School counselors can play pivotal roles in shaping the lives of students. They help students choose which courses to take, plan for the future, and work through difficult times. The occupation can present great challenges, but also tremendous rewards.
School counselors are often the main source of in-school support for students (especially high school students). Ideally, counselors spend most of their time helping students academically. They administer and interpret career interest and aptitude tests to help students plan a career or post-secondary path. They also provide resources for getting into a post-secondary institution, or for getting a job.
At the college level, counselors help students choose a career path and prepare for employment. Larger schools and private schools are sometimes able to employ additional support staff that can perform some of these duties, such as administering tests or keeping records.
Students who are struggling with social, academic, or personal issues cannot focus on achieving their academic potential and their dreams. So counselors also work with students, teachers, administrators, and parents to catch potential problems early, before they turn into major issues.
For example, they may hold group counseling sessions to help students deal with grief after a tragic event. Or, they may recommend professional psychiatric counseling for students with severe problems. They can help parents and teachers communicate effectively, and they can help bullies and victims settle their differences.
Unfortunately, school district budget constraints and a general misunderstanding of the role of counselors means that many spend their time performing non-essential tasks, including substitute teaching, bus duty, disciplining students, and calculating grade point averages (rather than interpreting and applying them).
The American Counseling Association estimates that counselors spend 10-20% of their time, on average, on these system support tasks, which detracts from the quality of their work and their ability to reach students. Some school districts are working to reverse this trend, but for many areas, it will likely only get worse before it gets better.
"A counselor’s main role is to be an advocate for students…unfortunately, fiscal constraints sometimes limit the amount of advocacy work that can be done," says Judy Hingle, director of professional development for the National Association for College Admission Counseling.
Some school counselors follow the traditional teacher’s schedule of a 9- to 10-month school year. They often spend summer vacations doing graduate course work for re-certification. An increasing number of schools, however, employ their counselors full-time, and most work 8:30 to 4:00 or similar hours. College counselors are more likely to work year-round and to have heavier work loads.
As with teachers and other administrators, the job may not end when that last bell rings. According to Paula Davis, a counselor with Canandaigua Academy in western New York, “The job is very time consuming…not a 7:30-3:00 day at all…you will need to put in many extra hours in order to accomplish all that is expected of you.” When asked if it is worth it, Paula says, “The real rewards are seeing students overcome academic or personal difficulties to achieve their goals.”
Counselors may travel as much as administrators (much more than teachers) to attend conferences and training. Many districts and schools pay for required training, while others offer time off or tuition reimbursement. Opportunities for career advancement include moving on to bigger or better school districts; becoming the main administrator of guidance programs for a school; teaching; moving onto other counseling positions; or school administration.
To succeed in this field, counselors must have high physical and emotional energy and a supreme ability to handle stress. They must be organized, willing to continue training over their career, and good communicators. Of course, the desire to work with kids is essential. The stress levels of this job are obvious when one considers the high initial attrition rate; 60% of new school counselors leave the field within two years. Those that stay, however, report some of the highest rates of job satisfaction of any field.
Every state requires school counselors hold their state’s school counseling certification and to have completed at least some graduate-level course work. Almost all states require that counselors have a master’s degree in their field. Continuing education and training credits are required to keep up with certification, though how many hours and what types of courses must be taken varies by state.
Typically, counselors are required to complete two years (or 3,000 hours) of supervised clinical experience after obtaining their master’s degrees in order to become licensed. Graduate counseling programs are accredited in the U.S. by the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Education Programs, or CACREP. Although completing a CACREP-approved program is usually not a requirement for licensing, it does ensure that graduates will have met the requirements for certification in most states. Some counselors also choose to be certified by the National Board for Certified Counselors Inc. — any additional licenses and certifications that are voluntary nonetheless indicate a level of professional attainment that can amount to higher-paying and better job offers.