I feel so lucky to have found my dream job as an elementary school counselor. I used to talk to people who hated their jobs, and I knew I never wanted to be in their shoes. Then I talked to people who loved their jobs, and I wondered what I could do to get to that level. I can tell you that after a lot of education, hard work and collaboration with professionals in the field (including my awesome, supportive mom, who is also a school counselor), it is possible.
After finishing my first year on my own as a school counselor split between two elementary schools, I felt incredible. I was so happy to have my summer off, and I rested easy knowing I had worked so hard to help the students and families of Hillsborough, New Jersey. I learned early on, however, that graduate school only teaches you the textbook stuff about being a school counselor. So much of what I dealt with during my first year as a school counselor was never discussed in my graduate classes.
As a result, I compiled a list of the top 10 things I wish I had learned in graduate school that would have ensured I had a wildly fun, rewarding and successful first year.
1) Keep notes electronically. Our district uses Google for everything, and Google Drive became my best friend. It is very friendly to use, and I set everything up (color coded and separated by grade level) so that I could keep each grade straight. I am split between two buildings, so I also had to quickly come up with a way to differentiate between the schools. Google Drive allowed me to make folders electronically with all my student files in them so that I didn’t have to keep paper notes after sessions with students, teachers or parents.
2) Find a mentor. This can be done formally or informally. Some districts assign mentors to new staff members, but others don’t. I was not given a mentor, but I learned very quickly that I needed to have someone in my corner who had been around a long time and knew the ropes. I put the extension of another elementary school counselor in my district on speed dial, and I am so grateful that I did. Her advice, counsel and expertise were invaluable during my first year, and I have no doubt that will continue into year two.
3) Befriend the secretaries and custodians. I can’t stress this one enough. I count our secretaries and custodians among my favorite people in each of the buildings in which I work. They have been invaluable to me in terms of the logistical stuff, but beyond that, they have become friends and mentors to me on a personal level. I am so grateful for these integral members of the school team.
4) Practice self-care. This is huge! They do touch about self-care strategies a bit in graduate school, but it is important enough to mention again here. You have to take care of yourself before you can help others. I always use the example of being on an airplane and listening to the safety instructions. Always secure your own air mask before assisting others. This is true when working as a counselor as well. I established “self-care Saturdays” for myself and took myself out to breakfast, went to the gym, got a manicure, etc. Carving out that time for myself to recharge and regroup was a lifesaver. I have even convinced some of my friends to adopt the concept of self-care Saturdays as well.
5) Document everything (everything), and never act alone. In this era of school counseling, this has become more important than ever. When sending emails, think about what you’re writing and don’t put anything in writing that could come back to haunt you. If you have concerns, speak to the person face-to-face or give them a call. On the other hand, put anything you may need to revisit later in writing. In a pinch, it always helps to be able to refer back to an email or a document you have kept to make sure you are on the right track. My go-to people for these situations in the buildings in which I work are the school nurses. They are incredible at their jobs and are always willing to listen to each individual situation I present to them. I always feel better after having someone else’s take on the situation, and having the school nurses work with me makes such a difference (especially because they are under that oh-so-important umbrella of confidentiality).
6) Be present with the students. I love this one. I am always out greeting the students as they come off the buses in the morning and am always waving goodbye to the kids in the afternoon when they leave. Having students see you involved in their education makes you more accessible, and it is such a happy part of my day. I also love popping in randomly to classrooms to listen to a story with kindergarteners, hearing presentations about “weather” by the fourth-graders, walking around the lunchroom to chat about what’s on the menu with first-graders or having an impromptu dance party with second-graders during a “brain break.” The kids get such a kick out of seeing you interact and insert yourself into their school day. Their smiles say it all. And the best part? It only takes a few minutes out of your busy day to make it happen.
7) Make positive phone calls or send positive emails to parents, especially if things have been challenging for that particular student or family lately. Parents have told me countless times that my email or phone call made their week or that they cried while reading what I wrote to them about their child. Hearing this makes me feel so good, and I love being able to provide genuine positive feedback to the families of the students I serve.
8) Offer to cover classes for teachers for five minutes while they run to the bathroom. I often forget the amount of flexibility I have to close the door to my office and have some quiet working time, use the bathroom whenever I feel like or take lunch whenever I want to. To that end, I have found that teachers are so grateful when I offer to stay with their students for a minute or two so the teachers can run to the bathroom. I doubt that’s what they were referring to when they talked about collaboration with colleagues during new teacher orientation, but it is collaboration nonetheless!
9) Check in monthly with classroom teachers to see if there are any concerns. I found this to be very helpful, and I think the teachers did too. Because I was split between two K-4 schools (with over 800 students), it was a constant challenge to make sure I was meeting all the needs of every child. Checking in monthly with the teachers ensured that anyone who was on the teacher’s radar got put on my radar as well.
10) Never respond to emails at night. This one is a big one, and I preach it to everyone who will listen. Just don’t do it! Not even once! (Unless, of course, it is an emergency; then do what you have to do). Most people have smartphones these days, and I am no exception. My work emails come right to my phone, and I see them pretty quickly after they come in. But I do not, I repeat, do not answer emails at night or after work hours. Even doing so once shows parents that you are accessible 24/7, and they will take advantage of that. Most, if not all, emails or phone calls that come in after hours can wait until Monday morning to be answered. Parents and guardians have to realize that in this world of instant gratification where everything has a response time of less than a minute, they will need to wait until you are on the clock sitting in your office. Promise me you will practice self-care on this point and just say no!
My first year as a school counselor was huge in terms of personal growth, learning and professionalism. I forged countless new friendships with staff members and met and worked with community members, parents and students in the Hillsborough Township Public School District. Believe me, there were days when I went home, put my pajamas on right away and needed to be by myself for a while before rejoining the world again. This was especially true after a challenging day or after dealing with a stressful case with a student. But I’ve found that the good always outweighs the bad and that each morning I wake up to start a new workday is a new opportunity to change a child’s life. Seeing the children step off the bus in the morning gives me renewed energy every day. Their excitement is contagious.
Finding a balance that worked for me was the best thing I did to navigate through my first year. So many people in the district gave me well-intentioned advice and wanted to show me what they had done to be successful. Although I appreciated their advice — and certainly used bits and pieces of what they shared with me to form my counseling program — I found that listening to my own brain and creating a program that was tailored to me was the best way to go. I stayed organized with the help of technology and made sure to wrap things up the best I could before going home at the end of the day.
I feel so happy knowing that I have a niche in this wonderful district where I can put my counseling skills to use to help shape children to succeed both academically and emotionally. It took me awhile to get to this career, but now that I am here and thriving, I am here to stay.
Graduate school is a wonderful arena to learn the basics of theories, ideas and concepts before stepping into your first position. But it is only after you are in the trenches that you truly understand what it is and what it takes to be successful as a school counselor.
Rebecca M. Cordisco is an elementary school counselor for Hillsborough Township Public Schools in Hillsborough, New Jersey. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.