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I Wish I Knew Then What I Know Now
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Each week, an educator takes a stand or shares an Aha! moment in the classroom in the Education World Voice of Experience column. This week, in recognition of National School Counseling Week, February 4 through 8, school counselor Barbara Muller-Ackerman talks with her professional colleagues about the things they know now that they wish they had known when they started their counseling careers. Included: What do you know now that you wish you had known when you started your career? Join the discussion!

Barbara Muller-Ackerman

In recognition of National School Counseling Week, February 4 through 8, Education World welcomes the voice of school counselor Barbara Muller-Ackerman. Last week, Muller-Ackerman talked with her colleagues about the isolation of the counseling professions and the value of belonging to professional organizations. (Click here to read last week's Voice of Experience.) This week, she shares her colleagues' reflections on what they know now that they wish they had known when they started their careers.

Just as no school counselor can do it all alone, no school counselor can save everyone. Although school counselors are trained to help others, one of the most valuable lessons many have learned is when to let go. In recent weeks, I've chatted with some of my colleagues who are members of the American School Counselor Association about just that!
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What do you know now that you wish you had known when you began your career? Click here to share!

"I wish I had known that you just have to let go sometimes of the things that are out of your control," Susie Mahoney, a counselor in Lincoln, Nebraska, told me. "I can get new clothes and glasses for students who need them, but I can't make the family take care of them or use them. I can be a super resource for some of my staff but not to all. I can knock myself out and some staff members are still going to think that I'm not doing enough or I'm doing too much. Some don't understand what I do, and that's OK. Focusing on the areas in which I can make a difference will benefit the most people."

Diane Stegge, a counselor in Havelock, Iowa, agrees that school counselors can't solve everyone's problem. "I wish I had known I didn't need a technique or trick for every issue or problem," she said. "I thought if I had those I would be successful, and things would be so easy. Although I knew I didn't need to have all the answers for issues, I still in some way thought I should have them.

"I also thought that I should be able to fix most problems," added Stegge. "Again, cognitively I knew better I also learned very quickly that although school people think they know what's best for a child and his or her family, we don't always. Most families are doing the best they can; it just may not look like it to us."

In Falmouth, Maine, first-year counselor Maribeth Bush had already learned an important lesson before she took her first counseling job. She said, "I know from my personal life experience that I have to recognize my limits and put my energies where I know I can make the biggest differences rather than fretting over doing it all."


Some people don't need saving. They just need a caring person available to listen. "I learned over the past 20 years that giving someone your time, attention, and unconditional positive regard is a powerful way to help them help themselves," said Jan Speck of the Missouri School Counselor Association. "As we rush through mass educating young people today, making sure that they can pass tests, we sometimes forget they need individual attention and someone to listen -- even when they seem to resist."

"When I first started out, I felt I needed to take some action to help a child, not thinking that listening was an action," Speck added. "I wanted to swoop in and save these kids, but now I know they need to be taught how to save themselves. That makes them stronger and builds their self-esteem -- not mine."

"I have learned that in many cases a good ear is worth more than an active mouth," said counselor Pat Gluckin of Elkhart, Indiana. "It was a fourth-grade student in my first year of school counseling who gave me permission to not know everything. After listening to his many tales of woe, I asked him what he thought I could do that would help him. His response was simply, 'There is nothing anyone can do to change the way I live. I'll change it when I grow. But for now I really need someone who will listen to me and care.' Then he gave me a hug and said 'Thanks.' From that day on, I realized that I was gifted with good ears. The rest I'll learn as I grow also."

Searching for Voices

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].


With student-to-counselor ratios often in excess of 450-to-1, school counselors have a wealth of demands on their time. Some are legitimate demands and an important part of the counseling job. Others are not so legitimate. I know from listening to my colleagues that learning to say no to inappropriate requests and demands for your time is an important part of growing as a school counselor.

"My life became much more manageable when I finally learned that it's not only possible to say no, but I won't be struck by lightening if I do so," said Susie Mahoney.

"I wish I could have begun my work as a school counselor with the knowledge that I would need to protect my planned program from other unplanned demands on my time," added counselor Carolyn Collins of Akron, Ohio. "[I wish I had known] that the world of work would not fall apart when I said that I would not have time to do the secretarial-type work requested by a building principal, such as testing coordinator responsibilities and data entry -- that to be true to the standards of the profession, I would, however, assist students in learning test-taking skills, interpret test results for students and parents, and help students gain insight toward removing individual roadblocks to success."


Finally, we counselors -- indeed, all educators -- must keep in mind that while we're busy trying to be there for everyone else, we also need to take care of ourselves. "Being a counselor is a very emotionally draining job," said Suzan Nolan, a counselor in Rapid City, South Dakota, and vice president of ASCA's midwestern region. "I have learned that it is essential for me to have a way to fill myself up regularly. I do that by walking, exercising, talking over the day and letting go of it, prayer, reflection, writing, and just being still.

"My spirit gets depleted if I don't take the time to fill it up by doing some fun or relaxing thing to rejuvenate myself on a daily basis," added Nolan.

Beyond taking care of yourself, it's also important to have faith in yourself. Janis L. Wallender, a counselor in Beulah, North Dakota, shared this advice: "One of my supervising counselors said, 'If you truly have the best interest of the child in your heart, you will not do bad things. You may make some mistakes, but if you have the best interest of the child in your heart, the mistakes you make will not leave scars.' "

"I believe that if you are 'genuine' in your work with children, that you truly care about their well-being and that you remember counseling is not a job but rather a human being helping other human beings, you will do great," Wallender continued.

"What I wish I knew was that I didn't need to be so scared about starting [my career in counseling]," said Heather Tracy of Pasadena, Maryland, who is in her second year as a counselor. "I really felt like I knew nothing and was completely unprepared when I left grad school and was hired for my first position. Of course, I did know a lot, but there was also a lot that I could learn only by doing, and being an intern isn't the same as doing it for real. But that's OK. And that's the key. I just didn't know that was OK."

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.