Wednesday, July 30, 2014

New Counselors: 12 Tips and Resources for Starting a New School (Year)

New Counselors: 12 Tips and Resources
for Starting a New School (Year)
The Back to School signs are in all the stores. Fall clothing, shiny new technology, a plethora pencils, pens, and colorful backpacks and lunch boxes fill the aisles.  There's excited chatter on FB from my real life friends and my online friends on the the Elementary School Counselor Exchange.  I can feel the anticipation as we look forward to first-time or new positions, new schools, new students, new administrators, new programs, and new challenges. I see the eagerness in the posting of questions and the sharing of  plans, lessons, and ideas for the start of the new school year.  As I make my own plans, which include supervising an intern, I am thinking about the things will need to tell her and all the things I wished I had known when starting as a new counselor.

Below you will find my "New Counselors:  12 tips and resources for starting a new school (year). Whether you are a counselor with your first job, or someone with experience starting a new school, I hope you will find these ideas and resources helpful in getting your year off to a great start!

 Congratulations!  You got the job!  Now what do you need to do to get started?

#1 Talk expectations with your administrator.
Okay, hopefully in your interview you were able to ask what sort of expectations your administration has in regard to your role as the school counselor.  This is a biggie, so if this is a conversation you have not had, or even if you did, take some time before the rest of the faculty heads back to school and make an appointment to go in and talk it over. Learn about your administrator's vision for the school and their understanding of the role of the school counselor.  Share and discuss the the ASCA National Model Executive Summary and talk about how based on the ASCA National Model you can be part of that vision.

#2 Set up your office (the physical space).
There is nothing more exciting than getting to decorate your space.  Whether a closet size office, a classroom, or something in between (I have had all of the above) you will need to create a warm and welcoming space for not only your student visitors, but teachers and parents as well.   I am currently moving my office to a portable classroom, so photos will have to come in a later post.

Your office should reflect your personality.  Be careful though not to be so "girly," the guys can't stand to be there, or so busy it makes it difficult for your fidgety ones to calm down.  Yard sales and consignment stores are great places for finding rugs, lamps, board games, and small toys to give it that homey touch. Plants, curtains, colorful posters, books, playdough, a sand tray, board games and art supplies are a few of the things that will complete the space.  Check out my Pinterest for some office decorating and organizing ideas.

#3 Set up your office (your organizational system).
Organizing  the volume of data and information we have to handle is a huge responsibility and your ability to access it on a moments notice is the difference is looking like a seasoned pro versus, well, not making a good impression.  How you organize is a very individual thing and more personal, I think, than  how you decorate your space. Lots of folks can tell you how to organize, but the bottom line is you have to find what works for you. So until you do, I will share a very basic organizing system that has worked for me.  This year I am in transition and trying to go as paperless as possible and that means setting up Google forms for many of the ways I organize and use information.  I will share my paper method here.  Information and copies of my Google docs will have to wait for a later post. These are just a few ideas to get you started.  Perhaps you will find these methods helpful or will find some elements useful for creating your own system.

The "paper" system.
You will need: one 2 inch and two  1 1/2 inch  3 ring binders, 3 packs of eight tab dividers or 5 packs of  five tab dividers, a package of page protectors, 3 hole punch, a steno book, one plastic "milk" crate, letter size hanging folders, letter size files, and a calendar/planner.

 First, I create the 2 inch 3 ring binder I like to refer to as "Essential Information," but call it what you want.  There is a tab for "schedules" (your counselor schedule, lunch, special area, ESE, Speech, Media, Recess, bus info or whatever your school has a schedule for) collect them all and place each in a page protector.  "Class lists"  are tabbed by each grade level and ESE.  The "student master"  tab refers to a great list I get from my data clerk that lists students by last name with their parent's name and phone #.  A tab for "entries and withdrawals"  allows me to know who is coming and going (my registrar is great about keeping me in the loop) so I can scoop up the new students for a New Faces group. Last, there's a tab for "cum review" sheets,  but I'll talk about those later when we get to #4 Data.

