Article Published: 2/8/2022
Corey Daniel never considered becoming a school counselor while she was growing up in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. As a high school student, she planned to obtain a science degree.
She ended up enrolling at Clemson University and set her sights on becoming an engineer, and later changed her major to English. Next, she volunteered for the Peace Corps, where she was head of the English department at a technical institute in Kiribati, an island nation in the Pacific Ocean. During her experience there, she started thinking about what sort of work she would do when she returned home and turned to a fellow volunteer for advice.
“I did something I still advise students to do today,” she says. “I tell them to ask someone or several people who know them well what they think you are good at. Sometimes we don’t see those traits we are naturally good at because they’re second nature to us.”
Her friend noticed that Daniel routinely went out of her way to help people, and that when people mentioned something personal to her about themselves, she always remembered the details.
“I genuinely care about people and have a high level of empathy,” she says. “I wanted to connect with people, and my friend asked if I’d ever thought about becoming a counselor. When I mentioned it to my other friends and family members, they said, ‘That would be perfect for you!’”
After leaving the Peace Corps, within 2 weeks she had taken the GRE, and she eventually decided to enroll at William & Mary. After graduation, she was hired as a counselor at Mount Tabor High School in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, where she has worked for 14 years.
Today’s school counselors do much more than counsel students, she says. Though her work is often demanding, she loves it nonetheless.
“I love making connections with students so that they feel safe talking with me about things, growing into who they want to be and deciding what they want to do in the future. I get to be a part of that process, and it’s wonderful to watch them discover themselves and grow into being adults.”
Her workdays can’t be considered “typical,” requiring her to shift her focus and adjust her schedule depending on the circumstances, she says. She usually begins by prepping for the day if she hasn’t done so earlier, checking emails, and returning phone calls as she settles in. Students who want to meet with her schedule visits via email, by scanning a QR code at the school, or leaving handwritten notes, and she issues them passes. Until recently, her caseload consisted of about 400 students.
“On any given day, I have a list in my head and on sticky notes about what I need to get done, and it’s rare if I get through all of them,” she says. “A student may need me for something, and I’m always there for them. Sometimes I may work 10 or more hours a day, so I’m still trying to find a work-life balance.”
Daniel helps students work through problems at school and at home, register for classes based on their interests and requirements, make changes to their schedules, and talk about their goals. She provides them with information about colleges, including how to apply, obtain financial aid and scholarships, and prepare for life after high school. She also helps them with career planning and connects them with helpful resources such as the College Foundation of North Carolina and College Board.
“Registration season has just started, so I’ll meet with every ninth- through 11th-grader through March,” she says. “Some schools don’t do that, but we really think it’s important to have that one-on-one conversation with each student to talk about classes for next year. It gives us a chance to reconnect, talk about goals and plans, and get to know them a little better. For the next month and a half, my days will be filled with that work, but that doesn’t mean that everything else stops.”
In September and October, the school’s counselors meet with every senior about college and career planning. Later, Daniel helps them by uploading their transcripts, writing letters of recommendation, and having multiple follow-up meetings as they continue the process of planning their lives after high school.
Many of the students she counsels are experiencing the usual teenage issues such as struggling in class or not getting along with a classmate or family member. Sometimes the situation is more serious and requires a team effort, including help from the school’s social worker, who may visit the student at home.
The COVID-19 pandemic has increased the need for youth mental health care services substantially, Daniel says.
“A lot of individuals are struggling with their health, hunger, family conflicts, homelessness, and more. It’s not just worrying about getting sick or losing family members,” she says. “For many, their parents have not been able to stay employed in the same way, so we’re seeing a larger number of individuals who have food insecurity, struggling to feed the family, or even find a safe place to stay. And teenagers are often less likely to say something about it if that’s going on.”
She recalls speaking to the mother of a student who had been missing a lot of school to understand the reason behind her absences.
“Finally, the mom broke down and told me that at night, they had been staying in a hotel and had no idea where they would be staying the next night. At one point they had even been living in their car, and their food was whatever they could get at the moment,” she says. “I had to talk to her teachers, because her mother could only guarantee that she would be in school on certain days. The student was taking care of a younger sibling because they couldn’t afford daycare.”
Daniel and the school’s social worker provided the family with resources to help, including food from the school’s food bank.
Like most schools, Mount Tabor had to switch to a virtual setting during the earlier part of the pandemic. A self-professed “techie,” Daniel was able to help her department transition to a new learning environment.
“In March of 2020, everything shut down,” she remembers. “We went virtual and started doing Zoom meetings. When the next year started, we had a better plan in place. We were 100% virtual for over half the school year, and after that, if students wanted to come back, we did it on a rotation to limit the number of students on campus at one time. We also occasionally met with students outside.”
The beginning of the 2021–2022 school year became even more difficult when a Mount Tabor student lost his life in a school shooting. The school closed briefly before a crisis team came in to talk with students and parents to help them begin to process their grief and fears for their safety.
After attending a College Board professional development event in the fall/winter of 2020, Daniel became inspired to create a Virtual Calming Room online during Mount Tabor’s virtual year. The website is free and open to anyone and offers soothing sounds and music; links to animal webcams, videos on yoga and stretching, mindfulness and meditation; games and puzzles; and printable pages for coloring. The site also features helpful smartphone apps and links to mental health resources. It’s become so popular that it’s now being used by other schools throughout the state.
Meetings are a large part of Daniel’s work, so as her day continues, in addition to talking with students, she may also talk with parents, her colleagues in the counseling department, educators, and school administrators. She helps to plan after-school events including the Tabor Forum series, where members of the faculty and staff cover a variety of informative topics that are made available later on video.
While there is a significant amount of collaboration that happens at these meetings, Daniel believes a lower ratio between school employees and students would go a long way toward identifying students in need of urgent mental health care such as suicidal ideation and prevention.
“This is not an easy answer because it requires funding,” she says, “but the more one-on-one interactions between adults and students, the better sense of community each student can have, the safer that student can feel going to someone when they’re struggling, and the quicker adults around them will be able to notice that something is going on, because they’re going to know their students better. Our education system has been stretched too thin, but there’s no easy fix.”
Daniel says she’s noticed that people seem to be more willing to have difficult conversations.
“There’s been a lot of growth in the area of talking about mental health needs, and students being able to ask for help, despite the stigma,” she says. “More people seem willing to have the conversations that need to happen. When people are open to talking about things that they might not be comfortable with, that’s how growth happens.”
As her workday draws to a close, Daniel finds herself returning more calls and emails and planning the next day’s agenda. Though she often works past her scheduled hours, she’s doing work that she’s passionate about.
“I’m always here to provide emotional support, because things happen, and life can be extremely hard for all of us,” she says. “Sometimes I’m providing information for students, sometimes I’m a sounding board, but ultimately through having those relationships and seeing them reach their goals, whether it’s passing a class, graduating from high school, or getting into the college they want, I especially love seeing them and knowing they did that. It wasn’t me, but I was along to support them and help them along, and there’s something really beautiful and heartwarming about that.”
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