Tuesday, December 30, 2014

The Value of Building Community with Your Counselor Colleagues

One is the Loneliest Number
We are a solo act, performing a solitary job, many times in private, involving the confidential fears, feelings, and experiences of our students, their parents, and sometimes our teachers. These jobs performed in private are often misunderstood and misrepresented, leading to inaccurate assumptions about who we are and what we do.  There is a constant need to prove our worth and the value we add to the student, parents, and teachers at our schools. We have a job that is frustrating and satisfying, depressing and joyful, infuriating and uplifting.  The need for self-care and collaboration is great, but not always available or encouraged. Building a personal and professional resource network with your Counselor Colleagues through Professional Learning Communities (PLC) is one way to do just that.

Finding Your Lifeline
Building a PLC with your Counselor Colleagues, wherever you can find it, is the theme I want to encourage here.  Whether it is by joining the online community with a terrific resource like the Facebook group Elementary School Counselor Exchange, involving yourself with Twitter, #scchats, Google Hangout discussions,  following this blog, or one of many other active school counselor blogs, or developing a Professional Learning Community with the School Counselors in your own city, county or district, these groups are our lifeline.  In a profession that is largely misunderstood, these groups give us encouragement and perspective when we need it most. They give us a safe place to vent, but most importantly, allow us to encourage and give back to our Counselor Colleagues.

For many who live in rural areas or districts where School Counselors are few in number, the online options may be your only resource.  However don't let too few, be a deterrent to establishing your own PLC. The camaraderie, emotional support, problem solving, idea and resource exchange shared by meeting with others (whether virtually or online) who know what you do and why you do it is that lifeline to the lone School Counselor.  For those in urban school districts or cities or counties with multiple School Counselors, I strongly encourage to develop you own local Professional Learning Community (PLC).

The Birth of an Idea
I live in a large school district with nearly 50 elementary School Counselors.  In the last 5 years I have watched my friends, collaborators, and mentors retire one by one. People I use to call with questions or bounce ideas off of, or call about a student that had transferred from their school were all gone.  In their place, were names and faces I did not know very well and a feeling of a lost connection from years of working and sharing together.  If I was feeling disconnected, and I had been a part of the district counseling team for many years, how were my new colleagues feeling? It was evident when we met as a district for various meetings and workshops my new colleagues longed for the chance to talk and share with other School Counselors.  Our lunch breaks and after meeting conversations were filled with questions, ideas, and the support you only experience from others who "get" what you do. We wanted, no needed, more time together but the how and when was a problem.

One day I was talking with our Art teacher who mentioned meeting with her PLC.  I was curious and she explained she met with the other Art teachers in our district once a month to share lesson plans, work on curriculum maps, and share resources and ideas.  In addition to all this, they were able to arrange to receive professional development points towards certificate renewal and provide evidence for their evaluation of collaborating with peers. That's it! I was sold!  This is what my School Counselor Colleagues and I needed!

Creating a PLC
I started with my awesome Assistant Principal and floated the idea with her.  What did she think of the Counselors on our side of the county creating our own monthly PLC and did she think we could earn PD (professional development) points?  She was on board 100% and so were my Westside colleagues.  We chose a monthly meeting date and my AP created the PLC course description and registration sign-up through our county PD computer program.  Our first year was small, just the 8 of us on the "Westside"of the our county, including one Counselor who worked on the east side but lived on the west side.  We met faithfully every month, rotating the school host. Our meetings would last from 2-3 hours with sharing, consultation, some commiseration, and problem solving.  My desire was for this to be a positive, community building and personally enriching experience, and although this was never discussed, it clearly was the unstated purpose of our meetings.  In the end we earned more than 25 PD points towards re-certification.  But that was not the best part.

The PLC Benefits
As a result of our time together we grew personally and professionally in our relationships with each other. Our familiarity and comfort with one another created a trusted support system for emailing and calling each other to consult in difficult situations whether with students, parents, faculty, or administration. The feeling of isolation was diminished and the sharing of resources and knowledge was increased.  Each meeting we focused on our lessons and school-wide programming as it pertained to our curriculum map.  We shared resources, lesson plans, books, activities, websites, ideas, and more. We discussed our evaluation system and supported one another with ideas for improving our evaluation lessons and discussed various interpretations of the evaluation rubric.  We compared how our various administrators used the evaluation tools and how to effectively write up our personal growth plans.  But best of all, these once unfamiliar faces were now not only my trusted colleagues, but my friends.

PLC Year 2
A lot has happened to improve our PLC in the past 2 years!
  • We have grown in numbers!  Another PLC in our county has teamed up with us for a group of about 20 members.  
  • We have "offspring."  Our "eastsider" from earlier in the year left us to create an east side group who now meets monthly as well.
  • We have gone to a monthly agenda (see samples here and here), with members submitting ideas, volunteering to present information, class or group lessons, and technology tips.
  • There is greater administrative support in year 2.  A member suggested when we send out our agenda for the upcoming meeting we should include all the Principals of our PLC members.  This has helped immensely with administrative support  and School Counselors being free to leave school (after dismissal) to attend monthly meetings.  
  • PLC minutes are now copied to our Principals and District Guidance Specialist.  This seems to have really done the most for legitimizing what we do and what we are trying to do for our students and our schools.  One of my Counselor Colleagues said her Principal commented after reading our minutes,"Wow, you all really packed a lot in that agenda!" 
  • We are nurturing and supporting the newest School Counselors in our district and they tell us how much this group has meant to them. Our group is a safe place to ask questions, try new ideas, and get nonjudgmental help if needed.
  • Our support base has grown professionally and personally as we add new members and spend more time together sharing, consulting, collaborating, and problem solving.  We have so many gifted School Counselors with a variety of backgrounds and experiences from private practice to all levels of counseling from preK to college. We have former classroom teachers who provide a teacher's perspective, a former behavior analyst and mental health therapist, tech geeks, and an entire group who will freely share any resource or idea they have.   
What sort of PLC, PLN, School Counselor support groups, or networking activities are you involved with?  I would love to hear your ideas for building community among School Counselors.  Any suggestions for ways we can continue to grow and improve our PLC would also be appreciated. I would be glad to feature your PLC or share your ideas here as well.

If you don't have a PLC and are interested in starting one with the School Counselors in your area, comment below or send me an email.  I would be happy to discuss how to start your own PLC.

I can't begin to express what the time with my School Counselor Colleagues has meant to me.  They offer comfort in difficult situations and challenge and inspire me to be the best I can be.  My wish for 2015 is for each of you to find a way to experience this too!

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