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Professional Organizations Can Make a World of Difference!
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Each week, an educator takes a stand or shares an Aha! moment in the classroom in Education World's Voice of Experience column. This week, in recognition of National School Counseling Week (February 4-8), school counselor Barbara Muller-Ackerman shares with us what her professional colleagues say about the value of membership in professional organizations. Included: Join the discussion! Share how membership in a professional organization has benefited you!

Barbara Muller-Ackerman

"Why do I feel so overwhelmed?"
"How do I save these kids?"
"Why do I feel like such an outsider?"
"What should I be doing to make a difference?"

First-year counselors -- and sometimes even those who have been in the field for a long time -- frequently find themselves asking those and similar questions. For all educators, but especially for school counselors, having somebody to talk with about questions like those is essential. Whether a counselor is one of many in a school or the only counselor in a school, he or she cannot go it alone. The formal network of a professional association, such as the American School Counselor Association (ASCA), a state counselor association, or something more informal, is vital for counselors to use to communicate with -- and to learn from -- other school counselors.

With the approach of National School Counseling Week (February 4-8), I've been thinking a lot about what membership in professional groups has meant to me. I approached some of my counseling colleagues to see whether they shared those feelings.

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"I don't think it's what I know, so much as who I know," Ellen Rust, a school counselor in Nashville, Tennessee, told me. "I've learned so much from the many contacts I've made from local, state, and national school counseling organizations. Getting involved opened up new horizons for me and enriched the work I was doing at school. I just can't think of a single thing that would have helped me as much as the people who mentored me along the way."

Rich Downs, a Tallahassee (Florida) counselor, concurred. "It's important that counselors have a sense of their place on a campus and as part of a faculty. I seldom worked on a campus with other counselors; I was frequently the only person on a campus with my professional perspective. I found that I often second-guessed myself or wondered whether what I was doing was appropriate or right."

A practical way to deal with that kind of aloneness is to form a network of peers to help you sort through things, added Downs. "I always encourage counselors to develop a network of fellow counselors to use as a sounding board. Being a counselor can be a lonely job and the peer support is important."

"I was fortunate to have great mentors," said Karen Hayhurst, past president of the Wyoming School Counselor Association, adding, "The following advice came as gifts from those mentors:

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Care to reflect on a classroom experience that opened your eyes? We're looking for teachers who would like to share an Aha! moment -- a moment in the classroom (or a moment of reflection outside the classroom) when you had a teaching epiphany? Or are you an educator with a unique opinion to share? Send a brief description only of an idea you might like to write about in Voice of Experience to [email protected].

  • "Believe, above all else, that you are capable of doing this job.
  • Don't expect to know all the answers; just find the people who can lead you to the answers.
  • Tap the professional resources around you (other agency folks and counselors). Then find a stable mentor and make use of his or her knowledge and skills.
  • Use ideas and programs that already work when you have a problem to solve. Most of the time someone has done what you are trying to do.
  • Be open and flexible. If you go into a position with set expectations, you will almost always be frustrated and disappointed.
  • Maintain and stay active in professional groups, such as the ASCA. Staying current in your profession is critical."

Again and again, the school counselors I talked with encouraged other counselors to make use of professional organizations and counseling colleagues. "Become and stay involved professionally; it is the best protection against burnout. The only difference between a grave and a rut are the depth and the length," said John A. Bayrl, Ph.D., LPC, of the school guidance counseling program at Northern Michigan University.

Angie Stansell, president of the Alabama School Counselor Association, wishes she had known about the resources available to her and the value of networking when she started out as a counselor. "I have chosen to become active in these groups," she said. "Many times I feel that membership in these groups is as good as, or better than, going to a workshop. I know that there are advocates out there for me. Going to the national level of activities has been such a wonderful experience; my family of counselors gets larger at each meeting I attend."

When I returned to education -- after a 14-year hiatus spent raising a family and running a retail business -- it was the affirmation of mentors in graduate school and in my professional association that encouraged me to go on to state and national leadership. It is the friendships, collegiality, and sharing of ideas among the members of those associations that makes me a better leader and -- more importantly -- an infinitely better counselor in my work with children each day. I can't imagine how different the job would be, and how different I would be, without them.

This essay is excerpted from an article that appeared in a publication of the American School Counselor Association.

Barbara Muller-Ackerman is an elementary counselor at James Caldwell School, in Springfield, New Jersey. Currently, she is elementary vice president of the American School Counselor Association and legislative chair of the New Jersey School Counselor Association.