In her final official remarks as first lady, Michelle Obama recognized school guidance counselors everywhere for the difference they are making in the lives of children across the nation day in and day out. She also used her remarks to shine a light on the 2017 American School Counselor Association’s counselor of the year, Michigan native Terri Tchorzynski of Battle Creek.
Tchorzynski works at Battle Creek’s Calhoun Area Career Center, a career and technical center serving about 860 high school juniors and seniors from 19 districts across Calhoun County. It’s a job with endless demands (she’s the counselor for half those students), yet there’s no other job Tchorzynski would rather have.
“I have a passion for working with students in this age group,” Tchorzynski says. “High school is the last step for students before heading off into the real world and pursuing their dreams.”
Before that, Tchorzynski and fellow counselors across the nation work with kids as young as preschool age to help them develop life skills to succeed in the classroom – and beyond.
It’s important work. And there’s little question the ranks are small. The ASCA recommends a counselor-to-student ratio of 250-to-1; in Michigan, the average is about 735-to-1 (as of 2014, only three states had higher ratios). Nor is school counseling mandated for grades K-8 or 9-12 in the Mitten, the ASCA adds.
But that isn’t stopping the state’s 2,100-plus counselors from digging their heels in.
Mary Grobbel is counselor for the approximately 450 students in preschool through eighth grade at St. Regis School in Bloomfield Township. She explains that each individual child brings his or her “personal suitcase” into the classroom each day. What’s inside that suitcase, she says, will absolutely affect their learning experience. The contents could include issues related to self-esteem, parental divorce, and grief and loss.
“People often think counselors focus only on the academics, but really we focus on the whole person,” Grobbel says.
What counselors do
Tony Warren is president of the Michigan School Counselor Association and an educational consultant providing professional development for school counselors across Barry, Calhoun and Branch counties. He says that a counselor’s role, at any level, is to provide an evidence-based, data-driven program focused on academic achievement, social-emotional support, and career and college readiness.
These are three areas with which Lisa Graff is closely familiar as assistant principal at Abbott Middle School in West Bloomfield. She spent the first 19 years of her career as a middle and high school counselor in the district and now works closely with Abbott’s two current school counselors.
“Counselors are the first line of defense,” Graff says. “We deal with the personal, social, emotional and academic well-being of students.”
To that end, Graff says counselors work with students around anger management issues, intervene when a student is struggling academically and provide career readiness training by talking with students about their future after high school.
“In middle school in particular, counselors tend to work a lot with students on peer relationship issues,” she says. “We try to work with the kids to advocate and stand up for themselves. The introduction of social media has meant that kids don’t learn how to communicate with each other like they had to 20 years ago.”
It’s also in middle school where academic struggles begin to surface for students.
“Instead of being in one classroom with the same teacher all day, kids may be in six different classrooms with six different teachers,” she says. “Whereas students in elementary school may have been able to use coping mechanisms to blend in with the rest of the class, they can’t do that in middle school where the academics are more rigorous.”
Who sends a student to the school counselor? That depends.
“Kids sometimes self-refer,” Graff says. “Other times kids will refer other kids. I’ve had students come to me saying they saw on social media that their friend is cutting.”
Other times it’s a teacher or parent.
“Parents may call to give us a heads-up that they lost their dog yesterday or that a grandparent passed away,” Graff notes.
When a more serious behavior or mental health issue is at play, school counselors connect students and parents to the right community resources.
Mary Grobbel has connected families to Beaumont’s Center for Human Development for testing or support for learning, developmental or behavioral challenges. When social skills or anger management concerns are involved, she’s suggested local child therapists. Often she simply recommends a helpful book, regularly sending families to the Self Esteem Shop in Clawson.
Over in Calhoun County, Tchorzynski has referred students to Wraparound, an organization helping families identify resources and services.
“We have developed a system that alerts us when a student is absent five or more times,” she says. “If a student is skipping school, there’s usually a reason why. Often we’ll find that it’s homelessness or a transportation issue. If we know about the problem, we can help.”
Eye on the future
When it comes to career and college readiness, school counselors play a crucial role. Tchorzynski and her fellow counselor at the Calhoun Area Career Center regularly assess students to help them determine what their path post-high school might look like.
“We talk about financial aid and scholarships,” she says. “If, for example, a student wants to be an auto mechanic, we talk about good postsecondary training programs.”
She says it’s also her job to talk about soft skills with teens.
“In addition to helping students figure out how to get a job, we work with them on how to keep it and be good at it,” she explains, such as communication and problem solving.
Lisa Graff loved every minute of her time as a counselor at West Bloomfield High School – attended by approximately 2,000 students.
“Seeing a student walk through that journey from freshman to senior is amazing,” she says. “Witnessing a student become a National Merit Scholar because I reminded him or her to take the test in the fall, that’s life changing for the student.”
While at the high school, Graff saw each of her students at least once a year.
“They had to meet with us to select classes,” she says. “That experience coming to the counselor’s office helped facilitate other conversations.”
Graff notes that counselors start up college and career readiness chats with students even at the elementary level.
“When you ask elementary school kids, especially in the younger grades, what careers they know about, they often say firefighter or policeman – some of those more familiar careers,” she says. “We start talking to them about additional careers like medicine, teaching and careers in the STEAM fields. It’s about building awareness.”
At Abbott, students in Graff’s school continue learning about careers through an online resource called Career Cruising, which allows them to assess their interests. Counselors also work with teachers to organize trips to college campuses including Oakland University, Wayne State University and Michigan State University.
Challenges to service
While the need for professional school counselors at all levels has never been greater, Warren of the MSCA acknowledges that few elementary schools in the state actually have one.
“Funding drives everything,” he says. “At the elementary level, students are starting to develop their academic school concept. They’re developing decision-making and communication skills. It’s so important to have a trained school counselor there to nurture these students’ talents and abilities.”
Similarly, often-overwhelming caseloads make it challenging, if not impossible, for many counselors to provide comprehensive services to students. Remember that 735-to-1 ratio here in Michigan?
“Caseload numbers make it extremely difficult to provide the types of services we’d like to,” Warren says.
Graff of Abbott Middle School concurs.
“I’ve been to events where I’ve met other counselors whose ratio is 1,000-to-1,” she notes. “That’s like having no counselor at all. Ratio can paralyze you so that you’re only able to handle crises.”
Graff can’t imagine not having a school counselor in her building.
“If I erased my counselors, we’d have safety issues,” she says. “If two kids are yelling in the hall, they help me to intervene.”
Without counselors, Graff says students lose the individualized academic planning and guidance with soft skills development.
“As it is, we feel like we’re drowning sometimes,” Graff says. “Having fewer life rafts would be devastating.”
It’s crucial that school administrators understand the role of a school counselor, Warren says, as they have the authority to align a counselor’s role with the needs of students.
“A principal can remove a responsibility a counselor may have around system support – things like scheduling and testing,” he says. “Taking those system support jobs off a counselor’s plate would increase capacity for the counselor to provide direct student support.”
Warren adds that the goal is for a counselor to spend 80 percent of his or her time in direct support to students and 20 percent on system support.
“Schools that have been successful across the nation have administrators who understand this 80/20 need,” he says.
The nation’s school counselor of the year agrees.
“The role of a school counselor has changed dramatically in the last 30 years,” Tchorzynski notes. “When school administration understands all that a school counselor can do, we can be freed up to provide more intensive intervention.”
This post was originally published in 2017 and is updated regularly.