Band of sisters: 4 counselors form a cohesive team to ignore the ‘nonsense’ and remain optimistic
Wednesday, March 04, 2020
This article originally appeared in LINK for Counselors.
Carteret, New Jersey, is a short 35-minute train ride from “The Big Apple.” Its population is diverse and comprised mostly of Hispanics, African Americans, and Asians, with a small Caucasian group rounding out the community.
Its high school students are largely “first generation” when it comes to higher education. Still, about 30% attend universities and 20% attend two-year colleges. The rest are intent upon gaining employment or learning a trade in this historically blue-collar area.
Carteret High School has about 1,000 students in attendance annually. The high school is served by four counselors and an assistant. According to statistics, that’s 100 more teens than the recommended student-to-counselor ratio. Sweety Patel heads the team. Her workmates are Toni-Marie Planko, Dara Benjamin and Kimberly Vaticano.
One for all and all for one.
The all-female “band of counselors” is tightly bonded. They set aside any political or personal differences and support one another by reminding themselves that their primary purpose is to help students set goals and to focus on those goals. They are “futurists” in a way. Although they don’t study trends and make predictions, they are intent on helping each student discover his/her own pathway from the organization and structure provided by the high school onto a continuing education or workforce environment.
The women also agree that their core role is to ensure that each student is prepared to make informed decisions and that they are equipped to manage their emotional and social well-being as they plan their academic career with confidence and happiness.
“Time management is something we stress and that is where we find that most students (and some adults) have the biggest problem,” said Patel. “Additionally, one of us follows our students through each grade level. That way it is easy to see where that student is in his/her development during the high school years. And, because each counselor is with them from the first day through graduation, anything that would be appropriate or inappropriate by age and grade level can be easily assessed and managed.”
Counseling is provided through group meetings and assemblies, classroom guidance, and appointments for individual counseling sessions. They assess student needs, both academically and emotionally, through self-referrals and referrals from the faculty and staff. They have a school-based youth services program called Pathways as well as an Effective School Solutions program. According to Patel, they receive many referrals from the two programs. Additional referrals come from the Child Study team (for special needs students), school administrators, and parents. Patel adds, “Once referred, students are assessed in terms of their academic standing, goals, and their emotional well-being through individual counseling and the all-important follow-up.”
Multiple ways to define and assist.
Of course, required tests are administered and monitored and they have some great “career interest” surveys that are given during the freshman seminar and AVID (Advancement Through Individual Determination) classes which helps students match talents to skills. “We find these seminars can open up a conversation,” Planko said. “This can reveal to the student the skills they must acquire for that particular career path and it is our job to show them how to attain those skills or provide options if needed.”
They also hold an annual financial aid night. This year, Patel sent the school counseling team to the New Jersey Higher Education Student Assistance Authority (HESAA) Professional Development Workshop so they would be up to date on state financial aid programs, grants, and et cetera. The team shares information via the Sallie Mae Scholarship Search program and makes extensive use of Naviance (a career readiness solution), and other search engines. They are always on the look-out for local scholarships. Benjamin added, “We frequently post financial aid/scholarship availability and we encourage our students to look for a match of interests then apply for any assistance.”
“Self-care” and the vow to remain optimistic.
Patel constantly reminds herself and her team that they can best help their students if they leave their work at the door each night and remain optimistic about the services they provide. Planko added, “It is easy for kids to tell when those in a position of power are stressed. It shows on their faces, in their tone-of-voice, and even in their posture.”
Patel shared her personal secret for remaining optimistic. “I take breaks before coming back to challenges. It’s important to allow myself time to reflect and to celebrate. It is helpful to remove myself from any internal politics and drama — especially as an administrator. My goal is to revive and remember the passion that brought our team to this place so we can continue to grow together and remain true to our role in assisting our students.”
Patel’s advice for other counselors is, “Don’t get stuck in the nonsense that others use to impede us from our mission and duties. Use the ‘define you before they do’ motto and give your schedule to someone before they give you their schedule for you. Hold no fear and stand by your profession. Be proud that you are a school counselor and remember the only opinions that really matter are those of the children you serve. We know our work and sometimes we have to define our identity for others, but that’s okay. It’s just one more reason not to give up on what we do.”
Benjamin agrees with Patel’s “define you before they do” mantra. She said, “I think most counselors instinctively want to help and it’s difficult for us to use that simple two-letter word ‘NO’ when asked. For me, having supportive co-workers and a supportive family is a great help. We lean on one another and keep each other encouraged.”
The only regret the Carteret High School counseling team has is they do not have enough “play” time with their students. It’s during those less formal times that the team can gain important insights. For instance, playing chess with students is one activity that can reveal more about the child’s attitudes and needs and an outing such as a day trip to do research can work wonders.
But the reverse also works because students themselves can offer a great deal of insight to their counselors. Patel recalls one time when she had to talk to a student in their zero-tolerance program. He told her how, when the school doors opened for lunch and no one was monitoring, he would leave school for the rest of the day. He said he just wanted to yell, “somebody to stop me!” It was this statement that reminded Patel that students want limits and rules. She said, “We often think they want freedom, but they want boundaries and they want a system. Thanks to that boy, I really started to understand more about the need for discipline.”
And, discipline is what it takes, as this team of dedicated high school counselors will attest; the discipline to remain true to goals for yourselves and your students; the discipline it takes to say “no” when your schedule is already overbooked; and the discipline to manage time effectively. Plus, the discipline to take time for yourself so you perform with optimism.
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