Transcription of the episode “Empowering school counselors to support struggling students”

Transcription of the episode “Empowering school counselors to support struggling students”

Amy H-L: [00:00:15] I’m Amy Halpern-Laff

Jon M: [00:00:17] I’m Jon Moscow. Welcome to Ethical Schools. Our guest today is Dr. Mandy Savitz- Romer. Dr. Savitz-Romer is Nancy Pforzheimer Aronson Senior Lecturer of Human Development and Education at Harvard Graduate School of Education and director of the School of Education’s Prevention, Science and Practice master’s program. Her most recent book is “Fulfilling the Promise: Reimagining School Counseling to Advance Students.” Welcome, Mandy!

Mandy S-R: [00:00:44] Thank you. Glad to be here.

Amy H-L: [00:00:46] What are school counselors’ roles?

Mandy S-R: [00:00:50] It’s a complicated question, Amy. It really depends to some extent on where counselors are working — the grade level, the community, part of the country, but in general, counselors are tasked with working to support students’ development in three areas: in the academic area; in the post-secondary or college and career area; and then in social emotional or personal development. And so counselors’ work really spreads across those three things, and then how they work with them in those areas really differs, depending on the age of the child or the school community, what the needs are.

Amy H-L: [00:01:25] And how have these roles changed over time?

Mandy S-R: [00:01:29] Quite a lot. Great question. So initially, school counselors were brought on the scene, I would say in large numbers, following the launch of Sputnik. As the Russians launched Sputnik, the US became concerned about its global competitiveness, and thus there was a desire to bring folks into schools to support students pursuing math and science careers and college in the area of math and science. And so they wanted there to be some educator who could guide them into one of those two pathways. And so counselors were initially brought on to do vocational guidance, which at the time was helping students understand the world of work and understand their skills and their preferences, and then try to find a match between those two things. And so early on, largely they were focused on career guidance.

Over time as schools evolved and began to take on more of the social issues in their communities and in the world, counselors began to take on different things. So for example, counselors began to take on much more the social emotional, and personal issues. As there were waves of immigrants coming to the U S and there was at the time a thought that we needed help sort of acclimating them to the United States, schools, et cetera. And so counselors were called on them to do much more such as helping families connect to social service agencies, et cetera.

And then I would say another big shift in schools was the push towards standards-based reform. With a bigger push on standardized testing and identifying gaps in opportunity, counselors were called on to help with academic interventions, making sure students had the kind of support they needed to reach the standards based testing. So counselors’ roles have changed a lot. In some places, they’ve changed even more, where counselors are today using data to identify students who might benefit from early intervention to supporting students who are undocumented thinking about college, they’re supporting students who have been in the care of foster care families. Lots of different things. Again, depending on where they’re working.

Jon M: [00:03:30] You’ve talked about wanting to overhaul the counseling model in order to fix the system. What would you like to see?

Mandy S-R: [00:03:38] What I’d like to see in school counseling is I’d like to see counselors put much more at the center of schools. They are largely the only folks who have training in human development, in child or adolescent development. And yet our schools are taking on more and more of a focus on the whole child. So counselors support students across these three domains, but in many ways, counselors’ work has been seen as ancillary. And so it’s when there’s time, counselors can meet with students. And for students who are struggling or need specialized services, but really counselors provide the kind of home for students that I’d like to see mirror what we do with primary care physicians. You know, we all, if you’re part of the healthcare system in the US, you know, we’re all assigned a primary care physician who then connects us to specialists who can support us in kind of particular areas. But over time, we continue to go back to this one person. I’d like to see counselors leading that work. I’d like to see them leading teams of people who are supporting college and career readiness. Our nonprofit partners, our families and teachers, everyone involved in an area. I’d like to see counselors using data to track who’s being served and who’s not being served. And I’d like to see counselors working with school leaders to set goals for counseling departments so that they can tackle concerns about suicide or depression rates, but do so in a way that is systemic. I think there’s too much of a catch as catch can approach right now. And I don’t think that’s serving all students well. I think a much more systematic approach to counseling will serve all students much better.

Jon M: [00:05:11] What kinds of contractual guidelines and protections do counselors generally have in terms of job definitions, duties, case loads, contractual protections.

Mandy S-R: [00:05:23] Good question. So in many places, counselors are part of teachers unions, although that varies quite a lot. In some places, counselors are part of administrative groups and therefore not protected by the union. Largely their work is defined by their school leader or their district leader. So even if a counselor comes in with designs to run classroom lessons and run groups and to support students in with a whole lot of interventions, if the principal of that school sees counselors as providing administrative support or proctoring tests, or leading special education meetings, such as IEP or 504 meetings, then that’s what they’re going to spend their time doing because largely they’re accountable to the school leaders. So even though the district may have a different plan, it’s really up to school leaders to set the conditions for counselors to do their jobs well. So in many ways they’re not well-protected. In many places, counselors are one of two, one of four, or in the best cases, maybe one of seven counselors. And as a result, they tend to be sort of an afterthought by school districts. I think in general school leaders appreciate counselors’ work, but without really understanding the profession or what they do or what they could be doing, I think they failed to really leverage counselors’ strengths and talents.

Jon M: [00:06:37] Are caseloads a big issue?

Mandy S-R: [00:06:40] I think it depends whom you ask. I think there’s a presumption that obviously a smaller caseload is better than a larger caseload. The caseload that’s recommended by the American School Counselor Association is one counselor for every 250 students. Now there are states in the country that so far exceed that to a point where it’s egregious, in Arizona, where the caseload average is about one to 900, some parts of the country, it’s one to 700. It’s hard to imagine being a student and having to compete with 700 of your classmates for your counselor’s time. So it is a problem. I don’t think we have good data or empirical evidence about what that threshold is that would make it okay. We know that when students have an adult that they can connect with, who can provide the kind of high touch support services, the better off they’ll be. Counselors can’t do that for every student. And I don’t actually think they should. I think they need to leverage the support of partners and families and teachers. But I think that they have to have a manageable enough caseload so they can know all their students, so they can write a thoughtful letter of recommendation, so that they know when a student is struggling. And importantly, the caseload’s got to be small enough that I can build a relationship with that student, so that when that student is struggling, or wants to come out and share their sexual identity, or that student wants to share that there is some domestic violence at home that that relationship has already been built.

And that is going to require smaller case loads than one to 700. Is it one to 200? Is it one to 227? Who knows? We need some research on that to know what would really be best.

Jon M: [00:08:18] But in terms of equity, how does counselors’ ability to dedicate. . . Does more time to students who most need their help vary from wealthier schools to low-income schools?

Mandy S-R: [00:08:30] I think we definitely see a large equity issue in terms of how counselors spend their time. This is another area where we need much more robust research. Here’s what we know. We know that counselors in schools in high poverty communities spend a lot of their time dealing with social issues, dealing with crises, putting out fires. They also tend to be able to spend less time on college and career readiness because they’re spending time doing a lot of administrative tasks. That’s not to say that counselors in suburban areas aren’t doing those things, but the support nets, the safety nets that exist outside of schools are much stronger. And so when counselors aren’t able to spend as much time on say, college readiness with students who may be the first in their family to go to college, they may or may not get those resources elsewhere. I think the other equity issue really comes down to things like training. I’ve heard in my research that counselors from urban areas and those who work in rural communities really don’t have access to professional development at the same rate as some of their colleagues in other places. So if you’re limited in your ability to get better at your job, that’s going to have an impact on your ability to deliver services. And so I think the equity issues that come up for me include things like, are we really investing in these professionals so they’re able to do their jobs?

Well, it is in fact true that there’s not big differences in case loads when you start to look across urban, rural, suburban communities. There’s a lot of fluctuation. I will say, just to be on the record and say that case loads are a funny thing. When you ask districts to report the case loads, they’re oftentimes taking an average of the number of their counselors  in the district by the number of students in their district. Now where this gets a little tricky is that you might have one counselor in an entire elementary school and seven counselors in a high school. So the average caseload they tell us doesn’t really give us a good insight. However, we know that in urban schools, we have fewer elementary school counselors than we see in the suburban communities. So there are staffing differences across communities. In rural communities, we hear from counselors a lot that they’re the only counselor in their community. Of course their rural schools are smaller. They have fewer students, but they’re spread out over a much larger area and so their ability to meet the needs of students really differs.

So I think we have to invest in the suburban counselors at the same rate that we invest in our urban and rural counselors. And that would address one of the equity issues that’s in place.

Amy H-L: [00:10:54] In Julia Hanna’s article in the Harvard School of Education magazine, you said that “counselors’ aim is to be the academic conscience of the school and yet the structures aren’t always there for them to fulfill that goal.” Would you talk about that?

Mandy S-R: [00:11:10] Yeah. So I think there are two things that I wanted to address in that comment. The first is that counselors, because they’re not focused on classrooms, they really are able to look at whole-school issues. There are many counselors around the country who are using data to identify trends, in course taking, trends in program enrollment, and looking at whether or not there are disparities or opportunity gaps. And counselors can do that. And they can present those data to school communities and say, you know, we have some bias in our recommendation practices, we have some bias in our sorting of who gets into what classes. And I think counselors are well-positioned to do that. They’re often charged with doing scheduling. So by looking at data, I think counselors can raise concerns in a way that school administrators can as well, but counselors can do it on other variables, such as related to depression and bullying or the degree to which students feel safe coming to school or feel connected to an adult. So I feel as though counselors can sort of be the conscience in which they’re looking at all the different dimensions of a student’s experience in school.

When I follow that with the degree to which the working conditions or the structure set up to enable that, there are two things at play. One is counselors aren’t seen in schools as leaders. And so they’re often not at the leadership table to raise these issues. They’re not supported in collecting and using data, which is somewhat interesting, because there’s been a big push in many schools for much more diagnostic work, for teachers to look at data, for schools to together look at data, and counselors need to join in this as well. But oftentimes they’re not thought of in that way.

