided to make it really clear to families what they can expect and can’t expect from my program, to avoid any further confusion.