Friday, August 21, 2015

15 Tips and Resources to Start a New School (Year)

For some of us "back to school" has happened much sooner than for others. And some of you "lucky ducks" still have a few weeks of summer vacation to go.  But, if you are a brand new School Counselor, or even an experienced School Counselor starting at a new school or new level, this can be not only an exciting, but anxious time.  The tips listed here are important things to consider to transition smoothly into a new school.  In addition to my original 12 tips and resources for School Counselors, I would like to add 3 more.  Read on for 15 tips to get your school year off to a great start!

#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.   My latest office is in a portable classroom.  I have lots of space for classroom lessons, group and individual counseling. Plus, all my materials are in one place.  I really love this space. I hope it feels welcoming.

Your office should reflect your personality.  Be careful though not to be so "girly or rugged" that guys or girls 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.  You can also check out my Pinterest page 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 forms can be viewed HERE in my PowerPoint presentation with step by step instructions for creating your own.

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 just completed school year, but after analyzing that and your  recent survey data from the start of this school year, that information will direct your focus for addressing the needs of your school for the  current school year.

Third, create the Classroom Lessons 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 Black binder covers and page dividers  or my blue binder covers and page dividers for FREE at my Teachers Pay Teachers store.  Both are editable.

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. I tried using a Google form but found the paper version easier for me.  I will try again this year.

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. While I see a lot of people wanting a "one stop" sort of planner, I've been thinking about that and decided I don't want confidential information like case or group notes or parent contacts in the planner where I am scheduling lessons, meetings and conferences. I have misplaced my planner at school once or twice. It would be too easy for that sort of information to be compromised. Just my opinion and something to think about as you make your personal choice.

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 (not in a planner). 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 school generated data that is already out there. These will help you 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 if available. We don't expect ours until later in September. Organize, review, analyze, look for patterns.

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. This at a glance sheet can assist you in getting to know your newest students.

For more information about data, check out Trish Hatch's book, The Use of Data in School Counseling.  This is a resource every School Counselor should have!

#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 parentsparent, teacher and student surveys, "Role of the Counselor" PowerPointcounselor 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 30-40 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 for scheduling, but have used it for several other activities involving coordinating the schedules of multiple people.  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  three of my "Meet the Counselor" lessons, for Kindergarten here , 1st grade here and 1st grade PowerPoint here and my "Meet the Counselor-Counselor Catcher"  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" materials.

#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 planning 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, sign up for classes, 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 four best ways to meet the families of your students is to make yourself visible at Meet the Teacher, Open House, and at morning drop-off and 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.  
Morning Drop-off: Much can be observed by seeing the interaction of families and the mood of students as they are dropped off in the morning.  Smile, open car doors, say good morning, and offer encouragement for an awesome day.  Seeing your smiling face could be the best starter to a caregiver or student's day.
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. 

There are so many forms and paperwork that go home with students the first couple of weeks at school in my district, I like to wait to send my parent survey home until about the third week of classes. You can send home a link to a Google form in a QR code, post your link in your parent newsletter, on your school Facebook page, or in a group email if your school has that capability.  Of course there is always the paper and pencil parent survey if you do not have these resources or your families have limited access to technology. 

#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. Sample invitations are available HERE.

Another terrific way to get to know your students is by doing "Minute Meetings" using Google forms. I learned this great idea from reading Andrea Burston's blog, jyj counselor.  Check out her post "Minute Meetings with a Tech Spin" to learn more about how you can use this awesome tool.

#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, tweet, 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.

#13 Set your calendar for the year
Setting your calendar means including the dates for your classroom lessons, groups, school wide programming, professional development/workshops and parent events.  Now you maybe thinking I don't even know when or how I am going to do those things yet!  That's okay.  I'm not talking about an exact date and time for all of the above, but something general, like this example for the first 2 months of school.

You may feel a little uncomfortable about what occurs at your school or even what you should be doing in the course of a year.  But, this is a great way to get the "big picture" of annual school events and traditions. Talking with your administration about the calendar not only shows interest in the traditions of your new school, it informs you of what other things may be coming your way as the school year progresses.  It also demonstrates your initiative, educates your administration about what programming you have to offer, and allows you to clearly see when to best schedule your events.  You never want to have to compete for participation, audience and space. For example you may want to do a special parent night and discover the chorus is performing that same evening, or you want to do the Kindness Challenge and that is in the middle of state testing. Planning ahead helps insure successful programming.  So, bring your ideas, dates, and planner and have the calendar conversation.