The second thing is that in order for counselors to be able to do that work, they have to be freed up from some of the non-counseling work they’ve been assigned over the years. As schools have become much more pressured to do more, counselors have been given tasks that go well beyond their counseling responsibility. I mean, I can tell you I was a high school counselor and I had lunchroom duty three periods a day. And to be honest, I got a lot done in that lunchroom duty. I saw who sat with whom, who was dating whom, who had broken up with whom, and you know, which students were maybe a little more socially isolated than others. On the other hand, when there’s too much of that, when that is coupled with proctoring tests, there are standardized assessments that are given all year long. And when counselors are charged with doing that on top of helping with hallway duty or bus duty or chairing staff meetings, they just, it just leaves very little time for them to do the work that they were trained to do. And what happens is you have counselors going into schools thinking they’re going to do one thing, but then finding that their role is not just that.

Jon M: [00:13:48] So it really sounds, from what you’re saying, as though so much of it comes down to how much does the school, in fact, in reality, as opposed to in words, value the social emotional work of the counselor, as opposed let’s say to, you know, math and reading scores, or that they don’t see the connection between them, because what I’m hearing from you is sort of people who go in with an absolutely critical role, but then they sort of have to fight even be at the table and that ultimately it comes down to whether the principal feels that he or she needs someone staffing the lunchroom more than they need somebody who’s really looking at the non-academic aspects of school life. Is that a fair impression?

Mandy S-R: [00:14:45] I think so. I mean, I think there are schools. I think there are schools that care a lot about social emotional development, and they see teachers as being the primary folks responsible for addressing it and don’t see counselors as doing that. So I think it’s not about a value of science or math over social emotional. I think sometimes it’s seeing that counselors could be doing that or asking that on teachers. I think we’ve put a lot on teachers to add social emotional development. In many ways, we’ve done that well at the elementary level, but we know that those non-cognitive, you know, all those kinds of skills that we talk about as non-cognitive, that they’re just as important in high schools, and the teachers aren’t really doing as much of that in high schools. They’re doing some, but not as much. And so I think part of it is understanding what’s possible with counselors and then deciding that we’re going to let them do that and then hire someone else to do some of these other things. So counselors in many places have become quasi administrators.

Now here’s the thing. What I find is that counselors are doing both. They are somehow managing to do the classroom lessons, to talk to students about racialized violence, to talk to students about gender identity, in addition to a host of other things. I think the profession has a high level of burnout. And this is a group of professionals who carry other people’s trauma, they’re stewards of other people’s stories and stress. And so one after another, students come in and share with their counselor stress they’re experiencing over time that can become very heavy and burdensome. So counselors carry a lot of that. And I think the high levels of burnout are because they’re trying to do both, they’re doing the work they have to do, and they’re trying to do the work they want to do and that they know that students deserve. And I think that has made it really challenging for counselors. And some continue to do it really well. Others start that way and then I think they languish because I think it gets too hard and it’s just easier to do the things that you’re held accountable for. So I think there are systems that could be set up to position counselors a little better, like evaluation systems. So for a long time, counselors were evaluated using teacher evaluations. And so the questions on the evaluation were largely about teaching. And over time we’ve come a long way. There are districts that have counselor specific or, more likely, to have student support, which would be a whole lot of other people, and they’re having specific evaluations. But states could adopt a policy that counselors have to be evaluated using this particular evaluation tool. There was some research put out recently by AIR that said that I think there have been 11 states that have a specific school counseling evaluation tool that’s required to be used, but that’s it.

Amy H-L: [00:17:29] So aside from the evaluations, are there supports set up for counselors? Are there groups, places that counselors can go for the support that they need?

Mandy S-R: [00:17:42] Yes, there are. So we have one primary professional organization called the American School Counselor Association. We have, I would say domain specific organizations. So in the college and career post-secondary area, we have organizations like the National Association of College Admissions Counselors or National College Access Network. And then in the social emotional domain, you have places like CASEL or School Mental Health at UCLA. And so within domains, there are organizations. For many years, the Education Trust had an initiative called Transforming School Counseling. That’s no longer active, but Ed Trust has continued to be a place that supports counselors. Outside of that, however, there are state level organizations, sort of state affiliates of the professional organizations, and then there are other groups that connect around different topics. So for example, I’m part of a group of counselor educators who meet to talk about antiracism in school counseling. So we have these counselor groups that meet and form. I think what’s difficult is for school districts to offer a lot of support for counselors when they don’t have many of them or there’s no one at the district level who’s responsible for counseling. Sometimes counseling falls under special education. Sometimes it falls under career and technical education. It really varies quite a lot as to who’s overseeing counseling in a big district. And in little districts, there really isn’t anybody at the district level whose primary responsibility it is to oversee counseling.

Jon M: [00:19:20] So speaking of the specific part about counselors working with students as they’re looking at college and careers, to what degree do you get a sense that counselors are able to get at some of these deeper questions, sort of the “why” rather than the “what” questions, or you just mentioned, you know, looking at racism and anti-racism kind of issues? So what have you seen in terms of counselors being able to help students think about the implications of their choices about college and career paths? I mean, it sounds as though obviously so many counselors just have their hands full, just holding the day together. And this is like a step way beyond that. But what have you, what have you seen?

Mandy S-R: [00:20:08] I’ve seen some amazing counselors step deep into the work with students. I think it’s not universal. However, I think there are counselors out there that recognize that when they have a strong relationship with a student, they’re best positioned to have kind of these deeper conversations, I think that’s the ideal. I think the other side of that is that there are counselors who end up being very transactional, like I want to give you this information. I want to support you in identifying colleges, but there isn’t really time structured into the day for counselors to even meet with students. So what we hear from counselors is that sometimes their school district has a policy where they’re not supposed to take kids out of class. For good reason, we want kids in class. But it means that there needs to be time, so what some schools have done is use advisory time or specific blocks where they can talk with students about some of these things, like what’s really important to you. So you could imagine a conversation your senior year might be about do you want to apply to college? And if yes, what colleges, but in your junior year, it might be more about understanding who they are and what kind of impact they want to have in the world, and how they understand sense of purpose and how they understand choosing a career path. That’s, that’s very different than just, you know, sort of putting people in a position to act on, or do the kind of instrumental tasks associated with finding an apprenticeship or applying to college. So I think there are counselors who manage to do it, and I think counselors are positioned to do it because they’re trained in counseling. I mean, remember, although counselors were initially, initially they were brought on by using teachers, they would take teachers and ask them to do vocational guidance prior to bringing counselors on the scene. But today counselors are trained in individual counseling, group counseling, cross-cultural counseling. They have skills to have conversations with students about how they are making meaning of the world, how they’re making meaning of what’s happening with this election, with the state sanctioned violence against Black Americans, like their positioned to do this. Whether or not, they’re expected to do it allowed to do it or trained to do it is a different story. And so I think that again, we’re kind of sitting in this place where counselors have so much potential, but we really haven’t leveraged it. We haven’t positioned them.

Earlier this week. I participated in a webinar on school counselors supporting students after the election. And there were tons of counselors there. Lots of counselors are thinking about how they’re going to support students after the election. And depending on where they are in the country, they’re recognizing that there are cultural expectations. There’s going to be permission in schools, not permission in other schools, to talk about the election, but this is the kind of things that counselors know. They know that if we don’t address the primary needs of students, they’re not able to learn. So what they want to be able to do is address the things that serve as a barrier to learning, a barrier to engaging in school. And counselors are positioned to do it. Now, whether or not they’ll be given the time in the day to do it or the green light from principals or parents even feeling like that’s what they want their students to be having conversations about, are other kinds of potential obstacles. But the desire is there. And the realization that these things are important is also there.

Amy H-L: [00:23:28] You recently led a survey of over a thousand counselors around the country about their experiences during the pandemic. What did you find?

Mandy S-R: [00:23:38] Well, one, we found that we could get a thousand people to respond to a survey during the pandemic, which is pretty impressive. Although I would add that it’s also a sign that counselors want their voices heard. They don’t necessarily feel represented in some of the research that’s out there on the policy. But what did we learn? Overall, we learned that counselors really struggled to spend time counseling students about social emotional issues, career development, or post-secondary plans. They were tasked with spending so much time finding students, just students who were not showing up online, tracking down students, managing attendance, providing information to families, either on where to get food, where to find technology, where to get help for their families. These are all really important things. So let me be clear. The counselors recognize that these are important tasks and they see themselves as being members of a team and realize that they are key people to be supporting this. So it’s not as though they don’t want to do these things. The challenge comes and then that they don’t have time to do the other things. So there’s a cost. When you ask your counselors to track down students, it means they’re not sending out surveys to see if students are okay. It means they’re not continuing the group counseling sessions they were running. It means they’re not working with students on anxiety strategies to manage the stress that’s come with this pandemic. So I think what we really heard from counselors in that area was that they struggled to do their job.

The other big thing that we heard from counselors, which will not be surprising, given the other things I’ve shared, is that there wasn’t a lot of direction or leadership from their schools and districts. And I think , we understand, nobody knew how to do this. We know this is a very new situation for everybody, to figure out how do we do school and remote schooling in the midst of a pandemic. But one example was a counselor who shared that when their school district contracted with the teachers union for a negotiated memorandum of understanding, there wasn’t even mention of counselors in it. So there was no mention about whether or not counselors should be meeting with students or doing counseling. So the lack of direction is understandable in the sense that we were all in panic and response mode. What happened is counselors were left wondering what are we supposed to be doing with our time.

And I think what worries them is that we know that there’s a mounting mental health crisis, that students are more isolated than ever. And for some students being home more is not good. Being home if you are an LGBTQ person in a family or in a home that doesn’t respect or value your sexual identity, and then not having access to your counselor, that’s a really difficult spot and counselors know that. Counselors knew that even when they were able to connect with students, some of them may not have felt safe to share if things were not good at home between their parents. So I think what counselors realized was that they were really constrained to do their job, and yet they knew that the needs were intense.

