Friday, June 5, 2015

Graduation...Confessions of a School Counselor

It's the day after graduation, and I'm so happy.  Now that graduation is over, I have some time to reflect.

Three years ago, I was fortunate to get a counseling position at a new school. While I loved my previous school and the students, I was overwhelmed with testing responsibilities, scholarship coordination duties, working on the master schedule, and other tasks that kept me so busy that I had a hard time being a counselor.

After I was hired, I was told that I would be the sophomore counselor. Because we move up each year with our students, I have been able to stay with most of the same group of students for three years. This year, I was fortunate to split the senior class with another counselor who is simply wonderful. Anyway, I love all high school grade levels, but in many ways, I think sophomores may be my favorite. Most sophomores are 15 or 16. They have matured after their first year of high school, but their lives are not quite as crazy as once they become juniors. For the most part, they aren't driving yet and most sophomores do not hold jobs. They are excited about the future but they're still far enough away from the 'real world' that they're not stressed about what is coming next. Anyway, I slowly got to know my new 667 students. Some students end up in the counseling office because of personal problems or health issues or failing grades. Some students come to find out about dual-credit classes, to discuss college planning or simply to discuss their current or future schedule. Once I had a chance to meet students in those categories, I figured out who I had never met. My philosophy is that it is hard to meet a counselor for the first time when you are in 'crisis.' I wanted to meet with each student at least once so they would know who I was and where I live in the building, and my goal was for every student to feel comfortable to come see me if the need should arise. By the end of their 10th grade year, I had touched base with everyone at least once, and many I had met several times. We talked about who needed summer school and who would need to retake the dreaded STAAR test in the summer. Classes were picked for the next year and then summer break began!

Their junior year came and went. The junior year comes with it's own challenges. The world is expecting you to be more mature and responsible, and yet juniors are still really in the midst of developing into young adults. Many juniors look physically older than they emotionally are. I tend to see more students with anxiety and depression during the junior year. While it is a very small number, there are students who become more aware of who they are in terms of sexual identity and inadvertently a few students become parents. I also see a small handful who turn 18 and decide that because they are no longer required to come to school, that they would be better off dropping out and getting a job. We live in an area with lots of opportunities especially in construction, and keeping some of my students enrolled became a challenge last year, especially in situations where their family was encouraging them to drop out and get a job. I lost a few, but most understood how important their diploma could be their to their future so they stayed. Ironically, some of the same students who dropped out last year resurfaced these last few weeks to find out if they could still finish high school. Juniors get to experience all kinds of fun things - Bonfire, college campus visits, fine arts performances, making the Varsity athletic team, taking on leadership positions in clubs, performing community service, taking their first college classes, taking the SAT/ACT, taking interesting classes, and so on. I feel like the junior year is when traction really starts picking up.

And then the senior year comes. So much fun, excitement, uncertainty, failures, successes, memories! It's really kind of a whirlwind. Many students are working part-time jobs by this point. They are trying to figure out what they're going to do next. Some students know what they want to do, but the majority do not. Of the ones who don't, some will start investigating and searching for options. Some students kind of freak out and shutdown....and then parents understandably freak out. There are the super exciting moments where students apply to the colleges of their choice and get accepted and the disappointing moments when students don't get into their planned school. Scholarship offers come in bringing hope and joy, and rejection letters arrive too. The FAFSA process is fun (not!) and working with undocumented students trying to fill out their TASFA is a delicate subject. There is their last bonfire, all of the senior nights, Prom, multiple awards nights, Senior Walk, graduation, and so much more. After 12 years of schooling, students are bringing their secondary experience to a close and that of course brings out all kinds of emotions. Students start having to make decisions about their future, and I find that employers really don't care if a student is still in school. If a shift needs covered, a shift needs covered. Relationships and friendships strengthen for better and worse. There also seems to be an uptick of family issues. It's a roller coaster ride for some. Overall, there is far more good and happy happening than otherwise. :)