Next I create the "Data Notebook."  This is one of the 1 1/2 inch binders with tabs for discipline referral data, attendance data, report card data (my school can run a D's and F's list),  a tab for "state test scores,"   and one each for student, teacher, and parent survey data. You will start with the data from the 2013-14 school year, but after analyzing that and your  recent survey data from the start of the school year, that information will direct your focus for addressing the needs of your school for the 2014-15 school year.

Third, create the Classroom Counseling Notebook.  Using the other 1 1/2 inch binder, you can organize this by grade level or day of the week, it is entirely up to you.  I like day of the week and have tabs labeled Monday to Friday.  Behind each tab are the classes I see that particular day.  I have a class list with holes punched on the right side of the page and a class lesson agenda with holes punched on the left so when I open the notebook I can see the student's names on the left and my lesson on the right.  I am a visual learner so seeing the names of my students helps me to learn them all.  It also gives me a place to add the names of new students who join the class or notes if someone has a special need or needs to sit separately from a classmate.
Download my  blue binder covers for FREE at my Teachers Pay Teachers store.

Next, the steno book.  This is my phone log and I keep it by my phone always!  Each morning I date the page for the day and every time I answer or make a call I write down the time, whether it was an incoming or outgoing call ( I use arrows -> or <-), the name of the caller, and any information or action I need to take in regard to the call.  If the school secretary leaves a note in my mailbox, I staple it to the back of the page and record the return call on the front.  This log is valuable beyond belief when it comes to documenting day, time, and content of calls.  It has been particularly useful for families who did not "remember" my call to them, documenting my calls to Child Services, and recording the numbers of individual investigators or agencies who call me regarding students.

There are many very cute and personalized planners/calendars out there.  If you want to spend the money and if that works for you, go for it!  It's all about being organized.  But for me, as pretty and as tempting as some of those planner/calendars are, I stick with the basic "At a Glance" 5 x 7 leather binder with a $4.50 "Plan Ahead" calendar from Big Lots. I've had the leather binder for 5 or more years and can't remember what I paid, but it has been well worth it.  Since I do my lesson planning in the 3 ring binders for classes and organize groups in crates, this is really more of a calendar for keeping track of meetings, conferences, workshops, school holidays, teacher workdays, PD days, etc.

I use the milk crate and hanging file folders to organize my groups.  Hanging files are labeled and arranged by day of the week and each group gets two hanging folders.  The first has 2 individual letter size folders for storing the group counseling log and permission slips and the other for storing group activity booklets of projects in process. The second hanging file has 6-8 folders each containing the lesson and materials to be used for each group session.

File folders are also used for individual counseling records.  As I see a student I create a file for my notes, any conference forms, behavior contracts, etc.  It makes it easy to add to year after year. These are filed  alphabetically and should be in a locked filing cabinet or file box. When a student transitions to the middle school,  their file goes in a box of records for that school year and is stored for 7 years.  I don't know the official storage requirement, but my mentor told me long ago to keep my records for one year past the year the youngest students for that school year would be out of my school (in my case Kdg). At that point those records are destroyed.  Like I said, I don't know the official storage requirements, but 5 years ago I was glad I had some two and three year old records when Child Services came doing an investigation for court on a case we had been calling about for years.

As for lesson plans and activities, many are digital, but for others I use a letter file cabinet with hanging folders.  I file lessons by topic and then by grade within the topic folder.

