Imagine you are a counselor educator sitting down to read the morning paper and find a mug shot of one of your counseling students on the front page. Or perhaps while attempting to complete an assignment for a substance abuse course, one of your students attends an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting and steals the spotlight by impersonating someone struggling with alcoholism. Or maybe in your family counseling course, a particular student insists on regaling the class with endless stories about his parents’ harrowing divorce.
These are just a few of the many (and more obvious) red flags alerting educators that not every student admitted into a counseling program is ultimately fit to enter the profession. But with school administrators and admissions departments often eager to expand the number of students enrolling in programs, counselor educators can find themselves quite alone in carving out and directing the process of remediation and dismissal of students. Counselor educators hold the unique position of being gatekeepers for their profession, attempting to evaluate what harm a student might do to future clients if he or she has a deficit of skill or a lack of insight into his or her own behaviors, values, biases and abilities.
With programs committed to having high graduation rates, faculty members have begun placing more focus on preadmission practices that can help them screen out students who are not ideal for the counseling profession. In addition to the standard one-on-one interview and admissions essays, these tactics often include group discussions or even planned social functions with other graduate students who remain on alert for any strange behaviors.
“We have a vignette blatantly related to social justice issues,” says Janee Both Gragg, an assistant professor and chair of the clinical mental health counseling program at the University of Redlands and a member of the American Counseling Association. “We ask them [prospective students] to talk through the vignette, and we just observe when the red flags appear. And definitely some of those biases will come out; you can feel the hairs on the back of your neck raise. You think, ‘This is not a good fit for my program, and not a good fit for the profession possibly.’ But you are also trying to figure out how much of that is ingrained and how open are they to learning and growing.”
Even after being accepted into a program, however, students often find that counseling course work elicits a desire to explore and share personal experiences. This often leaves counselor educators with the task of distinguishing between students attempting to integrate material into personal practice and those using classroom time as a version of personal therapy.
“The reason these issues come up more in a counseling world is because we are all trained as counselors,” says Julie Strentzch, an assistant professor at St. Mary’s University and an ACA member. “We’re good listeners, and we’re good at paying attention to the nonverbals. These particular individuals who are there to seek help rather than to learn how to give help are drawn to that ability. And because it is a part of our commitment as clinicians to do no harm, sometimes we get drawn into helping them before we realize that we’re almost enabling them. We have to keep good boundaries between what we’re doing as educators and what we’re doing as clinicians, but those lines tend to blur. I don’t think that people aren’t responsible and won’t deal with it in other [academic] departments. They just may not have the insight to catch it early.”
As documented faux pas in the classroom and the clinic begin to accumulate, counselor educators must consider whether to pursue remediation or academic dismissal. With counseling programs often housed in schools of education, counseling faculty may not find any other model in neighboring departments to pursue this type of combined clinical and academic scrutinization and correction. They must consider which traits and behaviors are correctable, and which continue to remain entrenched in the student’s character.
“A lack of awareness of how others perceive is No. 1,” says Scott Tracy, director of the graduate programs in counseling at Waynesburg University. “A very concrete example would be when a student in a class conversation is not aware that every other student in the class is rolling their eyes. The next one that is very important is an inability to self-correct. Everyone makes mistakes, but a counselor has to continue to learn and adjust.”
Other counselor educators agree that a deficit in skills is not as concerning as a counselor-in-training’s resistance to receive feedback. “Students are going to keep moving forward as long as they are able to sit with the discomfort and hear how they need to shift,” Strentzch says. “Because that’s also what we ask our clients to do. It’s when we meet the resistance and we can’t break through it that we have to do the remediation plan.”
Historically, in many academic programs, students with behavioral issues have been passed through by reluctant administrators with the rationale that those students will not be able to find a job in the profession, regardless of their diploma. Counseling faculty, however, must dedicate energy to examining the potential for future harm to clients that each student poses, while also managing the frustrations of the present. This position can put them at odds with admissions staff, who may encourage programs to admit up to three cohorts a year or expand course offerings.
“There is a pull between really high monitoring and quality of a cohort coming in, and the demand and pressures that faculty members have in working collaboratively with marketing and admission,” Gragg says. “I draw hard lines on certain things, but anywhere else I can be flexible, I go above and beyond because I have to sustain the relationship. When I started this program, I wanted to absolutely understand the process of having the pieces in place for remediation. And I’m not going to ever graduate, if I have a say in it, someone who’s not appropriate for the profession.”
Kathleen Smith is a family systems counselor and postgraduate trainee at the Bowen Center for the Study of the Family. She is also a doctoral counseling student at George Washington University. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.