Why guidance counseling isn’t enough

I remember meeting my high school guidance counselor twice.  

TWICE.  I met her once in 11th grade and I believe it was regarding a scheduling conflict.  

I then met her again during my senior year to discuss my post-high school options.  She actually apologized to me for being too busy to meet with me more often (she was one of a few in her position for a school of at least 1500 students).  I recall her asking me what my plans were.  This is striking to me, even now.  I came from a fairly poor family, I lived with one parent and there was a great deal of drama in my life at that time.  Neither of my parents had been to college.  On paper, I was the kind of kid you wouldn’t start the conversation with So, what are your plans?.  Most kids like me, without help from a counselor or a caring teacher, didn’t have plans.  Most kids like me were scared of graduation day and didn’t like to think about it  – so they didn’t.  They waited for school to provide direction just as it had every year of life to that point. Most kids like me didn’t fare well after high school. 

I was lucky.  Very lucky.  My single mother went to work at a college when she became a single parent to ensure that her daughters got a college degree (my sister and I qualified for free tuition at Ithaca College because of my mom’s commitment to being a secretary at the school until we both had college degrees).  I grew up hearing from the age of five that I would go to Ithaca College.  I went to plays at the college, swam in the pool, knew the campus like the back of my hand and felt it was part of my life.  I never doubted I would go.  I applied early decision on my own and was accepted by December of my senior year.  So I suppose my answer to my guidance counselor was “I’m going to Ithaca College.”  It probably made her life easier by the look of the piled high stacks of folders on her desk.  And so I did.  I went to Ithaca and was the the first in my family to go to and graduate from college.  [Thanks mom!]

The problem with the conversation about “guidance counseling” – when this conversation even sneaks into our conversations amidst all the crises and headlines in education these days – is that it is separate from core curriculum and simply too small. What we should be talking about is integrating life-readiness curriculum and exposure to career options through directed real-world learning opportunities into student learning throughout the K-12 system and beginning in elementary school. Providing guidance counseling to our students around big life choices and post-secondary plans can’t be an after thought.  Every choice our young people make is accompanied by equally serious and life-long implications: Our young people acquire debt, destroy their credit scores and make college and field of study choices based on the input of adults they trust.  But short conversations with an adult who barely knows a student can lead to wrong choices with life-long consequences.  Counseling our students cannot be a substantially separate effort by people not involved in the day to day teaching and learning of our students.  

I know this because I did it.  I counseled students and integrated life choices and consequences into a year and a half long required curriculum.  I still hear from many of my students because they learned valuable lessons from my classes that they use to this day.  I still reach out to my students because I still care about them.  I knew who they were and what their dreams were about and I want to see them succeed and not fall into the many traps of adulthood – traps we must prepare them for while they are in high school.  And while I feel confident in how I prepared the majority of the 700 or so students I taught in my nearly six years of teaching, the real world poses challenges all the time – some we simply can’t prepare our students for no matter how great the school and how integrated the career and life skills readiness curriculum.

I wrote this blog in response to the article at the bottom of this post.  The author is right that there is a “striking gap in the system” and guidance counseling needs to change, but improved student to counselor ratios and providing more training for counselors isn’t the answer either.  Why not?  Because the focus of these solutions is on the counseling, not on student preparedness.  The gap the author refers to is actually a much larger and more insidious area of lack:  We aren’t treating preparing our students for life after high school with the same importance we treat core curriculum.  But what good are the core skills we are teaching our children if we don’t also show them how and where to apply those skills in the real world and guide them through the process of seeing a career path ahead of them?  That’s the real gap and we must be careful not to be too narrow in our thinking about this conversation.

My beloved Ithaca College.

Thank you, ACSD for having the conversation.  There’s just far more to it.  Here’s the article:  http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/apr10/vol67/num07/Why-Guidance-Counseling-Needs-to-Change.aspx