#4  Data: Gather and Collect.
First, gather.  By gather, I mean get your hands on the data that is already out there.  You will need it to determine the  needs of your school and the direction of your program.  In that first meeting with your administrator request copies of the previous year's discipline referral data (I can get it by the quarter and for the year broken down by name, grade, gender, # of referrals, etc.), attendance data- who has more than 15 days absent and/or tardy, report card data as in students with D and F averages by subject for the school year.  Some report cards also have teachers mark conduct and personal development.  If there is a way to run a report on students who were marked unsatisfactory or needs improvement,  that data can be beneficial for determining the types of groups that are needed and by whom. Finally, of course, get copies of your standardized state testing scores.
Next collect.  By collect I mean take a teacher survey of perceived counseling needs, ask parents to complete surveys about their interest in particular newsletter, coffee talk, or workshop topics, and survey the students (usually grades 3-5) about any issues or concerns they are experiencing.
Another way I collect data is from a cumulative record review of new students. Teachers and administrators will be able to tell you about the students who are returning to your school, but the new students are unknown to everyone.  A cumulative record review can reveal lots of valuable and important information like medical and court issues, retention, multiple enrollments, and students in need of special academic or behavioral services.

#5 Prepare introductory materials.
Every new counselor needs a letter of introduction to parents,  a parent, a teacher, and a student needs survey, some business cards, a brief presentation of some type that describes your role as the school counselor, counseling referral forms, and a brochure to send home describing the role of the school counselor. Included here are samples of an introductory letter to parents, parent, teacher and student surveys, "Role of the Counselor" PowerPoint, counselor referral forms, and a program brochure. Business cards can be ordered from Vistaprint or printed at home with your computer and color printer using Avery business cards.

#6 Sign up teachers for a "Meet the Counselor" class lesson.
During  pre-planning  get your teachers to sign up for their initial classroom counseling lesson (usually about 30 minutes).  Some people have recommended a free program called SignUpGenius to help schedule their classroom visits.   I'm in the special area rotation so I have not used it, but I hear reports it is a great website.  Click on the link above to see how easy it is to get your teachers to sign up on line.

#7 Present "Meet the Counselor" lessons in every classroom.
Make it your mission the first few weeks of school to get in every classroom and introduce yourself, do a brief activity, and take a student survey in grades 3-5.  These lessons can last around 30 minutes and will set the tone for who you are as a professional, how you handle your schedule, and get you out and about the campus and connecting with your students.  I have included  two of my "Meet the Counselor" lessons for Kindergarten here , 1st grade here and 1st grade PowerPoint here.  You may also find my  classroom counseling log for tracking the lessons in each class you visit helpful.   Be sure to check out  Pinterest for some awesome counselor boards filled with a variety of lessons and Teachers Pay Teachers for all sorts of  free and low cost "Meet the Counselor" lessons.

#8 Meet, greet, and survey teachers.
After the initial crush of "Meet the Counselor" lessons, depending on the size of your school, you will be anywhere from 2-4 weeks into the school year.  Teachers have had a chance to get to know their students a little and are beginning to have a sense of what those students need. Set aside a day to invite your teachers by your office (if too small, snag another more appropriately sized space) for a Counselor Open House.  I set it up for teachers to come by during their special area time for a quick snack and to fill out a student and class needs survey.  I usually have doughnuts, coffee and juice in the morning and soft drinks and cookies in the afternoon.  It's a chance to chat informally about how things are going with their students, address any questions or concerns, share your form for referring students to see you and then send them on their way with a small token like pens, highlighters, motivational thought, candy etc.

#9 Share your role with the staff.
When you are having that little visit with your administrator you not only want to discuss expectations and data, but also ask for an opportunity to do a brief 5-7 minute presentation to the faculty about the role of the school counselor.  Keep it short and sweet.  There are still many educators that have little to no clue about what School Counselors really do.

#10 Meet and survey your families.
Notice I did not say parents.  So many of our children are being raised by grandparents, other relatives, or are in foster care.  Referring to their caregivers as family, offers sensitivity to their various situations which at times may be difficult or even traumatic.
The three best ways to meet the families of your students is to make yourself visible at Meet the Teacher, Open House, and at dismissal. Make sure to have business cards with you!
Meet the Teacher: Our school hosts Meet the Teacher the Friday morning before the first day of school.  Everyone comes to find out who their teacher is and where their classroom is located. Showing your smiling face around campus to answer questions or provide directions gives you the perfect opportunity to start meeting your students and their caregivers. 
Open House: In our district, Open House is sometime between the 4th and 6th week of school.  Make your presence known by having your office open, maybe sitting outside of it, or having some  fun music playing to attract the families as they walk by.  You could even invite students to stop by to sign up for a drawing for small prizes like lunch with the counselor, extra recess (you supervise, teacher gets a break),school supplies, or books.  
Dismissal:  At dismissal time there are lots of families on campus picking up their children. Get out and about among the throng.  Smiling, waving, and sharing an encouraging word with a caregiver regarding their student shows you are caring and approachable. 