And I think it’s important to contextualize this by saying there were other barriers that all educators faced. They were home with kids. They were primary caregivers of elderly parents. They were learning how to be online and learn the technology just like every other teacher who was trying to figure out how to manage working from home. Those were all real. Counselors just have these unique roles that weren’t really being considered.

Amy H-L: [00:27:15] I have question about speaking with students about their “why” while they’re at home. We recently interviewed two teachers from LaGuardia High School of Music and Art and Performing Arts in New York. These were drama teachers, and they mentioned that many families, especially immigrant families, were understandably concerned about how their students would be able to make a living, and perhaps their visions for their students’ careers were a bit narrow. What’s it like to speak to students about their “why” while they’re in that home environment?

Mandy S-R: [00:28:05] Well, I think it’s a hard question. I think it’s hard to talk with students about their “why” in cases when their family’s expectations and why might be different even when they’re not home. So now we just have an added layer, which is sometimes you don’t have the time and space to talk about whether the student’s “why” matches up with the family’s “why.” When I train students in post-secondary counseling, we talk a lot about motivation and how important it is to understand why it is that students make these career college choices. And not just assume that there is this intrinsic thing that they’ve established, but just really to spend the time articulating that, because the research tells us that the clearer they are about their “why” the more successful they’ll be.

I think the challenge that we face when kids are home is that right now there’s a lot of hopelessness and kids are not seeing a lot of hope as far as the future. And so talking about the future, which feels uncertain, everything feels uncertain. And remember some individuals, some adolescents have the ability to really throw forward and to see into the future. Other students, it’s the here and now the future is tonight. The future is tomorrow. The future is, do I have a place to sleep? Does my mom have a job? And I think the pressing issues of here and now make it really difficult, understandably, for kids to really project and throw into the future. I also think there are students for whom going to college is very much about supporting families and honoring family sacrifices and being the first in their family to go to college and being able to help out at home. And I think that for those students, when the pandemic creates such turmoil in your family, with jobs and other things, it can feel self-interested to really want to focus on you and your future when maybe you’re needed for other things. So I think, I think it’s challenging to talk about the future for people right now. Things, some things, look very bleak. And if the student is undocumented, I think it’s even harder, because the policies for undocumented students have been really narrowed in terms of the dreamers having access to in-state tuition. 

Jon M: [00:30:30] So what are some of the lessons that can be learned from counselors’ experiences so far in the pandemic for the current school year? I mean, you’ve talked a lot about the issues that have. been obvious to people who’ve been doing this. And also you’ve talked about some of the resources. And earlier, when we were talking, you were talking about a lot of the creativity that you’ve seen among counselors. So what are you saying to people?  What are you saying to the current counselors and perspective counselors in terms of lessons learned and that can be applied?

Mandy S-R: [00:31:10] Well, I think there’s a couple of things. One thing is that, and this is true for me. I think it is true of many, many folks, in many counselors in the field, is that the potential for technology to augment your work has really increased. I think that counselors have found themselves being able to use technology to create bitmoji classrooms and wellness spaces and things that use Google classroom for their benefit that are much more counseling oriented. I think counselors have started doing more home visits, which is something that existed in the counseling community, but hasn’t really had a profound presence. Uh, so there were some counselors who would do home visits. And yet I think that whether they’re delivering Chromebooks or delivering supplies, I think there’s been a new kind of relationship that’s formed between counselors and their students. I think there’s also a degree to which counselors have realized that they have ideas about how to manage this time and they want to be asked. I think we found in our survey that counselors weren’t asked for their input, which, you know, I think counselors now realize that they have lots of thoughts about how they can address universally screening students for depression and anxiety. I think sadly, unfortunately, the concerns about mental health issues have risen to a place where now school leaders are very concerned and, and are beginning to turn to their counselors to say, you know, our teachers need mental health support. I think our students need mental health support. What tools do you have that we can make available? So I think that counselors are being very creative in that sense.

I guess the other thing I’ve been thinking about is, you know, do counselors have more access to professional development? In theory, because there’s so much happening online. I think that as we get better at doing schooling online, we get better at learning online. You know, I go to webinars now that have thousands of counselors from across the country. And I have to think this wouldn’t have happened if it were taking place in Wisconsin, because not everybody has the fees to fly there. Counselors often don’t have budgets for professional development. So I think there’s been a coming together of counselors in different ways. I’m on Twitter, and I use Twitter to connect with counselors across the country, and I see the amazing things they’re doing. And I just, I think they’re being creative. I also think they’re just, they’re listening to their students. And this is what counselors do best. They listen to students, then figure out what kinds of programming are needed. So I think that’s another thing.

I think the last thing I’ll say is we’re starting to hear from folks in the field of telehealth and telemedicine that virtual counseling is working, that people are signing up for more counseling. Clinicians are saying they’re having success with counseling over zoom or whatever platform they’re using. And I think that is giving me hope that we can find ways. I think it’s going to take longer to build relationships, but I think there’s something to be said for learning how to connect with people in different ways. And I think the counselors are really experimenting with new ways of doing that. Here’s the thing that I’ll tell you. The counselors that I talk to come alive when they get to see their students, you know, and so not having student time is really hard for them. This is why they’ve gone into the profession. They want to support students, much like teachers, and when you don’t have a classroom of students and a lot of your work happens in the hallway or in the cafeteria over lunch room duty, or it happens informally when you’re greeting students, when those things disappear, your opportunities for informal interactions disappear. And I think what counselors are doing is they’re trying to find new ways to connect with students. And I suspect that a lot of the learning from that will carry forward.

Amy H-L: [00:34:59] Thank you, Dr. Mandy Savitz-Romer of Harvard Graduate School of Education. 

Mandy S-R: [00:35:04] Thank you, Amy. Thank you, Jon. It was, I love talking about this topic, as I’m sure you can tell, and I appreciate you making time to highlight the work of school counselors on your podcast.

Amy H-L: [00:35:14] And thank you, listeners. If you enjoyed this podcast, please share it with a friend or colleague. Subscribe wherever you get your podcasts and give us a rating or review. This helps other people find the show. Check out our website, ethicalschools.org, that’s ethicalschools.org, for episodes and articles and to subscribe to our monthly emails. We post annotated transcripts of our interviews to make them easy to use for workshops or classes. And we work with consultants on customized SEL programs, with a focus on ethics, in schools and youth programs in the New York city area. Contact us at hosts@ethicalschools.org. We’re on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter @ethicalschools. Our editor and social media manager is Amanda Denti. Till next week. 

Amy H-L: [00:00:15] I’m Amy Halpern-Laff

Jon M: [00:00:17] I’m Jon Moscow. Welcome to Ethical Schools. Our guest today is Dr. Mandy Savitz- Romer. Dr. Savitz-Romer is Nancy Pforzheimer Aronson Senior Lecturer of Human Development and Education at Harvard Graduate School of Education and director of the School of Education’s Prevention, Science and Practice master’s program. Her most recent book is “Fulfilling the Promise: Reimagining School Counseling to Advance Students.” Welcome, Mandy!

Mandy S-R: [00:00:44] Thank you. Glad to be here.

Amy H-L: [00:00:46] What are school counselors’ roles?

Mandy S-R: [00:00:50] It’s a complicated question, Amy. It really depends to some extent on where counselors are working — the grade level, the community, part of the country, but in general, counselors are tasked with working to support students’ development in three areas: in the academic area; in the post-secondary or college and career area; and then in social emotional or personal development. And so counselors’ work really spreads across those three things, and then how they work with them in those areas really differs, depending on the age of the child or the school community, what the needs are.

Amy H-L: [00:01:25] And how have these roles changed over time?

Mandy S-R: [00:01:29] Quite a lot. Great question. So initially, school counselors were brought on the scene, I would say in large numbers, following the launch of Sputnik. As the Russians launched Sputnik, the US became concerned about its global competitiveness, and thus there was a desire to bring folks into schools to support students pursuing math and science careers and college in the area of math and science. And so they wanted there to be some educator who could guide them into one of those two pathways. And so counselors were initially brought on to do vocational guidance, which at the time was helping students understand the world of work and understand their skills and their preferences, and then try to find a match between those two things. And so early on, largely they were focused on career guidance.

Over time as schools evolved and began to take on more of the social issues in their communities and in the world, counselors began to take on different things. So for example, counselors began to take on much more the social emotional, and personal issues. As there were waves of immigrants coming to the U S and there was at the time a thought that we needed help sort of acclimating them to the United States, schools, et cetera. And so counselors were called on them to do much more such as helping families connect to social service agencies, et cetera.

And then I would say another big shift in schools was the push towards standards-based reform. With a bigger push on standardized testing and identifying gaps in opportunity, counselors were called on to help with academic interventions, making sure students had the kind of support they needed to reach the standards based testing. So counselors’ roles have changed a lot. In some places, they’ve changed even more, where counselors are today using data to identify students who might benefit from early intervention to supporting students who are undocumented thinking about college, they’re supporting students who have been in the care of foster care families. Lots of different things. Again, depending on where they’re working.

Jon M: [00:03:30] You’ve talked about wanting to overhaul the counseling model in order to fix the system. What would you like to see?

