I have stood behind bars talking to men about their lives — their arrests and incarcerations, their families and childhood experiences, their education and their affiliations with gangs. As their counselor, I marveled at their talents, intelligence, charisma and natural leadership skills, all of which showed allegiance to a gang that told them they were important and that they belonged.
My time as a counselor in a men’s correctional facility propelled me to become a school counselor. I worked with detainees who had many strengths to offer the world, but who had no connection to education to use those strengths in a positive way. Although many were intelligent leaders, they never saw education as a means to a successful future. Although many were talented and charismatic, they never felt connected to an educator who saw their many strengths. As young men, they felt as if they did not belong in school and that no one wanted them there. They found their belongingness and worth in gangs that told them they were important and had strengths that could be used and celebrated in the gang. I became a school counselor with the intention of pursuing my students with the same intensity as a gang would in recruiting them. My purpose is to connect with students, understanding them and building authentic relationships with them, so I can connect them to their education and the future educational opportunities ahead of them.
Creating these connections with my students requires me to learn from them, to lessen their burdens and challenges and to create links for them.
To connect with my students, I first must learn from them. And learning from my students requires me to acknowledge who they are. Simply acknowledging students by their name and greeting them throughout the school with a smile, a “hello” and a “great to see you today, ” showing them that their presence is important, can be very powerful. Each student is a unique and complex individual with many feelings and experiences inside and outside of the school building. Learning about their experiences through a culturally responsive lens is essential in understanding the needs of my diverse group of students. They all have strengths, talents and knowledge of themselves and the world we live in. I learn about and value those things, which helps me to be a better support, ally and advocate for them. Becoming a student of my students, acknowledging and learning from them, allows students to take the lead, build self-confidence and self-efficacy, and enhance advocacy skills and initiative.
Creating understanding relationships with my students helps me to know my students in new ways and lets me know what challenges they face. As a school counselor, I have the opportunity to help lessen some of their burdens and challenges. Sometimes I lessen their hunger by providing a quick snack. Sometimes I lessen anxiety by providing time for a break to breathe deeply and ground themselves. Sometimes I lessen their worries or anger by providing a safe place for them to share. Sometimes I lessen their self-doubt by helping them see their strengths and accomplishments. Sometimes I lessen barriers to possibilities by ensuring equity in student access to academic opportunities.
In connecting students to their education, I have the privilege to link students to opportunities, skills, and resources that will help them to be successful. School counselors link students in all three domains of our work: academic social/emotional and career development. I link students to skills and strategies that support positive peer relations such as empathy development, conflict resolution skills, and emotional regulation strategies as well as skills that promote self-awareness, self-confidence and responsible decision-making. I link students to skills that help them to succeed academically. This can take the form of teaching about growth mindset, study skills and goal setting. I link students to post-secondary opportunities through lessons and initiatives about technical college diplomas and certificates, apprenticeships, community colleges, four-year universities and careers.
I passionately do this work as a school counselor to connect with my students so I can connect them to their education, and so they see that their talents, intelligence and strengths are valued and celebrated and that they do belong at school.