Through it all, the school counselor is there in the background. We monitor grades and attendance and respond to teacher and parent concerns. We check and recheck credits, clear up testing issues, and try to keep a pulse on what is happening. I can't speak for others, but I am so proud when one of my students passes a class they didn't think they would be able to pass or when a student wins an award. Watching students play sports, dance, sing, play instruments, create art, act, and pass AP tests, STAAR tests, and dual-credit classes is wonderful. I am also so proud and impressed when students make admirable and difficult choices - taking care of injured or sick parents or siblings, working jobs late at night to help keep the lights on at their home, refusing to make bad choices when surrounded with negative influences, overcoming a disability, speaking up for those who are bullied, refusing to get into cars with intoxicated parents or family members (yes, this happens), continuing to come to school and giving 100% when dealing with a personal illness, actively serving the community through volunteer service, or when a student goes against the grain to break a cycle in their family. The list goes on and on. When I hear blanket negativity about teenagers, I realize that they haven't truly met some of the amazing young people I have. I'm not "worried" about this generation. In fact, they may do better than the generations of the past. I realize part of it is young, naive optimism, but I love it. The day I get jaded, I hope I recognize that it is time for me to find something else to do. I love hearing students talk about their goals and dreams; their positive energy is infectious.

It's not all roses though. The truth is I worry about my students. I worry when they're in bad situations - sometimes because of their own choices and sometimes because they are in a difficult situation by chance. I don't think I could ever be an elementary counselor. As a high school counselor, I know that my students who are in difficult family situations are relatively close to graduation and being able to get a job, education, and being able to take care of themselves. I feel for my students when they have lost a parent or when they have an incarcerated parent. Some of the kindest, most respectful students I have ever met have an incarcerated parent, and this must be a heavy burden to carry. Even though these students had nothing to do with their parent's mistake (some have no memory of their parent), there is a stigma that these students feel. There are always a few seniors who don't graduate, and I worry about who those kids will be and what will happen in their future. Every year I've had seniors, I have had a couple of students who self-destruct in the last semester. It's like the stress of graduating and not knowing what is coming next causes them to make some choices that are probably not in their best interest. They stop coming to school, they stop talking to their friends, and they seem to totally withdraw themselves. I never know who those kids will be because it's never the ones I expect, and this year was no different. It's not like these things keep me awake at night, but the thoughts are there.

One neat thing about being a counselor is every day is different, and we get to hear it all. Our job allows us to be exposed to a wide cross-section of society - the good, the bad, and the things that make you wonder. We have the privilege of being told things that we vow to keep confidential. The flip side is we are told things that we vow to keep confidential and sometimes that is really hard. I think sometimes counselors are written off has being softies with bleeding hearts. More often than not, I think we know something that we can't necessarily share that causes us to see things a little differently. A student is out of dress code. It could mean they refuse to follow the dress code. It can also mean they slept in their car last night. A student didn't shave. It could mean they are testing limits. It can also mean they had to pick up their drunk mom late last night because she wasn't able to drive herself home. The student is really just glad to make it to school. Rules are no doubt important, and I know taking care of the little stuff prevents little stuff from turning into big stuff, but sometimes I think counselors are fortunate to be able to see more of the picture.

I also find it interesting how many factors affect students' lives and whether or not they are successful. Some students are so incredibly intrinsically driven that no obstacle in their way slows them down. These kids amaze and inspire me. There are also those who put in very little effort or work but they do just fine. Some are very intelligent and some are very adept at manipulating and working the system. Some kids have such wonderful, warm families supporting and cheering them on and some students are truly parentified children. Some students don't have very healthy family units, but they have at least one strong ally in their corner - a friend, teacher, neighbor, coach, counselor, church member, or family friend. Some students have it all and seem so unmotivated. Those are the students I find hardest to understand. And money matters. I don't care what anyone says. The playing field is not even.  

In any case, last night when my students walked across the stage and received their diplomas, I couldn't help but remember the ups and downs of the last three years. It also reminded me that each person has their own journey and story so rich with details, many of which the rest of the world doesn't know about. With the exception of very few people, we are all dealing with a few of our own demons and obstacles.

I felt happy and relieved. I completely understand that this is just one stop along the way, but I'm proud of these students and happy for their families that they can now check high school diploma off the to-do list. :) I am thankful for the laughs, smiles, fist bumps and happy memories, and I am thankful that in the tiniest of ways I was able to join them on this part of their journey. The last few days I have received so many hugs and thank yous. My bucket will be full for a long time.

I'm so used to saying, "See you on Monday," "see you next semester," see you after the break," and so on. As I drove home after graduation, it hit me that I won't see or hear from most of these students again which is how it is supposed to be. I'm excited for them, and I wish the very best for each and every one of them - that they find what makes them happy, that they make good choices for themselves, and that they find the next leg of their journey better than the last. Next fall I get to start with a new set of sophomores. I think I just may have one of the best jobs in the world.

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