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The school counselor’s external office

Richard O’Connell March 25, 2012

Author’s note: Although this article is written mainly for school counselors, its basic concept and the strategies it contains are easily adaptable to other counseling fields.

When the paperwork begins to mount and the phone calls never seem to stop, school counselors often wonder, “When am I going to get the chance to see the kids? What about all those failing students I need to encourage? What about all those follow-up requests from parents?”

The next thought jumps to that initial dream that all school counselors have: “I love kids. I want to get to know them, and I really want to help them. But all I do is make endless schedule changes, fill out forms, keep logs and file. And when they finally get done, it’s time to begin scheduling for next year.”

As a school counselor, do you wish to:

  • Increase your contact with students?
  • Increase your faculty contacts?
  • Increase your efficiency, while decreasing your workload?
  • Increase your knowledge and awareness of students on the basis of their physical appearance?
  • Improve the guidance public relations effort in your school?
  • Strengthen your students’ realization that you really care about them?
  • Deliver more service to your students in a more efficient manner?

If so, try this simple practice. Stand in a central place such as the entrance to school, outside your office or in a main corridor each day for the half-hour before school begins and greet both students and staff.

Initially, it will take both courage and self-discipline to get to your self-appointed post each day. Yes, courage in putting yourself out front to be observed by the whole school community. It will be something new, and there will be those who see you as attention-seeking, self-promoting and possibly even as someone who does not know his or her place in the hierarchy of school beings. The courage part comes when you assume a piece of hallway turf even as staff question why you are there. It takes even more courage to reach out and begin to greet your students and fellow faculty members with a “Good morning.”

Over the years, I have come to value this practice, so I make the time in a very busy day to achieve this goal. After awhile, even those who criticized you will wonder why you are not at your post if you happen to be absent.

The hard part is simply to begin this practice. The rewards will be well worth the initial discomfort. The advantage of this practice is that, eventually, both faculty and students will know you are there to help answer questions, to give advice, to share small talk or just to say hello.

This practice also affords the counselor daily opportunities to assess student affect. This is valuable because the more we familiarize ourselves with our students, the easier it is to pick up on the subtle changes in behavior or appearance that can indicate a student is troubled.

A few examples from my experience will suffice.

  • When a normally upbeat youngster changes into a withdrawn or sad individual, you have an external warning.
  • When you see students arriving late, there is a problem.
  • When you see a student couple coming to school each day and forming a new relationship, this is valuable information.
  • When one member of the couple suddenly “disappears,” this can be equally significant information. There have been cases in which students were depressed or even suicidal after going through a breakup, and the counselor assessed the situation in the hallway.
  • When a student breaks a leg, you have immediate knowledge of the situation and can take action to assist the student, such as finding someone to carry the student’s books or notifying a teacher that it might be better for the student to come to class a little late to avoid overcrowded hallways.

All the visual clues you pick up firsthand can feed back into your interactions with parents and students during the normal course of the day. What’s more, this information is immediate; you won’t have to wait until someone comes to your office to fill you in.

A case in point: One morning a student approached me. I gently gave him a hello tap on the chest. He immediately flinched in pain. I inquired, “Are you all right?”

“I’m all right, but I just had my chest pierced for a ring.” I have since given that practice up, but his mother was astounded that I had such private information.

It is amazing how much of your work can be done in the hallway. By nature of our profession, we are constantly requesting students to follow up and fulfill their obligations. In the hallway, we can ask students the status of forms that need to be returned. We can remind them to live up to expectations. We can remind them that assignments are due. We can recognize and praise them for their achievements. We can ask them if they have delivered messages to their parents.

It is difficult to interview all of your students who might be doing poorly after a review of their report cards or progress reports. But standing in the hallway affords casual opportunities to see many of these students and to give them a bit of encouragement or advice. For most students, a friendly hello will suffice. For those who need a reminder (for example, to hand in an assignment, to speak to a teacher, to help another student, to be on time for class), just your presence may trigger a response.

By the way, a friendly hello from you in the morning might serve as a welcome postscript to a horrific family experience the night before. Above all, your very presence in the hallway and your effort to greet students with a kind hello is a statement to the students that you care about them. I am sure this message is conveyed in other ways throughout the day, but your presence in the hallway only increases the opportunities to reach more kids.

Regarding the faculty, they are on the run for the most part. Your presence in their path along the way to their classrooms gives them easy access to discuss a student, to request a conference or to fill you in on a particular problem. These exchanges are often made more difficult (and more time consuming) if a formal meeting has to be scheduled. Even substitute teachers appreciate having someone to turn to in trying to negotiate the intricacies of an unfamiliar school. This accessibility has tangential benefits, including helping to establish good rapport with staff. For counselors to function effectively in any school, we need the cooperation and support of our staff to assist our students.

Regarding the school administration, they appreciate the backup in the hallway. I have never been asked to function as a “monitor.” Rather, administrators appreciate the “reach out” efforts of counselors who are not closeted in their cubbyholes, “secreted away” from the main flow of the school. Your presence in the hallway will also reach “across the street” to central administration. The public relations aspect of the school counselor’s external office is obvious.

During the course of the year, many parents will also cross your path: PTA members, parents with staff appointments, new parents visiting the school and so on. On each occasion, your presence serves as a reminder that there are counselors in their child’s school who reach out, increasing the likelihood that the counseling department is spoken of favorably in their private conversations.

In summary, the school counselor’s external office delivers more service to students. It makes the counselor more accessible. It establishes a rapport with staff and conveys a sense of care and concern to students. It establishes an atmosphere of involvement and helps to break down barriers. It also maximizes the use of our time, so much so that I stand at my “post” whenever I can shake free during my busy day. And in addition to all these attributes, it has become for me a great deal of fun.

Richard O’Connell is a past recipient of the New York State Counselor of the Year Award. This article appears in slightly different form as an addendum to his book The Secrets to Being a Great School Counselor (available at thesecretstobeingagreatschoolcounselor.com). Contact him at docroc16@msn.com.

Letters to the editor: ct@counseling.org

 

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