Are you looking forward to being a first year counselor? Or maybe you’re reflecting on what your beautiful, chaotic first year was like? The first year as a school counselor is full of exciting new experiences and plenty of opportunities for gaining wisdom. Confident Counselors Gretchen and Keri reflect on what they learned during their first year as school-based counselors.
Lessons We Learned as First Year Counselors
1. Focus Your Efforts on What Matters
It’s so easy to get caught up in having a Pinterest-perfect office with perfectly organized shelves and colorful decor. All those Joanna Gaines-approved office photos can stir up major pressure that drives you to spin your wheels and spend your money to make a gorgeous space. But we’ll let you in on a secret: kids don’t care about your decor. They care about having someone they can trust. If cute decor is your thing, go for it! But if it’s not, don’t sweat it. Just focus your efforts on being the person your students need.
2. Slow Down and Assess Needs
When I (Keri) was hired for my first school-based position, I had so many big ideas! I had written an anger group curriculum that I couldn’t wait to implement, and I had ideas for classroom games and school-wide initiatives that I had picked up from peers in my graduate program.
The problem? My school didn’t need that stuff. Turns out I didn’t have a group of kids who struggled with anger (that year…) and there were already some pretty great school-wide initiatives in place. What I had instead was a caseload of students who had experienced a great deal of trauma and had needs that weren’t in the “big plan” I had in my mind.
It’s easy to go into a new position with amazing ideas and a big desire to make positive changes. But before you start making those changes, take time to assess the needs of the students you have, not the students you’ve imagined.
3. Relationships Are Everything
When we think about it, one of the most remarkable things about the school counselor’s role is the requirement to work with everyone. We’re intertwined with all…students, parents, school staff, community providers, etc. We all know that relationships are at the crux of everything we do, so it’s vital that during the first year we focus on developing connections with all stakeholders.
During my (Gretchen’s) first year, my building experienced a tragic loss. Upon reflection, what stood out to me was that even when more experienced counselors were present, people came to me for clarity of the response plan and additional support. Why? Because relationships are everything, and they knew me.
On a related note, it’s also important to remember that healthy relationships have boundaries. As a new school counselor, keep in mind that it’s critical to set limits, know when to speak up, and know when to say no, even when it’s hard to do.
This applies to all the relationships that you maintain in your role as a new school counselor. We know, it’s really easy to type that one sentence, but putting those boundaries into practice can be challenging in complex situations. It’s all the more reason why #5 is so crucial.
4. Ask Questions
Whether you’re new to the counseling profession or a counselor new to the school environment like we were, don’t be afraid to ask questions. It can feel really isolating to be in a meeting where everyone is using terms that you aren’t clear about all the while you’re jotting down notes to Google later.
Every school has different terminology for activities and initiatives, so if you aren’t sure what someone is talking about, ask them! And don’t be afraid to ask your administrators about their expectations early on so that you’re on the same page. Asking questions will show your coworkers that you are a collaborative teammate who is open to learning new things!
5. Seek Out a Mentor
For many of us, a counseling position can feel like an island if you’re the only counselor in the building and don’t have daily or even weekly interactions with other counselors in the district. Don’t be afraid to give an experienced counselor a call to ask if you can meet to talk about some ideas or questions that you have.
In my (Keri’s) first school position, I reached out to a veteran counselor at a neighboring school to find out more about how things worked in that particular district, ask her opinion on accommodations, and just to chat about my experiences. Having someone I could reach out to inside my field was so helpful during that first year to help me feel connected as I navigated a new space.
6. Remember: You Can’t Please Everyone
We’ve observed, both in the clinical setting and school setting, that you can’t please everyone. You can have the best group counseling activities, evidenced-based programs for classroom lessons, outstanding response times to emails, and someone, somewhere is going to have a complaint.
So often, counselors embrace their role and identity as helpers. Interacting with someone who is unhappy with you may be particularly distressing. As counselors, we have choices to make. Are you reflective and mindful of attempts and actions towards people-pleasing? Do you find and use the constructive criticism to help your comprehensive counseling plan grow and evolve? And in some cases, do you need to tap into your inner Taylor Swift and just shake it off?
7. Don’t Let Your Worst Moment Define Your Day
Which brings us to this: don’t let the worst moment define your entire day. My (Gretchen’s) principal during my first year shared these wise words with me. As a counselor, you hear and respond to the worst of the worst. Sometimes the worst moments are like tsunamis that knock you down. Being able to stand up, stand back, and reflect on everything else that happened that day (or week, or month) will do wonders for your ability to keep showing up.
There are other challenges that you experience that aren’t necessarily horrific, but they’re still stressful and hard. Does the nasty morning phone call define your day or the thank you card from a student? As counselors, we hold everyone’s pain, and we need to put it down sometimes to embrace the joy. Make it a part of your regular practice to recognize the highlights of your day, no matter how small. When you find yourself struggling, circle back to your mentor for some additional support.
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Whether you’re a new school counselor or a counselor finding yourself in the school setting for the first time, there will be plenty of opportunities for learning this year! We hope the lessons we learned during our first year will help you along the way.
Experienced counselors, what was your biggest lesson learned during your first year? And new counselors, tell us what wisdom you’ve been offered for making your first year a success!
And be sure to check out the other posts in our back to school series from other Confident Counselors like you!