Mandy S-R: [00:03:38] What I’d like to see in school counseling is I’d like to see counselors put much more at the center of schools. They are largely the only folks who have training in human development, in child or adolescent development. And yet our schools are taking on more and more of a focus on the whole child. So counselors support students across these three domains, but in many ways, counselors’ work has been seen as ancillary. And so it’s when there’s time, counselors can meet with students. And for students who are struggling or need specialized services, but really counselors provide the kind of home for students that I’d like to see mirror what we do with primary care physicians. You know, we all, if you’re part of the healthcare system in the US, you know, we’re all assigned a primary care physician who then connects us to specialists who can support us in kind of particular areas. But over time, we continue to go back to this one person. I’d like to see counselors leading that work. I’d like to see them leading teams of people who are supporting college and career readiness. Our nonprofit partners, our families and teachers, everyone involved in an area. I’d like to see counselors using data to track who’s being served and who’s not being served. And I’d like to see counselors working with school leaders to set goals for counseling departments so that they can tackle concerns about suicide or depression rates, but do so in a way that is systemic. I think there’s too much of a catch as catch can approach right now. And I don’t think that’s serving all students well. I think a much more systematic approach to counseling will serve all students much better.

Jon M: [00:05:11] What kinds of contractual guidelines and protections do counselors generally have in terms of job definitions, duties, case loads, contractual protections.

Mandy S-R: [00:05:23] Good question. So in many places, counselors are part of teachers unions, although that varies quite a lot. In some places, counselors are part of administrative groups and therefore not protected by the union. Largely their work is defined by their school leader or their district leader. So even if a counselor comes in with designs to run classroom lessons and run groups and to support students in with a whole lot of interventions, if the principal of that school sees counselors as providing administrative support or proctoring tests, or leading special education meetings, such as IEP or 504 meetings, then that’s what they’re going to spend their time doing because largely they’re accountable to the school leaders. So even though the district may have a different plan, it’s really up to school leaders to set the conditions for counselors to do their jobs well. So in many ways they’re not well-protected. In many places, counselors are one of two, one of four, or in the best cases, maybe one of seven counselors. And as a result, they tend to be sort of an afterthought by school districts. I think in general school leaders appreciate counselors’ work, but without really understanding the profession or what they do or what they could be doing, I think they failed to really leverage counselors’ strengths and talents.

Jon M: [00:06:37] Are caseloads a big issue?

Mandy S-R: [00:06:40] I think it depends whom you ask. I think there’s a presumption that obviously a smaller caseload is better than a larger caseload. The caseload that’s recommended by the American School Counselor Association is one counselor for every 250 students. Now there are states in the country that so far exceed that to a point where it’s egregious, in Arizona, where the caseload average is about one to 900, some parts of the country, it’s one to 700. It’s hard to imagine being a student and having to compete with 700 of your classmates for your counselor’s time. So it is a problem. I don’t think we have good data or empirical evidence about what that threshold is that would make it okay. We know that when students have an adult that they can connect with, who can provide the kind of high touch support services, the better off they’ll be. Counselors can’t do that for every student. And I don’t actually think they should. I think they need to leverage the support of partners and families and teachers. But I think that they have to have a manageable enough caseload so they can know all their students, so they can write a thoughtful letter of recommendation, so that they know when a student is struggling. And importantly, the caseload’s got to be small enough that I can build a relationship with that student, so that when that student is struggling, or wants to come out and share their sexual identity, or that student wants to share that there is some domestic violence at home that that relationship has already been built.

And that is going to require smaller case loads than one to 700. Is it one to 200? Is it one to 227? Who knows? We need some research on that to know what would really be best.

Jon M: [00:08:18] But in terms of equity, how does counselors’ ability to dedicate. . . Does more time to students who most need their help vary from wealthier schools to low-income schools?

Mandy S-R: [00:08:30] I think we definitely see a large equity issue in terms of how counselors spend their time. This is another area where we need much more robust research. Here’s what we know. We know that counselors in schools in high poverty communities spend a lot of their time dealing with social issues, dealing with crises, putting out fires. They also tend to be able to spend less time on college and career readiness because they’re spending time doing a lot of administrative tasks. That’s not to say that counselors in suburban areas aren’t doing those things, but the support nets, the safety nets that exist outside of schools are much stronger. And so when counselors aren’t able to spend as much time on say, college readiness with students who may be the first in their family to go to college, they may or may not get those resources elsewhere. I think the other equity issue really comes down to things like training. I’ve heard in my research that counselors from urban areas and those who work in rural communities really don’t have access to professional development at the same rate as some of their colleagues in other places. So if you’re limited in your ability to get better at your job, that’s going to have an impact on your ability to deliver services. And so I think the equity issues that come up for me include things like, are we really investing in these professionals so they’re able to do their jobs?

Well, it is in fact true that there’s not big differences in case loads when you start to look across urban, rural, suburban communities. There’s a lot of fluctuation. I will say, just to be on the record and say that case loads are a funny thing. When you ask districts to report the case loads, they’re oftentimes taking an average of the number of their counselors  in the district by the number of students in their district. Now where this gets a little tricky is that you might have one counselor in an entire elementary school and seven counselors in a high school. So the average caseload they tell us doesn’t really give us a good insight. However, we know that in urban schools, we have fewer elementary school counselors than we see in the suburban communities. So there are staffing differences across communities. In rural communities, we hear from counselors a lot that they’re the only counselor in their community. Of course their rural schools are smaller. They have fewer students, but they’re spread out over a much larger area and so their ability to meet the needs of students really differs.

So I think we have to invest in the suburban counselors at the same rate that we invest in our urban and rural counselors. And that would address one of the equity issues that’s in place.

Amy H-L: [00:10:54] In Julia Hanna’s article in the Harvard School of Education magazine, you said that “counselors’ aim is to be the academic conscience of the school and yet the structures aren’t always there for them to fulfill that goal.” Would you talk about that?

Mandy S-R: [00:11:10] Yeah. So I think there are two things that I wanted to address in that comment. The first is that counselors, because they’re not focused on classrooms, they really are able to look at whole-school issues. There are many counselors around the country who are using data to identify trends, in course taking, trends in program enrollment, and looking at whether or not there are disparities or opportunity gaps. And counselors can do that. And they can present those data to school communities and say, you know, we have some bias in our recommendation practices, we have some bias in our sorting of who gets into what classes. And I think counselors are well-positioned to do that. They’re often charged with doing scheduling. So by looking at data, I think counselors can raise concerns in a way that school administrators can as well, but counselors can do it on other variables, such as related to depression and bullying or the degree to which students feel safe coming to school or feel connected to an adult. So I feel as though counselors can sort of be the conscience in which they’re looking at all the different dimensions of a student’s experience in school.

When I follow that with the degree to which the working conditions or the structure set up to enable that, there are two things at play. One is counselors aren’t seen in schools as leaders. And so they’re often not at the leadership table to raise these issues. They’re not supported in collecting and using data, which is somewhat interesting, because there’s been a big push in many schools for much more diagnostic work, for teachers to look at data, for schools to together look at data, and counselors need to join in this as well. But oftentimes they’re not thought of in that way.

The second thing is that in order for counselors to be able to do that work, they have to be freed up from some of the non-counseling work they’ve been assigned over the years. As schools have become much more pressured to do more, counselors have been given tasks that go well beyond their counseling responsibility. I mean, I can tell you I was a high school counselor and I had lunchroom duty three periods a day. And to be honest, I got a lot done in that lunchroom duty. I saw who sat with whom, who was dating whom, who had broken up with whom, and you know, which students were maybe a little more socially isolated than others. On the other hand, when there’s too much of that, when that is coupled with proctoring tests, there are standardized assessments that are given all year long. And when counselors are charged with doing that on top of helping with hallway duty or bus duty or chairing staff meetings, they just, it just leaves very little time for them to do the work that they were trained to do. And what happens is you have counselors going into schools thinking they’re going to do one thing, but then finding that their role is not just that.

Jon M: [00:13:48] So it really sounds, from what you’re saying, as though so much of it comes down to how much does the school, in fact, in reality, as opposed to in words, value the social emotional work of the counselor, as opposed let’s say to, you know, math and reading scores, or that they don’t see the connection between them, because what I’m hearing from you is sort of people who go in with an absolutely critical role, but then they sort of have to fight even be at the table and that ultimately it comes down to whether the principal feels that he or she needs someone staffing the lunchroom more than they need somebody who’s really looking at the non-academic aspects of school life. Is that a fair impression?

Mandy S-R: [00:14:45] I think so. I mean, I think there are schools. I think there are schools that care a lot about social emotional development, and they see teachers as being the primary folks responsible for addressing it and don’t see counselors as doing that. So I think it’s not about a value of science or math over social emotional. I think sometimes it’s seeing that counselors could be doing that or asking that on teachers. I think we’ve put a lot on teachers to add social emotional development. In many ways, we’ve done that well at the elementary level, but we know that those non-cognitive, you know, all those kinds of skills that we talk about as non-cognitive, that they’re just as important in high schools, and the teachers aren’t really doing as much of that in high schools. They’re doing some, but not as much. And so I think part of it is understanding what’s possible with counselors and then deciding that we’re going to let them do that and then hire someone else to do some of these other things. So counselors in many places have become quasi administrators.

Now here’s the thing. What I find is that counselors are doing both. They are somehow managing to do the classroom lessons, to talk to students about racialized violence, to talk to students about gender identity, in addition to a host of other things. I think the profession has a high level of burnout. And this is a group of professionals who carry other people’s trauma, they’re stewards of other people’s stories and stress. And so one after another, students come in and share with their counselor stress they’re experiencing over time that can become very heavy and burdensome. So counselors carry a lot of that. And I think the high levels of burnout are because they’re trying to do both, they’re doing the work they have to do, and they’re trying to do the work they want to do and that they know that students deserve. And I think that has made it really challenging for counselors. And some continue to do it really well. Others start that way and then I think they languish because I think it gets too hard and it’s just easier to do the things that you’re held accountable for. So I think there are systems that could be set up to position counselors a little better, like evaluation systems. So for a long time, counselors were evaluated using teacher evaluations. And so the questions on the evaluation were largely about teaching. And over time we’ve come a long way. There are districts that have counselor specific or, more likely, to have student support, which would be a whole lot of other people, and they’re having specific evaluations. But states could adopt a policy that counselors have to be evaluated using this particular evaluation tool. There was some research put out recently by AIR that said that I think there have been 11 states that have a specific school counseling evaluation tool that’s required to be used, but that’s it.

