If you want to be a good counselor, know everything. Did I get your attention? I don’t really expect counselors to know everything, but I use this simple phrase to make a point.
Remember how exciting it was when you finished your graduate work? No more tests, no more papers and no more assignments. When I finished my Ph.D., I reveled in the liberation of being able to read something because it interested me as opposed to plodding through some article or book chapter and wondering what my professor was going to ask about on a test.
I see that excitement in my students as they approach graduation. Some of them even tell me how they will never be a student again. In other words, they’re done with formal education.
I loved graduate school, but I understand those who don’t enjoy the academic regimen. Nothing shameful there. However, there is something ethically problematic if a clinician thinks that learning ends with the awarding of the sheepskin at commencement or even receipt of a license to practice professionally.
I often hear a troubling tone from colleagues regarding their continuing education requirements. In Georgia where I practice, we are required a minimum of 35 hours every two years. Sometimes people speak of these hours as if they are boxes to check off as opposed to a process that helps us improve our skills.
Continuing education isn’t something that you have to do for your license. It is something you must do to remain competent.
Your required hours for license renewal are what your state has determined is a minimum. I don’t want to be minimal. In my previous license renewal cycle, I had almost 60 CEU hours — nearly double the required minimum. One of my colleagues had even more. She was audited a few years ago and had more than 200 hours of continuing education over her two-year cycle.
Learning must continue for multiple reasons. Our ethical responsibility and professionalism are just two.
My continuing education isn’t limited to CEU hours. I have a passion for reading. For many years, I have made it a practice to read at least 25 books per year. Along with books in the counseling field, I also read at least one biography, one history book, one book on mathematics or physics, one book on chemistry or medicine, and one or two just for entertainment (I’m a Stephen King fan, if you’re curious).
A few different times, I have committed to and succeeded at reading a book a week for the whole year. I also read all of the journals from my professional organizations, plus kept up on the news each day.
I have an amazing luxury as a college professor. I am surrounded by scholars — among the best in their academic fields. Our university offers dozens of majors, and I regularly go to my friends in other disciplines and ask, “What should I be reading in your area?” Whether it is literature, history, business, psychology, social work or some other area, I am never disappointed at their suggestions. In fact, I’m disappointed only if they don’t have any.
Reading helps me relate to varied fields of study, professions and pop culture. This reading habit probably sounds boring to some of you. Again, it is OK if you don’t like to read, but at a minimum, you must stay abreast of your field in some way.
But learning brings more than that. With every news story I follow, every volunteer experience I have, every foreign country I visit and, yes, every book I read, I become a better counselor. I even use social events to learn. Instead of talking about myself, I ask about others. What is your career? What is most exciting or interesting in your life experience? I’m always thinking, “What can you teach me?”
Knowing something about everything helps us understand our clients. Even our jobs can teach us. I’ve had so many jobs in my past that I can’t name them all, but to list a few, I’ve been a truck driver, a coal miner, a painter, a carpenter, an electrician, a telephone operator, a teacher, a radio host, a restaurant worker, a bulldozer driver, a landscaper, and the list goes on. These experiences help me to understand the worlds in which my clients live.
So, I encourage you to be a learner. Know everything, even if you don’t pursue it the way I do. You will be a better counselor for it.
If you are interested in some of my favorite books, you can find a reading list organized by category on my website (click on “Resources”) at gregmoffatt.com.
Gregory K. Moffatt is a veteran counselor of more than 30 years. His monthly Voice of Experience column for CT Online seeks to share theory, ethics and practice lessons learned from his diverse career, as well as inspiration for today’s counseling professionals, whether they are just starting out or have been practicing for many years. His experience includes three decades of work with children, trauma and abuse, as well as a variety of other experiences, including work with schools, businesses and law enforcement. Contact him at Greg.Moffatt@point.edu.