Saturday, June 13, 2015

Half-time Counselor, Full-time job!

For 5 years, at two different times in my School Counseling career, I was a half-time School Counselor split between two schools. It was challenging and at moments, many moments, difficult.  However, I learned a lot about myself, my insecurities, my ability to accept my limitations, how to delegate, and to get organized.  Two very different situations. However, organization was the common thread to keeping my sanity.

Situation #1   Half-time, 2 small schools, the ONLY School Counselor
For 2 years  I served two small schools that each had only a half time counselor, me. During those years, I chose a Monday/Wednesday, Tuesday/Thursday, every other Friday schedule due to the distance (almost an hour) between schools. Of course, when I was away from either school, I worried because I was the School Counseling program.

The first thing I learned, and had to accept, was I could not do a full-time School Counseling program at either school, no matter how badly I wanted it or how hard I was willing to work.  I was only at each school alternating 2 and 3 days a week.  I had to modify my expectations of what was realistic to accomplish for my own mental health.  I also learned there were other very caring teachers and staff who were already stepping in to help students and it was important for me to embrace that help and not feel threatened or defensive because someone else was doing a part of my job when I was not there.  I think that was the hardest thing for me.  I admit, I did not handle it well at first and got my feelings hurt.  But, when I took the time to reflect on the needs of my students and what was best for them, I realized it had to be about the kids, not about me. I made those ladies my closest friends at each of my schools and checked in with them weekly to keep up with what was happening with my neediest kids while I was away.  They weren't doing any counseling, but filling the gaps.  They did things like checking on pressure bandages for a burn victim, meeting with parents about attendance issues, and giving out information about community food sources.

During those years, I kept my program very basic, just seeing classes, groups, and individuals using the same lessons and materials at each school. Again, it was a sanity thing.  I would schedule a combination of no more than 4-5 classes and/or groups in a day.  That  still gave me time to see students individually.  I did no testing, no RTI, 504's, IEP meetings, or SST.  There was no time.  When I did do something special like Red Ribbon Week or Career Week, (more like half week) I did the same program and activities at both schools.  Both were done on a small scale just to give the staff and students a taste of each event.

Situation #2 Half-time, 2 large schools, the "Extra" School Counselor
Later in my career I worked for 3 years at two rather large elementary schools that were each pushing 1000 students.  Both had a full-time counselor.  I was the extra help. This time around my schools were close in proximity (15 minutes door to door) and I was able to split my day, mornings at one school and afternoons at the other. This was a far better situation because I knew when I was not there whatever was going on would be handled by the full-time counselor who was providing a full service School Counseling program.  The full-time School Counselors I worked with were the best, and I was never treated like the "extra help."  Together we worked out that I would take 2 entire grade levels at each school and all that entailed.  I took 4th and 5th grade at both schools (which made planning and lesson delivery a lot easier) and did all classes, groups, individual counseling, parent and attendance meetings for my students.  If a problem arose while I was away, the FT Counselor would handle it until my return.  Each morning I would check in with my partner at my morning school and each afternoon I would have lunch with my afternoon partner to check in on the students and situations there.  While at those schools I was not involved in any sort of duty, testing, SST, or IEP meetings.  I did do a few 504's, but not many.  Big school-wide events like Red Ribbon Week, Career Week, Family Fun Fair, and Parenting classes were planned together, but I was only given a small portion of the duties to help with implementation.  It was a successful collaboration and I enjoyed the opportunity to work with 2 different principals and faculties, and 2 incredibly amazing School Counselors.

Five Sanity Saving Suggestions
In both situations organization was key!!!  I was on the verge of losing my mind until I came up with the following guidelines for myself.  Hopefully these will help other split School Counselors.

1) Make a notebook.
I took a medium sized 3 ring binder and using my school's colors, I divided the binder between the 2 schools.  My morning school was in the front of the binder with the red dividers, my afternoon school in the back with blue dividers. Behind each divider I kept all the school schedules and calendars, special events, lunch, special area, recess, ESOL, Speech etc., for that school. I also kept faculty rosters, class rosters, parent contact information, and my group and lesson plan schedule. At my schools with a partner, I kept copy of her schedule as well.

In between the information for my two schools was a teacher lesson plan book I took apart, trimmed, and hole punched to go in my binder. The pages were printed front and back and the holes were punched on the right side of the  page. That way when I opened to a week I would see 2 pages and all that was happening in both schools at once.  The plan book was block style by hour with an entire day going across the 2 page spread. I liked the blocks because it gave me plenty of room to write. I have recreated a sample schedule and blank pages for reference.(These are best printed 2 sided.) The left side of the page was the morning school, and all the classes, groups, meetings, student and parent contacts I made for that school.  On the right side of the page was my afternoon school and my daily schedule for that day.  I also color coded my activities in highlighter for easier location and time tracking. Pink for parents, green for groups, yellow for classes, blue for individuals. This binder went with me wherever I went and kept me sane as I tried to juggle and schedule the needs of two separate schools.

2) Make duplicate copies of files and activities etc. for each school.  I can't tell you how many times, in the beginning, as a split School Counselor I would get ready to do something and realize it was at my other school!  Making 2 sets of files was time consuming, but saved me time and aggravation in the long run.  Books for which I only had one copy I placed in a crate which I kept in my car for easy access. One of those rolling carts would have been nice in my split Counselor days.

3) Keep your schools separate.
Only do the business for the school at which you are physically present. I know it's tempting to do a quick email or phone call. But don't.  Each school will want to claim your time as if they are your only school and you have nothing else to do. When at School A, give them 100% and address only their issues.  Same for School B. It truly does simplify things and ultimately, each school will appreciate your efforts to give them 100% of your time while you are there.

4) Don't play favorites.
I know this sounds silly, but I had people at both my schools that were forever trying to get me to say which school I liked better.  I was always very diplomatic and said something like, "You are both very special schools in your own way." or "Both schools have a lot of positives, I could never make that choice."  Teachers talk and word gets around. Even mentioning liking one thing about one school better than the other can damage your faculty relationships beyond repair. Just keep your thoughts on the subject to yourself.

5)Special Circumstances
Special occasions and events come up; so do emergencies.  Flexibility, planning ahead, and communication are crucial. There were times when I needed to be able to switch days between schools.  For example, my T/TH school had a longstanding May Day tradition that required I switch days with my M/W school to be there. I talked it over ahead of time with the administration of my M/W school and an arrangement was made.  One time I had an abuse disclosure that involved DCF and law enforcement and required I stay all day at School A.  I called School B and explained.  They understood and I agreed to make up that time by giving them an entire day the next opportunity in my schedule.  These things happened rarely,but communicating, planning ahead and discussing changes with administrations at both schools allowed me to be available for important school events and prevented any misunderstanding or hard feelings about scheduling and schedule changes.

Can a split School Counselor job work for you?  Absolutely! Stay organized, plan a realistic School Counseling program to match your time on campus, and communicate!
Are you a split School Counselor?  What strategies can you share that have worked for you ?

1 comment:

  1. Thank you so much for this post! I'm splitting between two elementary schools with no other school counselor or school counseling program and it's my first school counseling job-- it's awesome! And tiring! I'm trying to make my goals reasonable for myself and I appreciate your perspective.