Amy H-L: [00:17:29] So aside from the evaluations, are there supports set up for counselors? Are there groups, places that counselors can go for the support that they need?

Mandy S-R: [00:17:42] Yes, there are. So we have one primary professional organization called the American School Counselor Association. We have, I would say domain specific organizations. So in the college and career post-secondary area, we have organizations like the National Association of College Admissions Counselors or National College Access Network. And then in the social emotional domain, you have places like CASEL or School Mental Health at UCLA. And so within domains, there are organizations. For many years, the Education Trust had an initiative called Transforming School Counseling. That’s no longer active, but Ed Trust has continued to be a place that supports counselors. Outside of that, however, there are state level organizations, sort of state affiliates of the professional organizations, and then there are other groups that connect around different topics. So for example, I’m part of a group of counselor educators who meet to talk about antiracism in school counseling. So we have these counselor groups that meet and form. I think what’s difficult is for school districts to offer a lot of support for counselors when they don’t have many of them or there’s no one at the district level who’s responsible for counseling. Sometimes counseling falls under special education. Sometimes it falls under career and technical education. It really varies quite a lot as to who’s overseeing counseling in a big district. And in little districts, there really isn’t anybody at the district level whose primary responsibility it is to oversee counseling.

Jon M: [00:19:20] So speaking of the specific part about counselors working with students as they’re looking at college and careers, to what degree do you get a sense that counselors are able to get at some of these deeper questions, sort of the “why” rather than the “what” questions, or you just mentioned, you know, looking at racism and anti-racism kind of issues? So what have you seen in terms of counselors being able to help students think about the implications of their choices about college and career paths? I mean, it sounds as though obviously so many counselors just have their hands full, just holding the day together. And this is like a step way beyond that. But what have you, what have you seen?

Mandy S-R: [00:20:08] I’ve seen some amazing counselors step deep into the work with students. I think it’s not universal. However, I think there are counselors out there that recognize that when they have a strong relationship with a student, they’re best positioned to have kind of these deeper conversations, I think that’s the ideal. I think the other side of that is that there are counselors who end up being very transactional, like I want to give you this information. I want to support you in identifying colleges, but there isn’t really time structured into the day for counselors to even meet with students. So what we hear from counselors is that sometimes their school district has a policy where they’re not supposed to take kids out of class. For good reason, we want kids in class. But it means that there needs to be time, so what some schools have done is use advisory time or specific blocks where they can talk with students about some of these things, like what’s really important to you. So you could imagine a conversation your senior year might be about do you want to apply to college? And if yes, what colleges, but in your junior year, it might be more about understanding who they are and what kind of impact they want to have in the world, and how they understand sense of purpose and how they understand choosing a career path. That’s, that’s very different than just, you know, sort of putting people in a position to act on, or do the kind of instrumental tasks associated with finding an apprenticeship or applying to college. So I think there are counselors who manage to do it, and I think counselors are positioned to do it because they’re trained in counseling. I mean, remember, although counselors were initially, initially they were brought on by using teachers, they would take teachers and ask them to do vocational guidance prior to bringing counselors on the scene. But today counselors are trained in individual counseling, group counseling, cross-cultural counseling. They have skills to have conversations with students about how they are making meaning of the world, how they’re making meaning of what’s happening with this election, with the state sanctioned violence against Black Americans, like their positioned to do this. Whether or not, they’re expected to do it allowed to do it or trained to do it is a different story. And so I think that again, we’re kind of sitting in this place where counselors have so much potential, but we really haven’t leveraged it. We haven’t positioned them.

Earlier this week. I participated in a webinar on school counselors supporting students after the election. And there were tons of counselors there. Lots of counselors are thinking about how they’re going to support students after the election. And depending on where they are in the country, they’re recognizing that there are cultural expectations. There’s going to be permission in schools, not permission in other schools, to talk about the election, but this is the kind of things that counselors know. They know that if we don’t address the primary needs of students, they’re not able to learn. So what they want to be able to do is address the things that serve as a barrier to learning, a barrier to engaging in school. And counselors are positioned to do it. Now, whether or not they’ll be given the time in the day to do it or the green light from principals or parents even feeling like that’s what they want their students to be having conversations about, are other kinds of potential obstacles. But the desire is there. And the realization that these things are important is also there.

Amy H-L: [00:23:28] You recently led a survey of over a thousand counselors around the country about their experiences during the pandemic. What did you find?

Mandy S-R: [00:23:38] Well, one, we found that we could get a thousand people to respond to a survey during the pandemic, which is pretty impressive. Although I would add that it’s also a sign that counselors want their voices heard. They don’t necessarily feel represented in some of the research that’s out there on the policy. But what did we learn? Overall, we learned that counselors really struggled to spend time counseling students about social emotional issues, career development, or post-secondary plans. They were tasked with spending so much time finding students, just students who were not showing up online, tracking down students, managing attendance, providing information to families, either on where to get food, where to find technology, where to get help for their families. These are all really important things. So let me be clear. The counselors recognize that these are important tasks and they see themselves as being members of a team and realize that they are key people to be supporting this. So it’s not as though they don’t want to do these things. The challenge comes and then that they don’t have time to do the other things. So there’s a cost. When you ask your counselors to track down students, it means they’re not sending out surveys to see if students are okay. It means they’re not continuing the group counseling sessions they were running. It means they’re not working with students on anxiety strategies to manage the stress that’s come with this pandemic. So I think what we really heard from counselors in that area was that they struggled to do their job.

The other big thing that we heard from counselors, which will not be surprising, given the other things I’ve shared, is that there wasn’t a lot of direction or leadership from their schools and districts. And I think , we understand, nobody knew how to do this. We know this is a very new situation for everybody, to figure out how do we do school and remote schooling in the midst of a pandemic. But one example was a counselor who shared that when their school district contracted with the teachers union for a negotiated memorandum of understanding, there wasn’t even mention of counselors in it. So there was no mention about whether or not counselors should be meeting with students or doing counseling. So the lack of direction is understandable in the sense that we were all in panic and response mode. What happened is counselors were left wondering what are we supposed to be doing with our time.

And I think what worries them is that we know that there’s a mounting mental health crisis, that students are more isolated than ever. And for some students being home more is not good. Being home if you are an LGBTQ person in a family or in a home that doesn’t respect or value your sexual identity, and then not having access to your counselor, that’s a really difficult spot and counselors know that. Counselors knew that even when they were able to connect with students, some of them may not have felt safe to share if things were not good at home between their parents. So I think what counselors realized was that they were really constrained to do their job, and yet they knew that the needs were intense.

And I think it’s important to contextualize this by saying there were other barriers that all educators faced. They were home with kids. They were primary caregivers of elderly parents. They were learning how to be online and learn the technology just like every other teacher who was trying to figure out how to manage working from home. Those were all real. Counselors just have these unique roles that weren’t really being considered.

Amy H-L: [00:27:15] I have question about speaking with students about their “why” while they’re at home. We recently interviewed two teachers from LaGuardia High School of Music and Art and Performing Arts in New York. These were drama teachers, and they mentioned that many families, especially immigrant families, were understandably concerned about how their students would be able to make a living, and perhaps their visions for their students’ careers were a bit narrow. What’s it like to speak to students about their “why” while they’re in that home environment?

Mandy S-R: [00:28:05] Well, I think it’s a hard question. I think it’s hard to talk with students about their “why” in cases when their family’s expectations and why might be different even when they’re not home. So now we just have an added layer, which is sometimes you don’t have the time and space to talk about whether the student’s “why” matches up with the family’s “why.” When I train students in post-secondary counseling, we talk a lot about motivation and how important it is to understand why it is that students make these career college choices. And not just assume that there is this intrinsic thing that they’ve established, but just really to spend the time articulating that, because the research tells us that the clearer they are about their “why” the more successful they’ll be.

I think the challenge that we face when kids are home is that right now there’s a lot of hopelessness and kids are not seeing a lot of hope as far as the future. And so talking about the future, which feels uncertain, everything feels uncertain. And remember some individuals, some adolescents have the ability to really throw forward and to see into the future. Other students, it’s the here and now the future is tonight. The future is tomorrow. The future is, do I have a place to sleep? Does my mom have a job? And I think the pressing issues of here and now make it really difficult, understandably, for kids to really project and throw into the future. I also think there are students for whom going to college is very much about supporting families and honoring family sacrifices and being the first in their family to go to college and being able to help out at home. And I think that for those students, when the pandemic creates such turmoil in your family, with jobs and other things, it can feel self-interested to really want to focus on you and your future when maybe you’re needed for other things. So I think, I think it’s challenging to talk about the future for people right now. Things, some things, look very bleak. And if the student is undocumented, I think it’s even harder, because the policies for undocumented students have been really narrowed in terms of the dreamers having access to in-state tuition. 

Jon M: [00:30:30] So what are some of the lessons that can be learned from counselors’ experiences so far in the pandemic for the current school year? I mean, you’ve talked a lot about the issues that have. been obvious to people who’ve been doing this. And also you’ve talked about some of the resources. And earlier, when we were talking, you were talking about a lot of the creativity that you’ve seen among counselors. So what are you saying to people?  What are you saying to the current counselors and perspective counselors in terms of lessons learned and that can be applied?

