School Counseling in High School

While an elementary school teacher gets to know about 30 students in his or her classroom each year, a high school teacher may work with hundreds of students. Thus, students get to interact with more teachers, but no one teacher gets a full picture of any student’s success (or failure); and sometimes, students find their academic goals harder and harder to achieve, simply for want of some targeted guidance.

High school counselors are there to provide that guidance, setting students back on the path to meeting their academic goals—and helping them with their personal and social goals as well.

Is School Counseling in high school for me?

High school students are notorious for being rebellious and wayward; but part of this rebellion is the normal cultural expression of their struggle with identity and individuality. High school students undergo significant physical and social changes, during which they have to make decisions and establish habits that will affect their futures. An effective high school counselor has to be able to meet with students on a genuine level, identifying with them and recognizing their struggles from their own perspective, instead of from the point of view of a frustrated adult who just wants them to “behave.” Good behavior is important—not only for teachers, but for the students’ own success—but that behavior has to be chosen by the student, according to his or her own goals and internal motivations, instead of purely on the basis of outside expectations.

High school counselors do more than simply work with “problem” students. Depending upon students’ needs, the high school counselor may provide academic assistance, social guidance, personal counseling, or college and career advice. Some students meet with a counselor for behavioral issues; while others need help balancing school and home life demands (including those of a job, or even parenting responsibilities); still others are simply trying to decide upon a course in life, both in terms of career and in terms of personal values.

In meeting these various demands, a high school counselor must be highly organized and able to manage a variety of resources and outside contacts. Accurate records must be kept, of both individuals and the school population as a whole. The effective counselor must be so organized as to always have the important information at hand, whether for advising a student, or communicating about a student’s progress to a parent or teacher, or when speaking to the administration about student issues.

Every high school counselor must understand the developmental needs of adolescents. High school marks the transition from childhood to adulthood—when adolescents establish their independent identities, prepare to take full responsibility for themselves, and decide upon the course of their futures. During this time, peer relationships tend to be more important than parent-child relationships, providing the most important source of acceptance and feedback. As an adult, a counselor is by definition outside of this social framework. Nonetheless, he or she must have enough “inside” understanding to be able to establish rapport and offer effective help.

High school students face many issues generally not faced by younger age groups, the two most significant being matters of sexuality and having to deal with drug and/or gang culture. High school counselors must be willing and equipped to serve students in resolving issues in both these momentous and complicated arenas.

Complicating Factors

A school district’s current political ideology can affect what high school counselors can and cannot say. Be aware of your school’s social and political environment, and take such matters into consideration when seeking a job.

High school counselors also often help students academically by teaching organizational skills, study skills, and test-taking skills (including how to deal with test anxiety). Counselors help students establish goals, monitor progress towards those goals, and re-evaluate their goals based upon results and new information. These goals might be for success in a particular subject or for college planning, to gain admittance to particular schools. High school counselors keep abreast of scholarship opportunities and other sources of financial aid, and provide that important information to college-bound students—and to students who are potentially college bound, lacking only the motivation or resources.

Meanwhile, students who do not plan on attending college may be directed to vocational schools, or simply given information on different career opportunities. A high school counselor may help students identify their strengths, weaknesses, and internal motivations, to help them select from a variety of career possibilities, so they can have attainable goals in mind before finding themselves out of high school and in need of a job.

Adolescents in high school live in a world dominated by peer (adolescent) relationships, and yet are supposed to prepare for a very different world of adult relationships. During this time, adolescents experiment with different roles and values, “trying on” different identities as they consider what kind of people they want to be. Seeking the acceptance and approval of their peers, some students select identities that give them immediate rewards (such as popularity), but which may have long-term negative consequences (spending life as people-pleasers). Other students struggle with obtaining peer approval; of these, some may become highly vulnerable to peer pressure as they seek to do whatever they can to receive acceptance. An important task for high school counselors is to help students identify their own values, and retain their personal identities and boundaries against the pressure to please and conform to the group.

