Congratulations to Laura Sells for winning last week’s drawing of Ann Eisenstein’s book, Fallen Prey!
I spend a lot of time reading YA and Middle Grade books, and on more than one occasion I’ve wondered how the protagonist’s life might have gone (how the story might have been different) with the intervention of a school counselor. In some cases, such as Jack Gantos’s Joey Pigza books, the counselor plays a major role.
I sat down with a good friend and retired school counselor, Rita Griffin, recently to talk about the role of school counselor today. Rita has an M. Ed. from UNCC in addition to school administration and counselor certification. Her career included stints at Morningside Academy, an alternative high school, Marie G. Davis, an IB/Communication Arts choice school and most recently, at South Charlotte Middle School.
LP: Rita, what motivated you to become a school counselor?
RG: After teaching for ten years and then working in administration for five years, I knew that I wanted something different and something more. How could I help students and families in a way that would not just impact learning the ABC’s or the three R’s? I saw so much lack of parental empowerment as well as student responsibility. There just seemed to be a need for an advocate in the schools for students, parents, teachers, and administrators, doctors, etc. to put the whole puzzle together when helping students learn. My belief is that if all of those involved have the same information, then a solution for any problems can be reached by consensus. I just knew that I could make this happen as a counselor. Most of the time it worked while occasionally the ball got dropped by someone. This, however, never kept me from attempting. I never dreaded making necessary contacts.
LP: The social mores of our society seem to be evolving at lightning speed. What was the most challenging trend or social issue that you had to address as a counselor?
RG: The trend that has probably changed social mores and caused the greatest issues has been technology. What was once thought about, such as a nude picture for a boy/girlfriend, was just thought about. With cell phone capability, sending inappropriate pictures happens without a thought of the impact for the student or family. Cyber bullying, sharing of pornography, videos of bad behavior, gossip, name calling, etc. has certainly been exacerbated by cell phones and the Internet.
Most of these things happen away from school but because the school is the common denominator, the fallout from the problems created land on the doorstep of the school. The village approach is the best approach. Parents, educators, medical folks, extended family, friends, and anyone who had an influence on a child must be responsible for the child, and all of them must be willing.
LP: How did you deal with students with a diagnosed mental illness in the school setting?
RG: As a counselor I always believed that it was my responsibility to listen to the child, parent, medical folks, and study the literature to learn as much as possible. Then my responsibility was to help educate the teachers and school administrators on best practices for helping these students get an education. Of course the most severe cases were recognized early on. The real challenges were the students at the lower end of the spectrums. Dealing with the brain or inherited disorders are certainly not like the diagnosis of a sore throat. The brain and other DNA/chemical disorders are a life long commitment to treatment.
LP: Was educational material concerning mental illnesses part of your curriculum as a counselor? If not, should it have been?
RG: Studying about mental disorders was a minimal part of my counselor education, probably because counselors are not, as a rule, involved with medicine. Having said this, I do hope that universities have changed and have realized that school counselors work every day with medicated students who have social issues, learning issues, and adjustment issues. As I have stated, the more we all know, the better we can help our children. I am a huge proponent of learning as much as we can about anything that makes a student different. How else do we strive for acceptance?
LP: No matter what the reason is, being seen as “different” from ones peers has always been an issue in school. What were some approaches that worked for you?
RG: Depending on the circumstances, I would choose the intervention( s) that would match the circumstances. Group work was perhaps one of the best interventions, and finding the time was always a challenge. Most of my lunch times were consumed with small group work.
One-on-one intervention worked when a student didn’t understand how or why another student was offended or hurt. Dealing with an issue head on before it festered into an open wound was a must, and assuring that confrontation provided awareness and stayed positive.
Another tool was visits to whole classrooms to just raise awareness and to educate. I did not consider this counseling. Working with a large group often times led to individual meetings with students. I never knew when educating students on social issues might hit a nerve. An example is when I used a puppet in kindergarten to address inappropriate touching. One of the students came to see me to tell me about a relative who was touching her under her bathing suit. This in turn led to a DSS referral and investigation. There is comfort in numbers when awareness and education is the purpose.
LP: Assuming that the students had an open door to come to you on their own when they needed to talk, what was the most prevalent circumstance, and what gender and age group took advantage of your availability most often?
RG: Open door is the name of the game in school counseling. Along with confidentiality (which is not the same as holding a child’s secret), trust, unconditional care and concern, and the ability to connect to students of all ages, I never lacked for students at my door. If they did not come to me, I kept my eyes and ears open for who might need me. Very seldom did this approach not work. From elementary through high school, I always validated a student’s issues or concerns. While something might seem insignificant, often it led to the real need. Circumstances varied by age groups and by gender but the constant was for someone to listen and believe in them.
LP: Thanks for taking the time to be here today, Rita. I hope my debut book, Crazy, (Eerdmans Fall 2014) about a teenage girl coming to terms with her mother’s bipolar disorder, might become a tool that school counselors could use. The protagonist, Laura, went to school everyday loaded to the gills with anxiety, shame, and fear. How different might her life (i.e. the story) have been if a school counselor had reached out to her? School counselors, I’ll be checking back with you after the book hits the shelves!
Hey READERS, I would love to hear from you.
Is your MIND FULL of old thoughts or new?