#11 Get to know your students in small groups.
One of my favorite beginning of the year activities is meeting every student in the school in a small group for one "getting to know you session."  In the past few years, my school has been too large, but recent redistricting has reduced our population and I am excited to try again.  I ask each teacher for a three 30 minute blocks in which I will pull a third of his/her students each block. I then divide the students into 3 groups and bring them to my room for a brief paper and pencil, drawing, or sentence completion activity.  I have also set myself up as a center activity in the primary classroom and am able to see some of the younger students more easily than walking them back and forth to my office. Depending on the needs of your school, this activity can take almost the entire first semester.  After meeting everyone for one "getting to know you session," the remainder of the year, I do a weekly New Faces group, often during lunch for one session, to catch any new students that may have entered my school. Here is a sample invitation.

#12 Find a school-based mentor and a School Counselor mentor.
Finding a mentor is important, and I don't just mean a fellow counselor.  When you are new at a school it is important to find a seasoned faculty member with a positive attitude and good work ethic, who sees the value in what you do to show you the ins and outs of the school.  I have 2 teachers at my school whose opinions I highly respect. These ladies are the ones from whom I have learned the most about classroom management techniques. They are the first people I go to if I want to launch a new program or idea. They are the ones I ask to read any letters I might be sending home or emails to teachers I think are not quite clear.  They encourage me and respect what I do. They are an important part of my support system and I don't know what I will do when they retire!

Depending on the size of your district, will determine how easily you find a counselor mentor.  I work in a large district and when I first became a counselor, I was lucky enough to get a job in the same district where I interned and my internship supervisor was assigned as my mentor.  Maybe you can find a mentor in your district, or from your internship, or in one of the many online Facebook groups. Whether you meet in person, email, or talk on the phone or Skype, networking with other counselors is the best way to grow and learn and to diminish the isolation we can so easily feel as we pursue our school counseling program.

I  hope you will find these 12 tips for (new) counselors helpful.  Are there things you wish you had known when you first started?  What sort of  things do you do to start the new school year?
Please share your tips and ideas below.


  1. Such great ideas! I am going to be a new K-4 counselor this year and am very nervous! I bookmarked your page so I can return to it quickly and follow each step! Thank you for the great insights!

    1. Good luck with your position! I hope you find these ideas and resources help ease your transition into your new school. Let me know if there are questions or topics you would like to see covered here.

  2. I think it would be good for each child to go to a counselor. Everyone needs someone to talk to that is unbiased and helpful. I want to take my kids to one, I think they would benefit greatly from it.

    1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I agree having someone unbiased to talk to can be extremely helpful for our children. I hope you and your children have a good relationship with the School Counselor at the school where your children attend and are able to utilize their services.

  3. Hi Jeannie,
    This is an awesome list for counsellors starting a new school year! I would love to share your list on Teacher Talk Live, July 14, an online show to help educators get ready for the new school year 15-16.

  4. Hi Grace, Can't wait to hear how Teacher Talk Live goes!

  5. Wow!!
    Amazing resources shared..
    Thank you for such valuable and useful ideas.

  6. Jeannie, this was absolutely effective and helpful! This is my 1st year as a elementary school counselor, so excited and empowered ! - K

  7. Jeannie, I have found your blog invaluable as I embark on my new role as an elementary school counselor after working at the high school level. Thank you for the time and thought you've put into helping fellow counselors!