Mandy S-R: [00:31:10] Well, I think there’s a couple of things. One thing is that, and this is true for me. I think it is true of many, many folks, in many counselors in the field, is that the potential for technology to augment your work has really increased. I think that counselors have found themselves being able to use technology to create bitmoji classrooms and wellness spaces and things that use Google classroom for their benefit that are much more counseling oriented. I think counselors have started doing more home visits, which is something that existed in the counseling community, but hasn’t really had a profound presence. Uh, so there were some counselors who would do home visits. And yet I think that whether they’re delivering Chromebooks or delivering supplies, I think there’s been a new kind of relationship that’s formed between counselors and their students. I think there’s also a degree to which counselors have realized that they have ideas about how to manage this time and they want to be asked. I think we found in our survey that counselors weren’t asked for their input, which, you know, I think counselors now realize that they have lots of thoughts about how they can address universally screening students for depression and anxiety. I think sadly, unfortunately, the concerns about mental health issues have risen to a place where now school leaders are very concerned and, and are beginning to turn to their counselors to say, you know, our teachers need mental health support. I think our students need mental health support. What tools do you have that we can make available? So I think that counselors are being very creative in that sense.

I guess the other thing I’ve been thinking about is, you know, do counselors have more access to professional development? In theory, because there’s so much happening online. I think that as we get better at doing schooling online, we get better at learning online. You know, I go to webinars now that have thousands of counselors from across the country. And I have to think this wouldn’t have happened if it were taking place in Wisconsin, because not everybody has the fees to fly there. Counselors often don’t have budgets for professional development. So I think there’s been a coming together of counselors in different ways. I’m on Twitter, and I use Twitter to connect with counselors across the country, and I see the amazing things they’re doing. And I just, I think they’re being creative. I also think they’re just, they’re listening to their students. And this is what counselors do best. They listen to students, then figure out what kinds of programming are needed. So I think that’s another thing.

I think the last thing I’ll say is we’re starting to hear from folks in the field of telehealth and telemedicine that virtual counseling is working, that people are signing up for more counseling. Clinicians are saying they’re having success with counseling over zoom or whatever platform they’re using. And I think that is giving me hope that we can find ways. I think it’s going to take longer to build relationships, but I think there’s something to be said for learning how to connect with people in different ways. And I think the counselors are really experimenting with new ways of doing that. Here’s the thing that I’ll tell you. The counselors that I talk to come alive when they get to see their students, you know, and so not having student time is really hard for them. This is why they’ve gone into the profession. They want to support students, much like teachers, and when you don’t have a classroom of students and a lot of your work happens in the hallway or in the cafeteria over lunch room duty, or it happens informally when you’re greeting students, when those things disappear, your opportunities for informal interactions disappear. And I think what counselors are doing is they’re trying to find new ways to connect with students. And I suspect that a lot of the learning from that will carry forward.

Amy H-L: [00:34:59] Thank you, Dr. Mandy Savitz-Romer of Harvard Graduate School of Education. 

Mandy S-R: [00:35:04] Thank you, Amy. Thank you, Jon. It was, I love talking about this topic, as I’m sure you can tell, and I appreciate you making time to highlight the work of school counselors on your podcast.

Amy H-L: [00:35:14] And thank you, listeners. If you enjoyed this podcast, please share it with a friend or colleague. Subscribe wherever you get your podcasts and give us a rating or review. This helps other people find the show. Check out our website, ethicalschools.org, that’s ethicalschools.org, for episodes and articles and to subscribe to our monthly emails. We post annotated transcripts of our interviews to make them easy to use for workshops or classes. And we work with consultants on customized SEL programs, with a focus on ethics, in schools and youth programs in the New York city area. Contact us at hosts@ethicalschools.org. We’re on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter @ethicalschools. Our editor and social media manager is Amanda Denti. Till next week. 

Amy H-L: [00:00:15] I’m Amy Halpern-Laff

Jon M: [00:00:17] I’m Jon Moscow. Welcome to Ethical Schools. Our guest today is Dr. Mandy Savitz- Romer. Dr. Savitz-Romer is Nancy Pforzheimer Aronson Senior Lecturer of Human Development and Education at Harvard Graduate School of Education and director of the School of Education’s Prevention, Science and Practice master’s program. Her most recent book is “Fulfilling the Promise: Reimagining School Counseling to Advance Students.” Welcome, Mandy!

Mandy S-R: [00:00:44] Thank you. Glad to be here.

Amy H-L: [00:00:46] What are school counselors’ roles?

Mandy S-R: [00:00:50] It’s a complicated question, Amy. It really depends to some extent on where counselors are working — the grade level, the community, part of the country, but in general, counselors are tasked with working to support students’ development in three areas: in the academic area; in the post-secondary or college and career area; and then in social emotional or personal development. And so counselors’ work really spreads across those three things, and then how they work with them in those areas really differs, depending on the age of the child or the school community, what the needs are.

Amy H-L: [00:01:25] And how have these roles changed over time?

Mandy S-R: [00:01:29] Quite a lot. Great question. So initially, school counselors were brought on the scene, I would say in large numbers, following the launch of Sputnik. As the Russians launched Sputnik, the US became concerned about its global competitiveness, and thus there was a desire to bring folks into schools to support students pursuing math and science careers and college in the area of math and science. And so they wanted there to be some educator who could guide them into one of those two pathways. And so counselors were initially brought on to do vocational guidance, which at the time was helping students understand the world of work and understand their skills and their preferences, and then try to find a match between those two things. And so early on, largely they were focused on career guidance.

Over time as schools evolved and began to take on more of the social issues in their communities and in the world, counselors began to take on different things. So for example, counselors began to take on much more the social emotional, and personal issues. As there were waves of immigrants coming to the U S and there was at the time a thought that we needed help sort of acclimating them to the United States, schools, et cetera. And so counselors were called on them to do much more such as helping families connect to social service agencies, et cetera.

And then I would say another big shift in schools was the push towards standards-based reform. With a bigger push on standardized testing and identifying gaps in opportunity, counselors were called on to help with academic interventions, making sure students had the kind of support they needed to reach the standards based testing. So counselors’ roles have changed a lot. In some places, they’ve changed even more, where counselors are today using data to identify students who might benefit from early intervention to supporting students who are undocumented thinking about college, they’re supporting students who have been in the care of foster care families. Lots of different things. Again, depending on where they’re working.

Jon M: [00:03:30] You’ve talked about wanting to overhaul the counseling model in order to fix the system. What would you like to see?

Mandy S-R: [00:03:38] What I’d like to see in school counseling is I’d like to see counselors put much more at the center of schools. They are largely the only folks who have training in human development, in child or adolescent development. And yet our schools are taking on more and more of a focus on the whole child. So counselors support students across these three domains, but in many ways, counselors’ work has been seen as ancillary. And so it’s when there’s time, counselors can meet with students. And for students who are struggling or need specialized services, but really counselors provide the kind of home for students that I’d like to see mirror what we do with primary care physicians. You know, we all, if you’re part of the healthcare system in the US, you know, we’re all assigned a primary care physician who then connects us to specialists who can support us in kind of particular areas. But over time, we continue to go back to this one person. I’d like to see counselors leading that work. I’d like to see them leading teams of people who are supporting college and career readiness. Our nonprofit partners, our families and teachers, everyone involved in an area. I’d like to see counselors using data to track who’s being served and who’s not being served. And I’d like to see counselors working with school leaders to set goals for counseling departments so that they can tackle concerns about suicide or depression rates, but do so in a way that is systemic. I think there’s too much of a catch as catch can approach right now. And I don’t think that’s serving all students well. I think a much more systematic approach to counseling will serve all students much better.

Jon M: [00:05:11] What kinds of contractual guidelines and protections do counselors generally have in terms of job definitions, duties, case loads, contractual protections.

Mandy S-R: [00:05:23] Good question. So in many places, counselors are part of teachers unions, although that varies quite a lot. In some places, counselors are part of administrative groups and therefore not protected by the union. Largely their work is defined by their school leader or their district leader. So even if a counselor comes in with designs to run classroom lessons and run groups and to support students in with a whole lot of interventions, if the principal of that school sees counselors as providing administrative support or proctoring tests, or leading special education meetings, such as IEP or 504 meetings, then that’s what they’re going to spend their time doing because largely they’re accountable to the school leaders. So even though the district may have a different plan, it’s really up to school leaders to set the conditions for counselors to do their jobs well. So in many ways they’re not well-protected. In many places, counselors are one of two, one of four, or in the best cases, maybe one of seven counselors. And as a result, they tend to be sort of an afterthought by school districts. I think in general school leaders appreciate counselors’ work, but without really understanding the profession or what they do or what they could be doing, I think they failed to really leverage counselors’ strengths and talents.

Jon M: [00:06:37] Are caseloads a big issue?

Mandy S-R: [00:06:40] I think it depends whom you ask. I think there’s a presumption that obviously a smaller caseload is better than a larger caseload. The caseload that’s recommended by the American School Counselor Association is one counselor for every 250 students. Now there are states in the country that so far exceed that to a point where it’s egregious, in Arizona, where the caseload average is about one to 900, some parts of the country, it’s one to 700. It’s hard to imagine being a student and having to compete with 700 of your classmates for your counselor’s time. So it is a problem. I don’t think we have good data or empirical evidence about what that threshold is that would make it okay. We know that when students have an adult that they can connect with, who can provide the kind of high touch support services, the better off they’ll be. Counselors can’t do that for every student. And I don’t actually think they should. I think they need to leverage the support of partners and families and teachers. But I think that they have to have a manageable enough caseload so they can know all their students, so they can write a thoughtful letter of recommendation, so that they know when a student is struggling. And importantly, the caseload’s got to be small enough that I can build a relationship with that student, so that when that student is struggling, or wants to come out and share their sexual identity, or that student wants to share that there is some domestic violence at home that that relationship has already been built.

And that is going to require smaller case loads than one to 700. Is it one to 200? Is it one to 227? Who knows? We need some research on that to know what would really be best.

Jon M: [00:08:18] But in terms of equity, how does counselors’ ability to dedicate. . . Does more time to students who most need their help vary from wealthier schools to low-income schools?

