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School Counselors Reflective
On What Makes Them Effective

Are you a school counselor or thinking of becoming one? What are the most important attributes an effective school counselor should have? This week, in honor of National School Counseling Week (February 7 though 11), Education World asked school counselors to reflect on what makes them effective. We are pleased to share their thoughtful and illuminating -- and often heartwarming -- responses.

National School Counseling Week -- February 7 through 11 -- is a time to celebrate the unique contributions that school counselors make to their school communities. The week also affords school counselors an opportunity to feature their on-going efforts and to highlight their visions for their schools. As school counselors take stock of their visions and accomplishments this week, Education World wondered

What attributes do effective school counselors have?

To learn the answer to that question, we enlisted the help of Barbara Muller-Ackerman, chairwoman of the American School Counselor Association's (ASCA) public relations committee. She asked leaders in the counseling field to share their thoughts with Education World. The answers were as diverse as the counselors themselves, but one common theme came through -- counselors care deeply about their work and the students and schools they serve.


Most elementary school teachers know Margaret Wise Brown's The Important Book. Teachers recognize the book as a great tool for honing students' observation skills. When one teacher at Kreeger Elementary School in Fowlerville, Michigan, recently challenged kids to create their own Important Books, one student wrote a page dedicated to her school counselor. Counselor Judy Standley shared with Education World the heart-tugging sentiment that the student wrote:

"The important thing about our counselor is that she listens. I do know that lots of other people listen, but she listens the most. She does B.A.B.E.S. and lots of other things. She tells stories with important morals. She listens to you and tells no one. She is an important counselor. But the important thing about Mrs. Standley is that SHE LISTENS!!"

In the Important Book attributes of school counselors, listening ability is right there at the top of the list! It was the most common -- and perhaps least surprising -- response we received. The insight that counselors shared about that choice tells us even more!

Last year, Shaftsburg (Michigan) Elementary School counselor Teresa Severy met a new fourth grader for the first time. The bright and resilient little girl's life had been colored by the horrors of neglect, substance abuse, and family incarcerations. "I met her as I do all my new students, and she shared much of what was in her heart," said Severy. Then, one morning, Severy found on her desk a box -- clearly wrapped by a young person -- and a card, addressed in the beautiful awkward cursive of a child.

"The box contained a wind chime for my office, to add special music to my day," Severy related. "The card touched my heart. It read

Thank you for being a special person who really cares to listen and hear me. I wish you a very happy Mother's Day. Your friend...

"I wept when I read her words. Her mom was incarcerated, and [the child] was living with another family. One never knows that what we say or do can be significant in the life of a child."

The gift and the note were reminders of the importance of listening, of the importance of being "on top of my game when I work with children," Severy told Education World.

Larry Steele thinks often about the importance of listening too. "Many times, I get only one chance to work with a situation, crisis, student, or family," said Steele, Southern California area director for the California School Counselors Association. "I need to be right on the button the first time out of the gate, so listening skills are essential."

"Our children might not always say out loud what they are feeling, and school counselors need the ability to listen -- to words, body language, unspoken words, and attitudes," added Carol Turner. She is a counselor at Center Street Middle School in Birmingham, Alabama. "School counselors can effectively help students by really listening to them whether they are talking or not."


Listening and empathy go hand in hand as the two most frequent responses to the question we posed to school counselors. "The ability to experience as one's own the feelings of others" is key, said Deborah Bilzing, a school counseling consultant in Wisconsin.

"The ability to understand why others do what they do and think the way they do takes precedence over all other characteristics," agreed Robert B. Cormany, executive director of the Pennsylvania School Counselor Association. "Unless one has that quality of understanding, skill in technique is useless and knowledge is less than meaningless."

Helen A. Hatridge, past president of the Missouri School Counselor Association, goes along with that. "Without the ability to understand what the student is experiencing, a counselor cannot truly do an effective job. Empathy leads to good listening and a better ability to help the client come up with solutions. It also helps the student feel more comfortable and willing to open up to a counselor."


Key to the success of any school counselor is the person's ability to build trusting relationships with students and other members of the school community. That should be a prerequisite for anyone who is going to serve as a student advocate, said Beckie Meyer, an assistant professor in the school counseling department at Millersville (Pennsylvania) University.

Meyer reflected recently for Education World on her 23 years as a teacher and an elementary school counselor. "Student referrals to the counselor have greatly increased from teachers, parents, and the students themselves in recent years," said Meyer. "A counselor simply must be approachable, inviting, trustworthy and, yes, just plain fun at times. Students must want to seek out that person when in need."

"Most counseling cannot begin until that initial 'ice' is broken," concluded Meyer. "Once people feel trust, comfort, and acceptance, the possibilities for getting the work of counseling done are greatly enhanced."

"Our students need to sense that they have professional caregivers among the adults that they can turn to [and that the counselor] will be there for them in non-judgmental fashion," added Julie A. Kruk. She is a counselor at Bay Port High School in Green Bay, Wisconsin. "This accepting nature is enmeshed in our reputation, which builds student by student and is shared by word of mouth and experiences with others. Students can tell if we are warm and inviting and whether or not they can entrust us with their stories. I feel that this trait is the singular skill that counselors need to build their practice around. We can then do the good work that we have been trained to deliver."

Andrea Meyer, a counselor at Milbank (South Dakota) Middle School and no relation to Beckie Meyer, agreed. "You have to be able to develop rapport and you must be genuine! You have to understand the kid culture -- not try to be a part of it but know what the students are interested in, what's important to them. If you don't have a caring relationship of trust and understanding, nothing else is going to happen with children or adults. The old saw -- Kids don't care how much you know until they know how much you care -- still rings true today!"


