Throughout my career as a counselor, many parents and students have shared positive counseling experiences with me. They have often used words like "helpful," "caring," "committed" and "encouraging." But to date, I have never heard the word "creative" used to describe me or any other school counselor. As the job of the counselor has become more complex and the number of opportunities available to students has continued to expand, however, counselors have often been required to demonstrate a great deal of creativity in their work with students and their families.
The Counselor's Original Role
School counseling has its roots in the compulsory education movement of the early 20th century. The sole responsibility of the counselor was to guide students toward becoming productive members of an industrial society. The first counselors were teachers who were removed from the classroom and appointed to the job of providing vocational guidance. These counselors would administer interest inventories similar to those used by the military and then direct individuals into specific careers based on the results. Although the nature and role of the counselor shifted a bit during the 20th century, the counselor remained the school-based professional responsible for student scheduling and postsecondary school placement.
When I started my practice as a high school counselor, I operated within a relatively limited scope of reference. My toolbox included the state graduation requirements, the high school's course catalog and master schedule, and software that would help me find a college or career that would meet a student's "profile." If a student was smart (whatever that means), I would direct him or her to advanced courses in the high school. If a student struggled, I would look to the classes that were for the kids who struggled. And when it came to postsecondary planning, there were three options: university, community college or employment. For most of my students, I knew what track they were on when they transitioned into high school as ninth-graders.
A Richer Complex Role
Throughout the past fourteen years, I have learned that the practice of school counseling is far more rich, complex and ambiguous than I had originally thought. And with the advent of new technologies and alternative learning opportunities, I have come to realize that all students have varied and substantive options, which can facilitate their development as learners and individuals. Now I see students as being on personal journeys to become individuals who can enjoy healthy relationships, engage in meaningful work, and participate in our communities. In my current work with students, it is not uncommon for me to recommend that a student take an enrichment course over the summer if he would like to advance or catch up in his studies. When advising counselors, I ask them to consider whether or not an evening community college course might be helpful for a student trying to cultivate her specific passions. When a student says that he would really like to study Irish literature, I don't say, "Sorry, we don't offer that class." Instead, I say, "Let's see if we can find an online college course in Irish literature. If you can find the time and you can afford community college tuition, then I think you are ready for the challenge." For a student who feels eager to build an internship into her senior program, I try not to put up any obstacles. Together, we start drawing up a proposal to build a quality, comprehensive, experiential learning experience.
Our educational landscape is changing for the better. There are many alternative options for students. It is an exciting time to be a counselor. It is a time when counselors can hone their creative skills and engage in meaningful conversations with students about how they learn and where they want to go on their journeys. Counselors no longer have to hand the map to students and say, "This is the path for you to follow." Now we can help students design their own learning map so that they can achieve their goals and aspirations in ways that make sense for them. These kinds of conversations require an open mind, a resourceful intellect and a great deal of creativity.
Christopher Griffin is the director of guidance for the Katonah-Lewisboro (N.Y.) School District.