Mandy S-R: [00:08:30] I think we definitely see a large equity issue in terms of how counselors spend their time. This is another area where we need much more robust research. Here’s what we know. We know that counselors in schools in high poverty communities spend a lot of their time dealing with social issues, dealing with crises, putting out fires. They also tend to be able to spend less time on college and career readiness because they’re spending time doing a lot of administrative tasks. That’s not to say that counselors in suburban areas aren’t doing those things, but the support nets, the safety nets that exist outside of schools are much stronger. And so when counselors aren’t able to spend as much time on say, college readiness with students who may be the first in their family to go to college, they may or may not get those resources elsewhere. I think the other equity issue really comes down to things like training. I’ve heard in my research that counselors from urban areas and those who work in rural communities really don’t have access to professional development at the same rate as some of their colleagues in other places. So if you’re limited in your ability to get better at your job, that’s going to have an impact on your ability to deliver services. And so I think the equity issues that come up for me include things like, are we really investing in these professionals so they’re able to do their jobs?

Well, it is in fact true that there’s not big differences in case loads when you start to look across urban, rural, suburban communities. There’s a lot of fluctuation. I will say, just to be on the record and say that case loads are a funny thing. When you ask districts to report the case loads, they’re oftentimes taking an average of the number of their counselors  in the district by the number of students in their district. Now where this gets a little tricky is that you might have one counselor in an entire elementary school and seven counselors in a high school. So the average caseload they tell us doesn’t really give us a good insight. However, we know that in urban schools, we have fewer elementary school counselors than we see in the suburban communities. So there are staffing differences across communities. In rural communities, we hear from counselors a lot that they’re the only counselor in their community. Of course their rural schools are smaller. They have fewer students, but they’re spread out over a much larger area and so their ability to meet the needs of students really differs.

So I think we have to invest in the suburban counselors at the same rate that we invest in our urban and rural counselors. And that would address one of the equity issues that’s in place.

Amy H-L: [00:10:54] In Julia Hanna’s article in the Harvard School of Education magazine, you said that “counselors’ aim is to be the academic conscience of the school and yet the structures aren’t always there for them to fulfill that goal.” Would you talk about that?

Mandy S-R: [00:11:10] Yeah. So I think there are two things that I wanted to address in that comment. The first is that counselors, because they’re not focused on classrooms, they really are able to look at whole-school issues. There are many counselors around the country who are using data to identify trends, in course taking, trends in program enrollment, and looking at whether or not there are disparities or opportunity gaps. And counselors can do that. And they can present those data to school communities and say, you know, we have some bias in our recommendation practices, we have some bias in our sorting of who gets into what classes. And I think counselors are well-positioned to do that. They’re often charged with doing scheduling. So by looking at data, I think counselors can raise concerns in a way that school administrators can as well, but counselors can do it on other variables, such as related to depression and bullying or the degree to which students feel safe coming to school or feel connected to an adult. So I feel as though counselors can sort of be the conscience in which they’re looking at all the different dimensions of a student’s experience in school.

When I follow that with the degree to which the working conditions or the structure set up to enable that, there are two things at play. One is counselors aren’t seen in schools as leaders. And so they’re often not at the leadership table to raise these issues. They’re not supported in collecting and using data, which is somewhat interesting, because there’s been a big push in many schools for much more diagnostic work, for teachers to look at data, for schools to together look at data, and counselors need to join in this as well. But oftentimes they’re not thought of in that way.

The second thing is that in order for counselors to be able to do that work, they have to be freed up from some of the non-counseling work they’ve been assigned over the years. As schools have become much more pressured to do more, counselors have been given tasks that go well beyond their counseling responsibility. I mean, I can tell you I was a high school counselor and I had lunchroom duty three periods a day. And to be honest, I got a lot done in that lunchroom duty. I saw who sat with whom, who was dating whom, who had broken up with whom, and you know, which students were maybe a little more socially isolated than others. On the other hand, when there’s too much of that, when that is coupled with proctoring tests, there are standardized assessments that are given all year long. And when counselors are charged with doing that on top of helping with hallway duty or bus duty or chairing staff meetings, they just, it just leaves very little time for them to do the work that they were trained to do. And what happens is you have counselors going into schools thinking they’re going to do one thing, but then finding that their role is not just that.

Jon M: [00:13:48] So it really sounds, from what you’re saying, as though so much of it comes down to how much does the school, in fact, in reality, as opposed to in words, value the social emotional work of the counselor, as opposed let’s say to, you know, math and reading scores, or that they don’t see the connection between them, because what I’m hearing from you is sort of people who go in with an absolutely critical role, but then they sort of have to fight even be at the table and that ultimately it comes down to whether the principal feels that he or she needs someone staffing the lunchroom more than they need somebody who’s really looking at the non-academic aspects of school life. Is that a fair impression?

Mandy S-R: [00:14:45] I think so. I mean, I think there are schools. I think there are schools that care a lot about social emotional development, and they see teachers as being the primary folks responsible for addressing it and don’t see counselors as doing that. So I think it’s not about a value of science or math over social emotional. I think sometimes it’s seeing that counselors could be doing that or asking that on teachers. I think we’ve put a lot on teachers to add social emotional development. In many ways, we’ve done that well at the elementary level, but we know that those non-cognitive, you know, all those kinds of skills that we talk about as non-cognitive, that they’re just as important in high schools, and the teachers aren’t really doing as much of that in high schools. They’re doing some, but not as much. And so I think part of it is understanding what’s possible with counselors and then deciding that we’re going to let them do that and then hire someone else to do some of these other things. So counselors in many places have become quasi administrators.

Now here’s the thing. What I find is that counselors are doing both. They are somehow managing to do the classroom lessons, to talk to students about racialized violence, to talk to students about gender identity, in addition to a host of other things. I think the profession has a high level of burnout. And this is a group of professionals who carry other people’s trauma, they’re stewards of other people’s stories and stress. And so one after another, students come in and share with their counselor stress they’re experiencing over time that can become very heavy and burdensome. So counselors carry a lot of that. And I think the high levels of burnout are because they’re trying to do both, they’re doing the work they have to do, and they’re trying to do the work they want to do and that they know that students deserve. And I think that has made it really challenging for counselors. And some continue to do it really well. Others start that way and then I think they languish because I think it gets too hard and it’s just easier to do the things that you’re held accountable for. So I think there are systems that could be set up to position counselors a little better, like evaluation systems. So for a long time, counselors were evaluated using teacher evaluations. And so the questions on the evaluation were largely about teaching. And over time we’ve come a long way. There are districts that have counselor specific or, more likely, to have student support, which would be a whole lot of other people, and they’re having specific evaluations. But states could adopt a policy that counselors have to be evaluated using this particular evaluation tool. There was some research put out recently by AIR that said that I think there have been 11 states that have a specific school counseling evaluation tool that’s required to be used, but that’s it.

Amy H-L: [00:17:29] So aside from the evaluations, are there supports set up for counselors? Are there groups, places that counselors can go for the support that they need?

Mandy S-R: [00:17:42] Yes, there are. So we have one primary professional organization called the American School Counselor Association. We have, I would say domain specific organizations. So in the college and career post-secondary area, we have organizations like the National Association of College Admissions Counselors or National College Access Network. And then in the social emotional domain, you have places like CASEL or School Mental Health at UCLA. And so within domains, there are organizations. For many years, the Education Trust had an initiative called Transforming School Counseling. That’s no longer active, but Ed Trust has continued to be a place that supports counselors. Outside of that, however, there are state level organizations, sort of state affiliates of the professional organizations, and then there are other groups that connect around different topics. So for example, I’m part of a group of counselor educators who meet to talk about antiracism in school counseling. So we have these counselor groups that meet and form. I think what’s difficult is for school districts to offer a lot of support for counselors when they don’t have many of them or there’s no one at the district level who’s responsible for counseling. Sometimes counseling falls under special education. Sometimes it falls under career and technical education. It really varies quite a lot as to who’s overseeing counseling in a big district. And in little districts, there really isn’t anybody at the district level whose primary responsibility it is to oversee counseling.

Jon M: [00:19:20] So speaking of the specific part about counselors working with students as they’re looking at college and careers, to what degree do you get a sense that counselors are able to get at some of these deeper questions, sort of the “why” rather than the “what” questions, or you just mentioned, you know, looking at racism and anti-racism kind of issues? So what have you seen in terms of counselors being able to help students think about the implications of their choices about college and career paths? I mean, it sounds as though obviously so many counselors just have their hands full, just holding the day together. And this is like a step way beyond that. But what have you, what have you seen?

Mandy S-R: [00:20:08] I’ve seen some amazing counselors step deep into the work with students. I think it’s not universal. However, I think there are counselors out there that recognize that when they have a strong relationship with a student, they’re best positioned to have kind of these deeper conversations, I think that’s the ideal. I think the other side of that is that there are counselors who end up being very transactional, like I want to give you this information. I want to support you in identifying colleges, but there isn’t really time structured into the day for counselors to even meet with students. So what we hear from counselors is that sometimes their school district has a policy where they’re not supposed to take kids out of class. For good reason, we want kids in class. But it means that there needs to be time, so what some schools have done is use advisory time or specific blocks where they can talk with students about some of these things, like what’s really important to you. So you could imagine a conversation your senior year might be about do you want to apply to college? And if yes, what colleges, but in your junior year, it might be more about understanding who they are and what kind of impact they want to have in the world, and how they understand sense of purpose and how they understand choosing a career path. That’s, that’s very different than just, you know, sort of putting people in a position to act on, or do the kind of instrumental tasks associated with finding an apprenticeship or applying to college. So I think there are counselors who manage to do it, and I think counselors are positioned to do it because they’re trained in counseling. I mean, remember, although counselors were initially, initially they were brought on by using teachers, they would take teachers and ask them to do vocational guidance prior to bringing counselors on the scene. But today counselors are trained in individual counseling, group counseling, cross-cultural counseling. They have skills to have conversations with students about how they are making meaning of the world, how they’re making meaning of what’s happening with this election, with the state sanctioned violence against Black Americans, like their positioned to do this. Whether or not, they’re expected to do it allowed to do it or trained to do it is a different story. And so I think that again, we’re kind of sitting in this place where counselors have so much potential, but we really haven’t leveraged it. We haven’t positioned them.

