School counselors are vital members of a school’s education team, helping to facilitate academic, career and social-emotional development in children and youth.
Lisa Lucas ’08, MEd ’11, strides through the busy hallway at Seattle’s Jane Addams Middle School as students head to their next class. She stops when she sees a familiar face — the mother of one of her students. After a warm greeting, a spontaneous follow-up from an earlier discussion ensues.
In the life of a school counselor, moments like these signify why Lucas is here.
School counselors like Lucas are vital members of a school’s education team, facilitating academic, career and social-emotional development in children and youth. Lucas’ daily activities include individual and small-group counseling, academic skills support, crisis intervention and meetings with the SPU grad student she supervises. She also collaborates with school staff to educate students about topics such as online safety and substance abuse prevention.
“It’s having a plan each morning but knowing that plan is subject to change,” she says. “You are present, working with kids and families, navigating through each day.”
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Leaders in the education community increasingly recognize the pivotal role of school counselors — certified education professionals with master’s degrees or beyond — in the lives of students.
Seattle Pacific University Associate Dean of Graduate Programs in Education Cher Edwards says school counselors can bring empathy, humor, flexibility and collaboration to the classroom.
However, working in the profession is both exciting and tough. The American School Counselor Association recommends a student-to-counselor ratio of 250-to-1, but in most states, these numbers are much higher, Edwards says. For Lucas, who serves in Seattle Public Schools, it is 400-to-1.
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The school counseling profession, Edwards notes, has changed dramatically in the last 20 years, along with Seattle Pacific’s master’s program. Today’s counselors utilize innovative, data-driven methods that follow a national model promoting “four Cs” of the profession: individual student counseling, developmental consultation, collaboration with families and communities and classroom guidance. Students who complete SPU’s program are well prepared for counseling roles: 100 percent of graduates passed the credentialing exam and 86 percent were employed, according to the annual program report for the 2016–2017 academic year.
“We know the importance of having a school counselor in the building,” says June Hyun, associate professor and chair of the school counseling program. “When services are eliminated or nonexistent, students lose the opportunity for social-emotional learning.”
A third-generation Falcon, school counselor, and certified K–8 teacher, Kristen Weissenborn ’09, MEd ’12 was working as a long-term substitute third-grade teacher in Seattle Public Schools when she first considered the counseling profession.
“Here I was trying to teach math, but I had kids who were struggling with addiction in the home, or homelessness, or not having enough food in the cabinets, let alone trying to work on a multiplication problem,” Weissenborn says.
Weissenborn applied for SPU’s master’s of education in school counseling program that year, two weeks before the deadline, and in the middle of a national recession that led to many school counselors being laid off. Despite these circumstances, her graduate experience enabled her to put hands-on learning into practice right away, and employment in the field soon followed. The best counselors are responsive to needs and also able to provide preventive assistance, she says.
“I see counselors as huge advocates, the voice for things that aren’t always seen or known, someone in the building that can help support students and families,” she says. “Everyone needs that.”
School counselors play a significant role in shaping students’ choices and trajectories. The skills and relationships that future professionals build in SPU’s program, Hyun says, go far beyond the classroom to the wider community and social systems within it.
“School counselors believe in life strengths,” Hyun says. “Not just helping with struggles but helping students become global citizens. And from a Christian perspective, assisting students to find purpose in their lives.”
Back at the bustling Jane Addams Middle School, Lucas says that whether she sees student success in tackling big goals or a ray of progress for small ones, she’s glad to be in the building.
“Our work is a connection to hope,” she says. “To actually see a glimmer of that — it’s what gets you out of bed the next day and continues to inspire you.”
Learn more about SPU’s school counseling master’s degree at spu.edu/edcounseling.