When Kim Haloway thought about our question, many characteristics raced through her mind -- empathy, honesty, ethics, sensitivity, accountability. "But if I don't think I will really make a difference -- if I don't believe in myself and in the student's ability to succeed, to overcome all odds -- then all those qualities are diminished."

The belief that we can make a difference has got to be the most important attribute of an effective school counselor, concluded Haloway, a counselor in the Marana (Arizona) Unified School District.

Jackie M. Allen, a counselor at Blacow Elementary School in Fremont, California, and past-president the ASCA, came to the same conclusion. "Commitment to the belief that counseling makes a difference in student lives and futures must be a foundational belief held sacred by that counselor -- a belief that will guide his or her relationships, responses, actions, program development, and counseling practice. Without that commitment to the process of change, a school counselor will not be able to effectively serve as a catalyst in student lives and a significant change agent in the educational community."


Flexibility is another key to success in the school-counseling field. "Time is not yours" in counseling, Rich Downs, a school counseling consultant for the Florida Department of Education, told Education World. "When your expertise is needed to deal with a problem, you must make yourself available to assist others. Although your daily schedule has just been [interrupted] by someone else's need, you must be supportive and place your needs and concerns second. An effective school counselor must make the individuals of our attention believe that, at that particular point in time, they are the most important person in the world."

"You just never know what is going to come up next," agreed Linda Lueckenhoff, a counselor at Palmyra (Missouri) Elementary School and president-elect of the Missouri School Counselor Association. "You might finish presenting a classroom lesson on friendship, and on the way back to your office, the school secretary gives you a message to return a call from a concerned parent. But before you have a chance to pick up the phone, the school nurse steps in to discuss concerns about a student who might have been physically abused. While you are talking with the nurse, the superintendent calls to invite you to a meeting on developing a district crisis response plan...."

"A rigid person just couldn't survive very well in this type of setting!" added Lueckenhoff. "You must be able to switch gears and think fast."


Each semester, Zark VanZandt gives students in his School Counseling and Services class at the University of Southern Maine an assignment he calls Beyond Mediocrity. "In that assignment, I ask students to create a personal mission statement in which they identify the ten most significant competencies they must possess to be an effective school counselor and how they personally plan to stay committed to professional excellence," he told Education World.

Students' responses to the assignment often impress VanZandt, and this semester was no exception. One response that stands out came from a student whose number one competency was

To possess self-knowledge: This is a crucial competency that includes a deep understanding of my own paradigms, my biases, my strengths and weaknesses, and my theoretical perspective on counseling. For me to create a career that is beyond mediocrity, I must first look inward. The vision that will lead me to effectiveness, my mission statement, is both personal and professional. It would feel false to separate the two, for I don't change my inner being depending on the circumstance.

"You cannot be an effective counselor if you are not physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually healthy," added Crystal Asche, a counselor at Wahpeton (North Dakota) Middle School. "Many times we are so busy taking care of others that we forget about taking care of ourselves. We then not only fail ourselves but [also lack] the energy to take care of our clients."

"I think that the most important characteristic for me is balance -- balance between professional and personal life, between giving and renewing, between helping and empowering." Tom Wiggins, president of the New York School Counselor Association, told Education World. "I have seen too many school counselors lose their effectiveness because they have lost their balance. They may still be effective at creating relationships, but they lose some of their effective edge either because they can't say no when they need to or because their own unattended-to needs surface. I regularly attend to my own needs so that I feel balanced between giving and receiving."


Good listening skills. Empathy. The ability to build strong relationships. Flexibility. Self-knowledge. A strong belief in the ability to make a difference. Those are some of the attributes of an effective school counselor. There are many others. School counselors shared with Education World some of the other characteristics that a good school counselor might possess. Following are four more:

On Laughter and Humor
With all of the tragic issues our youth must deal with, it is important for them to have someone they can turn to who will support them and also help them to find ways in which to laugh. The healing power of laughter and humor (not malicious) helps to give hope and healing. Humor also assists in building resiliency in children.

Julie Dillehay, school counselor
Crossroads Middle School
Meridian, Idaho

On the Ability to Advocate
The school counselor needs to be able to advocate on behalf of the students and the counseling program. The counselor also needs to be able to teach others to advocate for themselves and for those who cannot advocate for themselves.

Jo Hayslip, professor emerita
Plymouth (New Hampshire) State College

On Humility
The best help we can give is to be a person who knows that we have our own personal issues to address, works on them as best we can, and makes it possible for others to work on theirs too. As a school counselor, I am a fellow traveler who has the awesome privilege to walk with someone else on his or her journey. My job is to be a role model for someone who does not have all the answers but who is not afraid to look in the very dark places to find them.

Suzan Nolan, elementary counselor
Rapid City (South Dakota) School System

On Smiling
After 30 years of counseling, I think the most important attribute is a consistent, every day smile. I notice how students respond to my smile. Although many might not think of it as a skill in the traditional sense, it is very important.

Ned W. Toms
Tri Village Local School District
New Madison, Ohio


Finally, we asked ASCA president Janice Gallagher to respond to our question, and she did.

"I believe a school counselor must be able to see and understand the multifaceted potential of children. Counseling children is like working with an array of different gems and stones. Some are perfect as they are. Others need a little polish to shine, and still others need to be examined for preparation before they are shaped to be most beautiful and functional. One may be most lovely alone, another may be best as part of a small grouping or arrangement, and others need to be surrounded by a crowd. Each is different, each is beautiful in its own right and, most important, each has value."

Article by Gary Hopkins
Education World® Editor-in-Chief
Copyright © 2005 Education World




Updated 1/31/2005