Earlier this week. I participated in a webinar on school counselors supporting students after the election. And there were tons of counselors there. Lots of counselors are thinking about how they’re going to support students after the election. And depending on where they are in the country, they’re recognizing that there are cultural expectations. There’s going to be permission in schools, not permission in other schools, to talk about the election, but this is the kind of things that counselors know. They know that if we don’t address the primary needs of students, they’re not able to learn. So what they want to be able to do is address the things that serve as a barrier to learning, a barrier to engaging in school. And counselors are positioned to do it. Now, whether or not they’ll be given the time in the day to do it or the green light from principals or parents even feeling like that’s what they want their students to be having conversations about, are other kinds of potential obstacles. But the desire is there. And the realization that these things are important is also there.

Amy H-L: [00:23:28] You recently led a survey of over a thousand counselors around the country about their experiences during the pandemic. What did you find?

Mandy S-R: [00:23:38] Well, one, we found that we could get a thousand people to respond to a survey during the pandemic, which is pretty impressive. Although I would add that it’s also a sign that counselors want their voices heard. They don’t necessarily feel represented in some of the research that’s out there on the policy. But what did we learn? Overall, we learned that counselors really struggled to spend time counseling students about social emotional issues, career development, or post-secondary plans. They were tasked with spending so much time finding students, just students who were not showing up online, tracking down students, managing attendance, providing information to families, either on where to get food, where to find technology, where to get help for their families. These are all really important things. So let me be clear. The counselors recognize that these are important tasks and they see themselves as being members of a team and realize that they are key people to be supporting this. So it’s not as though they don’t want to do these things. The challenge comes and then that they don’t have time to do the other things. So there’s a cost. When you ask your counselors to track down students, it means they’re not sending out surveys to see if students are okay. It means they’re not continuing the group counseling sessions they were running. It means they’re not working with students on anxiety strategies to manage the stress that’s come with this pandemic. So I think what we really heard from counselors in that area was that they struggled to do their job.

The other big thing that we heard from counselors, which will not be surprising, given the other things I’ve shared, is that there wasn’t a lot of direction or leadership from their schools and districts. And I think , we understand, nobody knew how to do this. We know this is a very new situation for everybody, to figure out how do we do school and remote schooling in the midst of a pandemic. But one example was a counselor who shared that when their school district contracted with the teachers union for a negotiated memorandum of understanding, there wasn’t even mention of counselors in it. So there was no mention about whether or not counselors should be meeting with students or doing counseling. So the lack of direction is understandable in the sense that we were all in panic and response mode. What happened is counselors were left wondering what are we supposed to be doing with our time.

And I think what worries them is that we know that there’s a mounting mental health crisis, that students are more isolated than ever. And for some students being home more is not good. Being home if you are an LGBTQ person in a family or in a home that doesn’t respect or value your sexual identity, and then not having access to your counselor, that’s a really difficult spot and counselors know that. Counselors knew that even when they were able to connect with students, some of them may not have felt safe to share if things were not good at home between their parents. So I think what counselors realized was that they were really constrained to do their job, and yet they knew that the needs were intense.

And I think it’s important to contextualize this by saying there were other barriers that all educators faced. They were home with kids. They were primary caregivers of elderly parents. They were learning how to be online and learn the technology just like every other teacher who was trying to figure out how to manage working from home. Those were all real. Counselors just have these unique roles that weren’t really being considered.

Amy H-L: [00:27:15] I have question about speaking with students about their “why” while they’re at home. We recently interviewed two teachers from LaGuardia High School of Music and Art and Performing Arts in New York. These were drama teachers, and they mentioned that many families, especially immigrant families, were understandably concerned about how their students would be able to make a living, and perhaps their visions for their students’ careers were a bit narrow. What’s it like to speak to students about their “why” while they’re in that home environment?

Mandy S-R: [00:28:05] Well, I think it’s a hard question. I think it’s hard to talk with students about their “why” in cases when their family’s expectations and why might be different even when they’re not home. So now we just have an added layer, which is sometimes you don’t have the time and space to talk about whether the student’s “why” matches up with the family’s “why.” When I train students in post-secondary counseling, we talk a lot about motivation and how important it is to understand why it is that students make these career college choices. And not just assume that there is this intrinsic thing that they’ve established, but just really to spend the time articulating that, because the research tells us that the clearer they are about their “why” the more successful they’ll be.

I think the challenge that we face when kids are home is that right now there’s a lot of hopelessness and kids are not seeing a lot of hope as far as the future. And so talking about the future, which feels uncertain, everything feels uncertain. And remember some individuals, some adolescents have the ability to really throw forward and to see into the future. Other students, it’s the here and now the future is tonight. The future is tomorrow. The future is, do I have a place to sleep? Does my mom have a job? And I think the pressing issues of here and now make it really difficult, understandably, for kids to really project and throw into the future. I also think there are students for whom going to college is very much about supporting families and honoring family sacrifices and being the first in their family to go to college and being able to help out at home. And I think that for those students, when the pandemic creates such turmoil in your family, with jobs and other things, it can feel self-interested to really want to focus on you and your future when maybe you’re needed for other things. So I think, I think it’s challenging to talk about the future for people right now. Things, some things, look very bleak. And if the student is undocumented, I think it’s even harder, because the policies for undocumented students have been really narrowed in terms of the dreamers having access to in-state tuition. 

Jon M: [00:30:30] So what are some of the lessons that can be learned from counselors’ experiences so far in the pandemic for the current school year? I mean, you’ve talked a lot about the issues that have. been obvious to people who’ve been doing this. And also you’ve talked about some of the resources. And earlier, when we were talking, you were talking about a lot of the creativity that you’ve seen among counselors. So what are you saying to people?  What are you saying to the current counselors and perspective counselors in terms of lessons learned and that can be applied?

Mandy S-R: [00:31:10] Well, I think there’s a couple of things. One thing is that, and this is true for me. I think it is true of many, many folks, in many counselors in the field, is that the potential for technology to augment your work has really increased. I think that counselors have found themselves being able to use technology to create bitmoji classrooms and wellness spaces and things that use Google classroom for their benefit that are much more counseling oriented. I think counselors have started doing more home visits, which is something that existed in the counseling community, but hasn’t really had a profound presence. Uh, so there were some counselors who would do home visits. And yet I think that whether they’re delivering Chromebooks or delivering supplies, I think there’s been a new kind of relationship that’s formed between counselors and their students. I think there’s also a degree to which counselors have realized that they have ideas about how to manage this time and they want to be asked. I think we found in our survey that counselors weren’t asked for their input, which, you know, I think counselors now realize that they have lots of thoughts about how they can address universally screening students for depression and anxiety. I think sadly, unfortunately, the concerns about mental health issues have risen to a place where now school leaders are very concerned and, and are beginning to turn to their counselors to say, you know, our teachers need mental health support. I think our students need mental health support. What tools do you have that we can make available? So I think that counselors are being very creative in that sense.

I guess the other thing I’ve been thinking about is, you know, do counselors have more access to professional development? In theory, because there’s so much happening online. I think that as we get better at doing schooling online, we get better at learning online. You know, I go to webinars now that have thousands of counselors from across the country. And I have to think this wouldn’t have happened if it were taking place in Wisconsin, because not everybody has the fees to fly there. Counselors often don’t have budgets for professional development. So I think there’s been a coming together of counselors in different ways. I’m on Twitter, and I use Twitter to connect with counselors across the country, and I see the amazing things they’re doing. And I just, I think they’re being creative. I also think they’re just, they’re listening to their students. And this is what counselors do best. They listen to students, then figure out what kinds of programming are needed. So I think that’s another thing.

I think the last thing I’ll say is we’re starting to hear from folks in the field of telehealth and telemedicine that virtual counseling is working, that people are signing up for more counseling. Clinicians are saying they’re having success with counseling over zoom or whatever platform they’re using. And I think that is giving me hope that we can find ways. I think it’s going to take longer to build relationships, but I think there’s something to be said for learning how to connect with people in different ways. And I think the counselors are really experimenting with new ways of doing that. Here’s the thing that I’ll tell you. The counselors that I talk to come alive when they get to see their students, you know, and so not having student time is really hard for them. This is why they’ve gone into the profession. They want to support students, much like teachers, and when you don’t have a classroom of students and a lot of your work happens in the hallway or in the cafeteria over lunch room duty, or it happens informally when you’re greeting students, when those things disappear, your opportunities for informal interactions disappear. And I think what counselors are doing is they’re trying to find new ways to connect with students. And I suspect that a lot of the learning from that will carry forward.

Amy H-L: [00:34:59] Thank you, Dr. Mandy Savitz-Romer of Harvard Graduate School of Education. 

Mandy S-R: [00:35:04] Thank you, Amy. Thank you, Jon. It was, I love talking about this topic, as I’m sure you can tell, and I appreciate you making time to highlight the work of school counselors on your podcast.

Amy H-L: [00:35:14] And thank you, listeners. If you enjoyed this podcast, please share it with a friend or colleague. Subscribe wherever you get your podcasts and give us a rating or review. This helps other people find the show. Check out our website, ethicalschools.org, that’s ethicalschools.org, for episodes and articles and to subscribe to our monthly emails. We post annotated transcripts of our interviews to make them easy to use for workshops or classes. And we work with consultants on customized SEL programs, with a focus on ethics, in schools and youth programs in the New York city area. Contact us at hosts@ethicalschools.org. We’re on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter @ethicalschools. Our editor and social media manager is Amanda Denti. Till next week. 

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