‘Please give me my space:’ A school counselor’s perspective
| February 16, 2021
This article first appeared in LINK for Counselors.
I want you to think back to when you were a student and you walked into your school counselor’s office. What do you remember about his/her office? Do you remember the walls, the furniture, the seating arrangement, the atmosphere? Was there something really unique about the counselor’s space that moved you somehow?
Oftentimes when we are learning how to be school counselors, we are very focused on the interaction between the student and us. We do not always think about the surroundings, and a lot of times we feel there is not much time to either.
The reality is that many students, especially those that may be unfamiliar with the school counselor or who may not feel comfortable speaking, may gauge the energy of the school counseling experience as they walk in and sit in the office. The student may look around, observe the space and extract a level of comfort and connection directly from it.
So, what do you have in your office? Do you have posters? Pictures? Who is represented on your walls? Do you have anything about you displayed? Do you have anything special on your desk or on the cabinets? What is on the floor? The ceiling? The door? Do you have windows? Throughout your time, has your office changed and if so, how? Do you change your office throughout the year?
As I think about my very small office when I first became a school counselor to my office now as a Director of School Counseling Services, I reflect on the many changes that have occurred in my physical space.
When I first began, I noticed that my students, parents/guardians and staff had to wait a lot for services because of the high volume of situations that we experience in our suite. So as everyone waited in my office, I had them pick a quote they liked from a quote book one of my graduate school friends gave to me. Whichever quote they picked, I typed it up and posted it on my wall. Eventually all four walls were filled with quotes. Anyone that visited loved sitting and reading the quotes chosen by others.
Each quote allowed space for the person sitting in my office to think, remember and reflect. Often it would help the student to feel more relaxed and open up in the counseling session. My quote wall tore down walls and helped to build rapport between me as a new counselor and those that walked into my room.
I love chess, so I also started to keep a chess board on my desk. As students came in, many would start playing with the pieces as they talked, and I often played chess with students, too. Not all school counseling has to involve speaking as we know from the different types of therapy that exist in the field. Chess often allows you to lessen the pressure of talking and eye contact; it also allows you to displace energy and ultimately release it through the game. And I have met many students who love playing it and who love to learn how to play it better.
Something else that I have found helpful for the counseling environment is posters. Whether you find posters at the mall or you order them from websites, there are many incredible posters related to all sorts of subjects that you can put up to make your cinder block or blandly-painted walls more interesting. One of the really influential things about posters is that they can demonstrate who you are and your interests to students, which is another way for them to connect with you, build rapport and engage.
Another idea is to put up posters of prominent people in history and in current events. One of the schools I worked in had a diverse population, so I was advised by one of my colleagues, Kyle Anderson, that I should have people on my walls that reflect our student population. We put up posters of famous Black and Latinx role models. I brought these to my new district and both staff and students see them, recognize the people in them and see a reflection of their own lives and culture.
I also display elements of my own Indian culture in my office, whether it be through saris draped over surfaces, dandiya sticks hung on the walls, scrolls from my trip to Dharamshala where the Dalai Lama resides, or pictures of my visits to famous landmarks in India with my family and friends. When students and staff see these things, they begin to ask questions and it sparks interesting conversations. This atmosphere that imbibes social justice and worldliness extracts our memories and creates new ones. These carry through to important aspects of the school counseling relationship and the climate and culture of the school.
With the COVID-19 situation, the idea of office space has changed drastically. Many counselors now have virtual offices while others have physical ones with plexiglass and social distancing. Oddly, when and where we are trying to build connection, we are forced to place distance.
But even when placing distance, we can create connection. The key is to find the root of the bond, and oftentimes that is just being who you are...outwardly. With social distancing it has become even more important to demonstrate ourselves and create a welcoming environment for our students, families and colleagues. Even from far away, we can hope they notice us and perhaps in us, they notice themselves.
So, however your office is now, build it up for whoever is there now, however they are there, and plan for when all the students return. If there are social distancing measures in place, think of what you can purchase or create for your office to break down figurative barriers.
Are there grants you can apply for to buy materials? Think about the demographics of your population and reflect on what would help you connect to your own school counselor when you had one, whether it be a game or a collection of books or something else that maybe you have never seen in an office. There are so many unique ways to bring out the potential of the sessions.
In terms of evaluations, the school counseling environment plays a role in our performance and our work. Regardless of the evaluation tool or framework that is being utilized, the physical space is an important element in our profession, and it is an aspect of professional advocacy. So, consider the beautification of your office space to be a goal, not a chore.
In the past, I have gotten the notion that school counselors should be promoting college and career readiness, social-emotional learning and other professional information only; not pictures of family or perhaps anything related to our spirituality or ultimately ourselves. As a Director of School Counseling Services, I have seen that it is integral to our work to highlight the most significant aspects of ourselves that we feel comfortable demonstrating as we share the most relevant information that our students need to be aware of — who we are is part of what we do...and what we do is part of who we are. Our students realize this and appreciate our transparency. This authenticity can build trust and encourage positive movement and growth.
When thinking about your space, what do you have around you? And remember, it does not necessarily have to be your walls that talk. I now have a small Zen garden on my desk that many people come in and play with while they talk to me. At first it seems their playing with the sand is distracting them from why they are with me in the first place. But in actuality, they are gaining a sense of clarity while raking the sand to and fro; this action serves their dialogue and builds their resolve.
Think of what you want to have in your space ... how can it serve a purpose for your school counseling? What is already there and what is missing? How can you make your office feel and look more inviting and more comfortable? Ultimately, how can your office be a source of connection, where people can find their past, their present and their future?
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