How to Become a School Counselor

Dr. Rick N. Bolling
Dr. Rick N. Bolling
Elementary/middle school principal; Ed.D. in Leadership
‘Counselor’ plaque on a school door.

School counselors are a vital piece of the student success framework of an effectively ran school. As life is becoming more complex, both academically and emotionally, counselors are the support system that helps students navigate their school years with success. The duties of school counselors are diverse and many inclusions vary according to district and even school.

What Do School Counselors Do?

First, school counselors offer individual and group counseling within the school as needs arise. These sessions help students deal with emotional, physical, and academic concerns. By working through concerns, students are more focused and able to access the curriculum with ease. School counselors work with at-risk populations to ensure success and often work with outside agencies to provide food and/or clothing to students in need.

Further, counselors in the school setting are the liaison between the school and the Department of Social Services. Although all school employees are mandated reporters regarding suspected abuse, most reports are channeled through the school counselor. Also, these concerns arise for the school counselor directly during counseling sessions or conversations as students feel comfortable confiding in an approachable counselor.

As such, it is important that a counselor clearly defines the limits of confidentiality to all students. Students often want discussions to remain confidential, but the counselor must relay that confidentiality must be broken regarding abuse, self-harm, or harm to others. Developing this understanding will help ensure that the counselor-student relationship remains strong.

School counselors also offer academic and career advice to the student population. Advising students of academic programs and coursework that matches their interests and needs is critical to the success of students. Working with colleges and prospective employers to inform students of potential directions and choices is a huge piece of this role. Many students will need direction choosing academic paths, registering for college testing requirements, filling out scholarship and financial aid forms, and completing college applications. Counselors connect students to military contacts and work to build a resume and interview skills for students interested in entering the workforce.

Moreover, school counselors are often assigned a myriad of administrative duties. These duties often revolve around building and operating the school’s master schedule. In addition, counselors often supervise the child study process, chair threat assessment teams, and handle most aspects of state reporting. As few schools have onsite testing coordinators, this essential role is often delegated to school counselors. Although these roles can limit time with students, understanding the daily operation of a school lets a person know that these roles are also vital.

With this in mind, effective counselors are efficient so that these roles can be handled in a timely manner increasing direct student time. Related to this notion is the importance of flexibility. Counselors must be flexible and quickly change directions. Student needs, especially those related to a crisis, take priority. Counselors cannot have a set schedule or predict the day ahead.

Skills Needed to Be a Successful Counselor

Essential skills for a school counselor are as varied as the roles and expectations related to the job. Yet, if a person is not authentic, approachable, inviting, trustworthy, and caring, school counseling is not the job for him or her. Administration must prioritize selecting an effective counselor for a school. Finding an exemplary counselor for a school is important to the students, parents, faculty, and community. Good counselors care about their work, which is to protect and serve students.

Relationship skills are the most important elements of what makes a good counselor. Students and faculty need to see the counselor as someone who cares and can be trusted. Actions and words have a profound impact and are often remembered for years. A counselor that puts up barriers that makes him or her unapproachable will render the counselor useless.

Further, a counselor needs to build proactive relationships with students and parents alike. If a student likes his or her counselor, he or she is more likely to go to the counselor when advice is needed or a crisis occurs. Empathy and compassion are essential in a school counselor. Being a good listener is also a prerequisite to building quality and trusting relationships.

Additional skills include being organized and methodical. Keeping a busy schedule is common among school counselors and strong time management is required in the field. In addition, good counselors are able to work independently, take initiative, and are motivated.

Education and Training Needed

Education and training needed to land a job as a school counselor is often specific to the state of residency. Although states can offer reciprocal licensure agreements for a school counselor, the individual should focus on being licensed in the state in which he or she wants to work, at least initially. Most states require a master’s degree in counseling. In addition, most states require a significant practicum experience, which is often embedded in the degree program if the college is located in the state in which a person wants to work.

Although most school counseling programs are built to be inclusive for a given state, a person must do his or her homework. It is critical that a person research course, practicum, and testing requirements needed to obtain licensure within a given state. Several states require standardized testing in addition to the degree requirements. College advisors and school division licensure specialists are tremendous assets when navigating the licensure process.

In any competitive field, it is important to make yourself stand out among the crowd. Engaging in professional development opportunities and developing a sound background of experience can make potential employers take notice. Professional development related to trauma-informed best practices and building effective relationships with students is needed. Further, experience working with students in community organizations is a selling point. To stand out, a candidate should show that he or she has excelled with related skills in other settings.

Other Things to Consider

School counselors need to be upbeat, supportive, nurturing, and connected to all aspects of the school’s learning community. A counselor has the opportunity to maintain positive relationships will all students and contribute to a positive school culture. Other school leaders need to remove counselors from the disciplinary decisions as much as possible so that students are able to develop a trusting relationships with their counselors.

These vital faculty members handle much more than personal counseling sessions. Counselors provide emotional, academic, vocational, and physical support for students. These areas of support can only be developed if both the counselor and counseling office are warm and welcoming. Exemplary school counselors think outside the box to find ways to get all students involved in the counseling office so that students will know where they can go when help is needed.

Students need to feel comfortable talking with a counselor regarding abuse, thoughts of self-harm, academic concerns, and collegiate/vocational guidance. With many topics often discussed with the counselor being completely personal, it is essential that a strong bond be formed among the student body and this individual. Further, other staff must have a relationship with the counselor so that services are understood and key information is relayed appropriately and in a timely manner.

Moreover, the school counselor must develop effective relationships with community stakeholders. Counselors understand the importance of leveraging relationships to work with community organizations to provide services for students in need. Community organizations often help with weekend feeding programs, providing clothing to needy students, and providing extracurricular opportunities.

*Updated December, 2020
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