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Don't Call It 'Guidance' Anymore: A Talk With The Nation's Top School Counselor

LA Johnson

Counselors play a big role in helping students succeed: They help with scheduling, college applications and with issues like mental health.

Since 2015, first lady Michelle Obama has honored a school counselor of the year in a ceremony at the White House. Friday, the honor goes to Terri Tchorzynski of the Calhoun Area Career Center in Battle Creek, Mich., where she works with 11th- and 12th-graders drawn from 20 public high schools in Calhoun County.

Tchorzynski started her career as a high school English teacher, before getting her master's degree in counseling — a role she says she "always knew she wanted." NPR Ed caught up with Tchorzynski about her work in Michigan and the important role she sees counselors playing in schools.

Is it true that school counselors don't like the term "guidance counselor" anymore? Can you explain that?

We use the term "school counselor" now. We cringe when we hear the term "guidance counselor." It's kind of that older-fashioned model from years ago, the, "I'm gonna guide you towards your college or career." It's from when people didn't really understand what was going on with the whole realm of school counseling.

But now with a school counselor, we're much more than just the guidance counselor.

So what is the role of a school counselor?

There are three ways to break it down. First is college and career readiness, preparing our students for what life looks like after high school.

If it's college, then getting them focused on FAFSA completion, college scholarships and being academically ready. If it's for a career, figuring out what pathways are appropriate for them and what careers are available to them that fit their interests and their skills.

Second, we work in the social-emotional domain. This is more dealing with behavior, or with personal problems that students may have that impact their education. So we help them through those things so they can be successful in school.

Third, we'll call the academic domain. This is working with attendance or grades, or making sure students have enough credits to graduate high school.

So we are people that work in mental health, that work in the academic domains, that work in college and career readiness. We use data!

How do you use data? Can you give me an example?

We use a lot of data in our building, so that our stakeholders have a clear picture of what we're doing in the counseling department.

Here's an example about modifying behavior. At the beginning of every single school year we do presentations for every single one of our students about bullying and harassment, because we know that it's an issue in our schools and it's an issue with our students and we want to make sure that it's addressed early.

And then we start monitoring behavior referrals.

Before we started all this, the behavior referrals were not set up a certain way. But as a counseling department, we wanted to know specifically, if there's a behavior issue that's connected to bullying or harassment, we want it marked. So we can start identifying if there are issues in certain programs — we don't have classrooms, instead we call them programs. We created this tag in our student data system, so any time a referral went through about bullying and harassment, we were flagged.

We could see when and where there were incidents and tailored our interventions based on that data. We've pulled out certain groups and done some positive support groups for specific students too.

What's one thing you've learned as a school counselor?

A lot of times it's very easy to get centered in on the students who come to your office all the time or the students that are very outgoing. They're the A students that just want additional support. But there's a large population of students that just don't know to ask for help. Maybe they are first-time college-goers and so they don't even know what they need to know in order to go to school.

So I think it's so important for counselors to think about the students that maybe don't have a voice. We need to be the voice for students that don't have the voice. It's my job as a counselor to make sure that all these students, regardless of race, ethnicity, income or what kind of backgrounds they come from, it's my job to give them the same support. So sometimes I may be more intentional about reaching out to those students because I know they won't be the ones that are coming to me first.

So I guess the advice is — be proactive.

We've reported about the mental health crisis in our nation's schools — and it's important to note how important counselors are in helping students with those types of problems.

Oh, definitely. Having our students and our families understand that that's part of our role, is important. Some people just don't understand that it is a part of what we do. It's not just writing letters of recommendation and telling students where they should go to college. There's also a big part of our jobs as counselors that focuses on the social-emotional side ... there is a huge need for that now.

We have those community contacts, so if I have families that are uncertain about local community agencies and how they can help, part of my role is to connect them with those agencies.

What has been the biggest challenge in your career so far?

As a school counselor I think the social-emotional part is really hard. It's hard because students go through a lot of difficult things in their lives. And so when you're dealing with student tragedies — student death or violence — or just the things some teenagers have to face, that's really difficult. In my setting as a school counselor, there's only so much that I can do. The more we can connect with outside agencies, that helps too, so then I can refer them out to a community agency that can help them even further. But that's a difficult part of the job. It's something I don't think I'll ever get used to, because it's challenging and sad. There's a lot of things that our students have to deal with that are really difficult.

Can you give me some examples of the things that have come up in the last seven years?

Last year was a really difficult year for us. We had quite a few student tragedies. We actually lost one of our students to a car accident, and that obviously impacted all of us in our building. We have students that do self-harm and suicide, unfortunately. A lot of what I see nowadays with teenagers is just homelessness and poverty. I have a lot of students that are 16- or 17-years-old and for whatever reason, they just they can't live in their home, and so they need to find somewhere else to live. Sometimes, they're living with different friends, living day to day. That's always a struggle, because as a counselor, I want them to be successful, but at the same time, they're dealing with poverty and homelessness and trying to figure out where they are supposed to stay that night.

So what keeps your spirits up?

I just know that as a counselor, that's why I'm there. That's my role. The more students can trust me, and know that that is part of what I do and that I can help support them, the better. I always tell them, "I don't have this magic pill that makes everything go away." But I'm a resource for them to help them in whatever it is that they need.

Unfortunately, school counselors can be rare. In Michigan, where you're from, the student to school counselor ratio is 732 to 1. The American School Counselor Association recommends a ratio of 250 to 1. Clearly, that's far from the norm. What are your thoughts on that?

When you think about the personnel you have in your schools, school counselors are the ones that play the role in regards to impacting academic behavior and attendance. So if you don't have a school counselor in your building, then there is a certain person that plays all of those roles and puts all those pieces together.

It's so important for people to understand that counselors are needed at every single level, kindergarten through 12th grade. Elementary students have just as many needs, so it's just as important to establish early what a school counselor can do for students

In Michigan, elementary school counselors are very rare. In our county I think we have one school district that has one. In my own kids' school, they have one that will float between three or four buildings.

Counselors just can't offer the services that are needed for those students when they just have such large caseloads.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Elissa Nadworny reports on all things college for NPR, following big stories like unprecedented enrollment declines, college affordability, the student debt crisis and workforce training. During the 2020-2021 academic year, she traveled to dozens of campuses to document what it was like to reopen during the coronavirus pandemic. Her work has won several awards including a 2020 Gracie Award for a story about student parents in college, a 2018 James Beard Award for a story about the Chinese-American population in the Mississippi Delta and a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for excellence in innovation.