The Guidance Counselor You Barely Know

Why is the caseload of these school employees so overwhelming? Here's the real deal.

The complaints about high school guidance counselors are frequent.

Some parents view them as lazy; others think they’re clueless. Many find them to be the ultimate bureaucrats — able to remain employed and keep their (highly desirable) jobs in spite of lackluster results within the schools and with individual students.

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Given the extreme pressure today on kids to get into elite colleges, parents expect a great deal from their child’s high school counselor. To that, most of us would say — Why not? The job pays well. It’s a coveted and tenure-track position. Parents pay taxes to support their local public high schools — and for kids in private schools, annual tuition costs can be even higher. Guidance counselors play a key role in high school students’ academic careers and are responsible for much of the paperwork and administration of their students’ applications to colleges and universities.

One New York mother of two sons said the guidance counselor was the person she most frequently reached out to during her kids’ high school years.

“Especially during the college application process, I am sure I emailed her several times a week for months,” said this parent. “We also spoke on the phone. I had to,” she added. “My sons went to see her a lot, but they couldn’t push her the way I could. There was so much data and paperwork to move along in a timely fashion for all the key college deadlines — and she didn’t seem to be on the ball.”

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This mother added that she knew of some guidance counselors who had missed important deadlines for students — depriving those kids of a fair shot at admission to college. She felt she had to be proactive on her sons’ behalf. (Her kids ended up at highly selective schools.)

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Other parents are perfectly satisfied with the work of their kids’ guidance counselors. But it’s a tricky role for many reasons that aren’t obvious to most parents — and that’s part of the problem.

“Guidance counselor,” for starters, is an outdated term. It does not incorporate all that a professional counselor is educated and trained to do. “School counselor” is the official title.

Dr. Deborah Hardy, a former director of K-12 school counseling in Westchester County, New York, and winner of the 2005 American School Counseling Association’s School Counselor of the Year, spoke with LifeZette about the position and its importance today.

Counselors are measured by national standards of practice and school counseling competencies.

When Hardy started in the field, she had a caseload of about 275 students. Not only was she counseling students individually on their academic progress and on social-emotional issues, she was also working with them on college and career readiness. Additionally, she attended student-parent meetings, special education meetings, and college rep visits to the school.

The reality is that “every day is unpredictable for a school counselor,” she said. “Communicating with parents and teachers, attending special education committee meetings, child study meetings, and team meetings to connect with the college reps, and writing recommendations for students are but a few of the ongoing tasks for a school counselor.”

There were also many non-counseling activities Hardy supervised, such as proctoring finals or state assessments, coordinating and proctoring AP exams, processing accommodation requests for the SAT and ACT exams, and other duties as assigned by her administration. “All the non-counseling activities pull a counselor away from being available for direct contact with students,” she said.

Many parents don’t realize that school counselors are dragged in multiple directions at once.

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“The lack of understanding of the role of the school counselor who’s engaged in developing a counseling curriculum, bridging the gap in post-secondary plans, and managing data to show the impact of their professional practice is a problem,” said Hardy.

As a result, the expectations of the school counselor are unclear. Counselors, she said, are largely “expected to do a lot in a reactive process instead of creating a program that will provide more direct and indirect services as established by our school counseling model.”

Overall, “there’s so much that school counselors do — yet it is not understood.”

School counselors should do their best to share information and be present at faculty and parent-teacher meetings to help make others in the district aware of their evolving role.

For parents who wonder how school counselors might be evaluated, this varies greatly from the standard teacher evaluation. They are measured by national standards of practice and school counseling competencies. Many state education departments across the country are in the process of making formal recommendations to enhance school counseling programs.

School counselors frequently have to be put out small fires throughout the day.

Most states, however, have antiquated programs: “Regulations on school counseling have not been revised in decades, dating as far back as the 1970s,” Hardy said. However, to reduce counselors’ caseloads and help them provide greater individualized attention to students, parents and teachers need to strongly support these initiatives.

Hardy’s advice for students is very straightforward. They must get to know their counselor. Let the counselor know “your interests, the courses you like, don’t like, and hobbies,” she advised. When students have a strong connection with a counselor, “They create a team that will motivate them and be their guide.”

Her advice for parents is equally forthright. “I suggest getting to know the role of the school counselor and meeting with your child’s counselor to discuss how best to support your student.” Rather than obsessing over grades and transcripts, the goal is to focus on the learning process, she says — which will help mitigate student anxiety and build connections.

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She’s concerned about the implications of significant reductions in school revenue. Few counselors right now have the time to fully complete all of their assignments — they frequently spend time putting out small fires throughout the day. However, “If school counselors unpacked their school counseling program, did a time-and-task analysis and identified how and when they are supporting all children, I believe that the educational community would have a more preventive program in place.”

To most parents, a school counselor’s primary job is to help students get admitted into elite colleges. Hardy takes a holistic perspective: “College counseling is not only the process of creating a list of schools based on the student’s interests, abilities, grades, test scores, and location. It’s also about guiding the student through the application itself. It’s time-consuming.”

For parents who imagine school counselors are lazy, that’s likely not the case. “With the demands within the school, sometimes it is difficult for school counselors to leave and attend workshops, conferences, or informational sessions. Having the ability to go to college conferences or information sessions should be established as part of the school counselor’s professional development plan.”

Engaging with students and their families is what Hardy enjoys most about the job. Collaborating with parents and teachers to create the best learning environment for students can be magical, she said.

Daniel Riseman, founder of Riseman Educational Consulting in Irvington, New York, has been counseling students and working with families for 16 years.

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