Many high school students struggle with sexual identity, including orientation, choice of value systems, and responses to social and relational pressures to have sex or have particular kinds of sex. Recently, high school counselors have collectively come under criticism for using this as an opportunity to advance a particular social agenda. High school counselors must work hard to resist this temptation, by first identifying their own biases and then by working to make sure that they’re promoting the students’ goals, as opposed to their own.

High school counselors also respond to particular problems faced by students. Sometimes this involves addressing peer conflict, but they may also be involved with family crisis interventions. More extraordinary interventions include responding to drug abuse, unintended pregnancy, or being the victim of a violent crime. Sometimes counselors will have to consult with other professionals, or even refer students to other professionals or organizations for the help they need.

High school counselors have to work not only with students, but with parents, teachers, and school administrators, often coordinating information between the different groups regarding students’ goals and progress. With parents, they might mediate a family conflict; with teachers, they help identify at-risk students; and with principals, they help monitor and influence the school climate, and provide data on student results.

Finally, the high school counselor must be aware of local, state, and federal legal and ethical obligations. These include the levels of confidentiality expected between counselors and students, as well as mandatory reporting laws for abuse and criminal conduct. High school counselors must maintain a high level of integrity, and attention to the details of the law.

What’s the job market like?

Job growth nationally through 2020 for high school counselors is projected at eight percent, somewhat slower than the average for all occupations. However, regional differences in student enrollment result in differences in schools’ need for counselors. Enrollment in the South and West is expected to grow the most, while student enrollment in the Northeast is actually expected to decline.

Current counselor-to-student ratios average 459-1 nationally; but as the American School Counselor Association (ASCA) recommends a ratio of 250-1, growth will occur as states strive for that benchmark. In the meantime, Wyoming and Vermont have the best ratios (183-1 and 203-1, respectively), while Arizona and California have the worst (respectively 815-1 and 810-1).

Related to high school counseling is career counseling; and job growth for school and career counselors cumulatively is projected at 19 percent—somewhat greater than the average for all occupations.

Does it pay well?

The median salary for school counselors (including elementary and high school counselors, at both public and private schools) in 2010 was $60,000 annually. (For comparison, the median salary for all occupations nationwide was a little more than half that, at $33,840.) School counselors work full time; some get summers off, when school is not in session.

School counselors are often represented by the same union that represents the school teachers (or sometimes by a sub-division of that union), and therefore will get the same negotiating advantages of the union, with health and retirement benefits packages affected accordingly.

How do I get started?

Core high school counseling curriculum

(that won’t be in your degree program)

  • Contemporary music
  • Current movies and television
  • Your school’s particular cliques
  • Current politics (important to some students, irrelevant to others)
  • Opportunities at your local colleges and universities
  • Local ethnic and religious identities

There will be a test on these subjects—and it will come from the students you counsel. So study well.

In order to work as a high school counselor, you must be licensed/certified by your state. In some states, this can be attained after your bachelor’s degree, but most states require school counselors to posses a master’s degree (in school counseling, or a related field). You can review your state’s requirements with the American School Counselor Association. Additionally, many states also require a criminal background check.

Classes you should consider taking as an undergraduate include Human Growth and Development, Child Psychology, Sociology, and Cultural Anthropology; as well as communications classes to develop your speaking, listening, and interviewing skills. For more specific information about the skills you will need to develop in order to be a high school counselor, review the School Counselor Competencies published by the ASCA.

School counselors must also be prepared to commit to continuing learning. Not only do many states require continuing education for their licensed counselors, but new psychological research often provides important information for counselors helping students with dealing with social problems or with meeting academic goals.

Despite a reluctance not to “trust anyone over 30,” high school students need adult role models, and serious interaction with adults is essential to their growth and future ability to succeed. The high school counselor can either be just part of the system, or a person genuinely concerned with high school students, helping them to reach their academic goals, to grow personally, and thrive socially. You’ve already achieved some success; are you ready to help others do the same?

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