#14 Creating lesson plans
When it comes to creating lesson plans, there are many websites, blogs, TPT and Pinterest activities to get you started. However trying to prepare classroom lesson plans K-5 for each topic can be overwhelming.  I always recommend my interns create just two lessons for each topic, one for primary and one for intermediate.  This allows you to get very comfortable with the lesson and to make improvements along the way to the content and activities as you see what works for each grade level.  Now you have 2 solid lessons in your bank on each topic for next year.  In year 2, you create just 2 more lessons for each topic one for primary and one for intermediate.  Now, you have 4 lessons for each topic.  In year 3 you do it all again and now you have 6 lessons total for each topic, one lesson per grade level. Students never get the same lesson twice because you are always adding new lessons.  This method reduces your stress level and allows you to really focus on creating quality lessons. I still do this when adding new lessons topics to my curriculum.  Check out some great websites with lessons in my LiveBinder. Just click on the link and it will open to some brightly colored tabs.  Look for the one that says "Websites with Lessons."

When writing your lesson plans you need a template.  ASCA has a great lesson plan template that I highly recommend. Click on the link, go to RAMP application templates on the left side of the page, click, and you will see lesson plan template in the list.

#15 Set Realistic Goals
I know you have read and heard about all the fabulous things other School Counselors are doing in their programs.  And that can be a lot of pressure! Sometimes, it may even feel like you are not doing enough, or you should be doing more.   BUT, you are new, you have to pace yourself!  No one expects you to do in one year what others have built over 5-10 years or more.  So give yourself a break and don't demand it of yourself! A fully developed comprehensive School Counseling program doesn't happen your first year, or second, or sometimes even your third year. It is a constantly evolving thing every year of your career.  Your program in your first your will not look like it will at year 3, 5, 10 or 20!  You will grow, it will grow and one day the newbies will be in awe of what you have accomplished!

So, be patient. It's not possible to "do it all" as a new School Counselor and no one expects you to, so don't burden yourself with those thoughts. They steal your joy and your energy.  Set realistic goals for your first year. Pick 2 or 3 things you want to accomplish this school year and do them exceptionally well. Remember it's not about quantity, its about quality.  Better to do a few things well that impress people and are discussed and remembered favorably, rather than trying to do too much and have people talk negatively about you and your program.  Give yourself time to build relationships with your students, faculty, and parents, make them a priority at your new school and offer them a few high quality programs along the way. Build a strong foundation. Then next year, add one or two new things, while tweaking or revising the things you did the previous year. Set realistic goals and feel proud of the things you accomplish.

I  hope you will find these 15 tips for (new) School 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.
Here's to a great school year!!!


  1. Knowing the people you are going to be counseling is important. You want to know as much as you can about them, for the more you know the more you may be able to help them. Having an entire session dedicated to getting to know one another can be a good solution for how to do this!

  2. Hi Jeannie,
    Thank you, first of all, for creating such a detailed and wonderful resource for new school counselors! However, I was a little confused about numbers 8 and 9. In 8 you mention surveying teachers, but in 9 you say you don't like to survey staff. Are you making a distinction between teachers and other staff members? Hope to hear from you soon! Thanks.
    Jill Fox

  3. Hi Jill! Thanks for reading my blog and for your questions. I see your confusion and the need to make some edits to this post. Please allow me to clarify. In #8. I am meeting with teachers in an informal setting, doughnuts and coffee, within the first month of school to get better acquainted with them and get an overview of the needs they are seeing in their classrooms and with individual students (building relationships). This helps me fine tune the curriculum I have already determined to pursue based on school generated data from the previous year. This is different than surveying teachers to ask, "What lessons do you think I should do this year?" That is what I was referring to in #9. When a new school year starts, with new schedules and combinations of students, levels of need by classroom can shift. So while your data may show a need for study skills within a grade level, there may now be classes with a higher concentration of students who need MORE support for that topic than some others. So the teacher input helps me clarify where pockets of difficulty may be and how to adjust lessons or add groups. You can also do this by disaggregating your data, but getting teacher feedback on their class needs builds relationships and gives buy-in. I hope that helps explain the difference.

  4. Hi I noticed you said you were on a special area rotation. I am too! How do you keep up with what class get what lessons! I noticed that some classes I see more than other and others don't get the same lesson. ( wrinkled face)

  5. Hi Counselor Girl, I don't know how I missed your post for an entire year and I am incredibly sorry! Keeping up with lessons was not always easy. I had to come up with a system because it was driving me crazy! I have a dedicated class lesson 3 ring binder with page dividers for each day of the week. Class rosters of each class and a class lesson log go behind the appropriate tab. When I open to the class page the roster is hole punched on the right and the log is hole punched on the left so they open up and I can see both at once. This log allows me to record the date and what was covered in the lesson and also have a ready reference of student names. It works for me and I find it keeps me on track with what I have taught each class, especially those who see me more or less often. One of the things my school did to help that was to swap days of the week for classes at the new semester. Monday and Friday classes for all specials seemed to miss those classes the most so our admin swapped the Monday and Tuesday classes with each other and the Thursday and Friday classes with each other. It really helped to balance out the number of lessons over the course of the year.