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.