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

Originally posted on July 16, 2017 @ 9:00 am

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.



Thirteen reflections at the end of my first guidance cycle

Originally posted on July 9, 2017 @ 1:55 pm

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.




Resources University

A list of good open questions for use in teaching…

Originally posted on August 24, 2016 @ 9:00 am

“A great question is one that gets us all thinking…students questions give us a glimpse into what they are thinking, what issues are engaging them, where their confusion is, where and how are they making connections…where are they seeking clarification?” Richhardt et al 2011


  • Why do you think you want this versus that?
  • How will your long term plans be impacted and why?
  • What would you lose if you didnt do that, and why?
  • What would you do if you could do whatever you wanted and why?
  • Write down the first thing that comes to mind when you think of college?
  • If you could say one thing to your parents what would it be?
  • Write down one message to your children?


Questions need to focus on learning and not on work, using the language of inclusion (we not I or you)

Give praise for the effort not for the outcome = growth mindset.

  • I was wondering if…
  • Can you say more about that?
  • Im not following you can you explain that in another way?
  • Questions that model an interest in ideas
  • Questions that construct understanding
  • Questions the clarify and facilitate thinking
  • What makes you say that?
  •  What does that tell us?
  • What questions are surfacing for you?
  • What do we see?
  • What do we think we know?
  • What else do you notice?
  • Can we explain this?

Creating a University & Careers Guidance Programme (Part 4)

Originally posted on July 31, 2016 @ 9:00 am

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)

Originally posted on July 27, 2016 @ 9:00 am

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.