Article Published: 8/24/2022
Another school year is upon us, and the urgent need for school counselors across the country continues to grow. We recently spoke with Eric Sparks, EdD, CAE, Deputy Executive Director of the American School Counselor Association (ASCA), who shared his thoughts on the important work that school counselors do, the challenges it often brings, and how their role continues to evolve.
What are some of the biggest challenges facing school counselors today?
Managing high caseloads of students is still an issue, but it’s getting better. Schools, districts, and states have made progress in lowering the ratio to the recommended 250 students to 1 school counselor, but we still have a quite a way to go in many schools. For the past 2 years of virtual and hybrid environments, it has been all-hands-on-deck to keep schools open and running, so all school staff have had to take on extra duties, including school counselors. We hope that will settle down somewhat this year as more schools return in person, but non–school counseling duties have long been an issue for school counselors. A lot of the issue stems from a lack of understanding of the role of the school counselor, and ASCA focuses on collaboration with other organizations, principals, superintendents, and school boards to help them understand what school counselors are trained to do, what they can do, and the benefits students and schools will see from their work.
How has school counseling changed over the years?
Quite a bit. In the very beginning, in the early 1900s, it was all about vocational guidance, and through the years school counseling has ebbed and flowed from a mental health to an educational approach. This has created confusion about the role of the school counselor. The work that ASCA and school counseling leaders have done over the past 20 years to clearly define the role of the school counselor has created a significant change in the profession. The creation of the ASCA National Model defined what school counseling programs are about. School counselors have evolved from waiting in their office for a student or parent to walk in to taking an active approach by creating a school counseling program that’s going to reach every student. School counselors have to be strategic in developing their programs and focus on what data shows as specific student needs. They can then implement strategies and activities that help students develop the mindsets and behaviors needed to be successful in school and to be prepared for a postsecondary education. School counselors use that data to address issues from a more proactive standpoint.
How can school counselors advocate for their students regarding social injustices and equitable access to mental health care?
They can build a comprehensive program that is designed for all students that is equitable, identifying groups of students who traditionally may not have had access to rigorous courses, extracurricular activities, whatever the case may be, and build strategies and activities for change into their programs. Through direct service to students, school counselors can help students overcome barriers they may be facing and help them develop skills such as decision-making and responsibility that can also help them with their own self-advocacy.
At the same time, there’s also a need for school counselors to focus on creating systemic change, which could include looking at policies and procedures that have had unintentional consequences or maybe exclude some students from opportunities. School counselors must promote equity for all students and address issues of racism, bias, and other social injustices. School counselors also need to understand the data from their school and identify inequities such as students who have not had access to rigorous courses and other opportunities, or groups of students who are overrepresented in discipline reports. Then they can have conversations in the building about why there may be disadvantageous situations for students and develop strategies to close achievement and opportunity gaps. Finally, school counselors use this work to help advocate for policies and procedures that are equitable for all.
How can school counselors become more involved in those decision-making processes in their schools?
The relationship between the school counselor and the principal is important, as both positions are looking at the whole school, looking at the big picture. But school counselors have a unique perspective that principals don’t have because of the nature of their developmental work with students. School counselors can share information about what they’re seeing, problem areas as well as successes. Then they can come together and create systems and climates for success. Being a member of the school leadership team is another great way to develop relationships with other leaders to address issues, set goals, and look for ways to solve problems and to connect with parents and the community.
What resources are most needed in schools now?
Personnel is a big one, in terms of reducing the student-to-school-counselor ratio. This is a human resources need and takes some time to work through. Fortunately, we are seeing many instances now of adding additional support around mental health and student development in schools, including social work and psychology, and looking at systemic ways schools can add more support. There are so many needs in schools, particularly in rural areas where there are not as many agencies who can do long-term work for students with more in-depth needs. That is a community issue. School counselors also need support to keep up with new technologies and take advantage of automating systems when appropriate such as software that will automatically compute students’ progress toward meeting graduation requirements for their specific pathway. That may seem like a no-brainer, but in many cases, school counselors are still having to check this by hand for every student in their caseload.
What advice would you give to someone who is considering becoming a school counselor?
It’s a great job. There are challenges but it’s very rewarding to work with students, see them grow, develop, and transition. Use the tools of the profession, such as the ASCA Student Standards, Professional Standards, and Ethical Standards that are the foundation of the profession. You don’t need to reinvent the wheel; the foundation is there and acts as a guide to keep the focus on the things that will make a difference for students. Stay focused on what we know that research says is important. When building a school counseling program, utilize the tools available and take advantage of the work that’s already been laid out by professionals in the field who have had the opportunity to learn what works and what doesn’t. Networking is important, particularly if you’re the only school counselor in the building. Take advantage of local and state associations and programs to connect with others, share and learn about best practices, and support each other. Use these things to guide your work as a professional.
Read more about how ASCA helps school counselors on the organization’s website.
Prior to his work with ASCA, Eric Sparks was a high school counselor and Director of School Counseling for the Wake County Public School System in North Carolina. He is a school counseling graduate of North Carolina State University and earned a doctorate in education leadership and administration from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.
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