Counselors as Educational Leaders

View all blog posts under Articles

Students celebrating graduation

School counselors have become an indispensable part of today’s school environment. They assume a variety of roles that are essential in helping students manage their mental health and perform at the highest caliber in order to prepare them for an increasingly competitive job market.

A focus on student success and higher education is becoming increasingly important. As technology advances, a growing number of low-skill jobs are being mechanized or outsourced, meaning that the remaining jobs will require new competencies that are learned at college and trade school.1

Clearly, the demands of life beyond high school are in flux. As such, educational leaders are needed to rise to the challenge in order to help lead systemic change in schools.

According to The Education Trust, school counselors are uniquely positioned to lead during this transitional time in ways that teachers and administrators cannot.1

“Teachers are responsible for teaching subject matter to the students assigned to them. Principals and assistant principals are responsible for managing the budget, assuring a safe learning environment, making the buses run on time, and supporting the instructional and co-curricular programs,” researchers Peggy Laturno Hines and Richard W. Lemons write. “Given the design and demands of their jobs, neither teachers nor school administrators are in a position to easily spot, much less change, the alarming mismatch between the demands of the outside world and the trajectories of individual students.”1

School counselors pick up where administrators and teachers can not. Not only are school counselors responsible for each student in the schools they work for, but they also have the unique opportunity to shape each individual’s educational trajectory.

In most schools, counselors manage course assignments for students, ensuring that students earn the required number of credits to graduate from high school. They are also privy to information such as test scores, enrollment patterns, and attendance rates. With this knowledge they can best determine which students are on a solid path to success, and which need additional resources in order to be successful.

Using this data, good counselors can also see how their institutions contribute to the success and/or failure of certain individuals or demographics, and work to improve policies in order to help each student reach their full potential.1

Counselors can also lead their schools in creating a “college-going culture” where all students are required to take college and career-readiness courses regardless of their plans after graduation.

“We promote a college-going culture and help students create a roadmap toward graduation filled with rigorous courses,” notes Caron Cox, a counselor at one such school who has adopted a college-going culture. “All of our students are in college and career-readiness courses. Even if the students are struggling, we know they’ll be more successful in college because they will have been exposed to the material and be better prepared when they leave Elmont.”1

Other school counselors have made a difference in college readiness by changing their school standards to be more rigorous than in years previous.

Counselors in Bryant High School of the Mobile County Public School system in Alabama recently did just that after noticing that their students didn’t seem to be graduating with the mathematics skills necessary to succeed in a college environment.

According to researchers Laturno Hines and Lemons, “They tracked [the problem] back to the school’s policy of giving credit for Algebra IA and IB as well as Geometry A and B, which allowed students to complete the four-credit math graduation requirement by the end of their sophomore year.” In essence, students who didn’t wish to take math as juniors and seniors weren’t required to. Sensing a problem, counselors in that school district advocated to change the graduation requirements for future students, ensuring they would have a proper education in mathematics before enrolling in college. The results have been wildly successful.

“Mobile is the only large district in Alabama to make AYP this year and one of the big reasons is what school counselors did,” Deputy Superintendent Martha Peek said. “There has been this tendency to put students in low-level courses and just herd them through. You know we can’t do that anymore. We’ve got to ramp up to the Common Core national standards. School counselors, you are the best to spread the word.”1

These success stories show the kind of potential school counselors have to be agents of change and ensure student success. Through advocacy, thorough use of data, and rapport with administration and students, counselors can easily define pain points and work on new policies to help students become college ready.

In many school districts throughout the United States, this isn’t the case, however. In fact, many counselors face a number challenges that can prevent them from advocating and leading in ways that are the best for their students.

Counseling Programs May Not Train Counselors to Properly Lead Change

In years previous, counselors have been trained to be practitioners of mental health and advocates for their students, and as such, not necessarily viewed as traditional leaders in the school environment.

Before, counselors were educated in a model that primarily focused on mental health training, but that has significantly changed. Over the course of the past two to three decades, many counseling programs have adapted their curriculum to better help their students as they become leaders and advocates for systemic change in the school system.2

Today, counseling programs function on a model that defines the role of the school counselor as “A profession that focuses on. . .reducing the effect of environmental and institutional barriers that impede student academic success. The profession fosters conditions that ensure educational equity, access, and academic success for all students K-12.”2

This shift in focus allows counselors to be better prepared to face some of the most complex challenges facing today’s student populations.

Principals and Administration May Not See the Need for School Counselors

In most school settings, counselors report directly to principals or administration, meaning that principals have a lot of say when it comes to a counselor’s day-to-day activities. While principals have mastered the administrative capacities of their position, many are still unsure of the best practices for hiring, developing, and evaluating school counselors.

As a result, many principals don’t recognize the essential value that counselors offer to the educational experience for their students. Counselors are often spread thin performing non-counseling duties, from standardized-test coordination, to student discipline, and even substitute teaching. These barriers can prevent counselors from properly taking over leadership roles in the schools that they work for.

In order for counselors to become leaders in the education sphere, principals must understand the critical link between school counselors and college and career-readiness. In an ideal school environment, school counselors and administrators work closely together in order to achieve student success.

A recent North Carolina State University study evaluated the relationships between principals and school counselors at high schools that won or were runners up in the College Board’s Inspiration Awards. These schools, which were highly diverse, and in areas of high-poverty, had substantially increased student achievement, AP and honors class participation, test scores, and college acceptance and enrollment.

What did these schools have in common?

Their administrators and school counselors shared a core belief that all students could attend college, worked together and maintained responsibility for providing an environment where college-readiness was possible, and collaborated so that the entire school community, working together, reached its goals.3

Now more than ever, educators are in agreement about the goals of K-12 education, which is to prepare all students for college and career. In fact, 46 states have implemented a common curriculum which prioritizes “college-and-career-ready” standards. But the presence of these new standards won’t ensure that students will thrive in higher education or in the workforce.

As key members of the educational team, counselors will have to develop the necessary leadership skills in order to help transform today’s secondary schools. By providing counselors with the time, resources, and training necessary, students will reap the benefits of an educational system that was designed for their individual success.

For those interested in leading and making a difference in today’s secondary schools, Wake Forest University Online is a stepping stone into a career path that helps students achieve their full potential.