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Part III: Focus on changing roles of high school counselors during National School Counseling Week

Special to NKyTribune

Over the summer we asked school counselors in the Fort Thomas Independent School System questions about their role in helping students navigate school and prepare for college, careers and life. 

In this part, high school counselors talk about their changing roles. While counselors have traditionally helped students prepare for college and work, recent years have brought an increased emphasis on the skills needed to navigate a changing world beyond high school. 

In the past, primary emphasis was on vocational guidance, helping students choose their next steps on the career or college path. Today, this role has broadened significantly to include helping students develop the career and social skills necessary for success in college and at work. 

Counselors at the high school level help students build important social and emotional skills as they face an adult world that is growing in complexity. Counselors at this level encourage and support academic achievement, career planning and goal-setting for the future. They embrace data analysis and other tools to help them steer students toward success. 

At Fort Thomas Independent Schools, the  Portrait of a Graduate project asks “What do we want our graduates to know, do and be like?” The plan is to identify, measure and promote the skills students need for success. 

While students start on the journey as early as preschool, the pressure is on as graduation nears. High school counselors are key educators working with students to help them prepare for college, career and life beyond school. 

Meet the counselors

There are four counselors at Highlands High School. The team includes three school counselors and a new position added this year, the college and career counselor. Not all the counselors answered every question, but their answers are listed individually below. 

Ann Listerman:  I am going into my seventh year as a high school counselor. I chose to be a high school counselor to help students with many different aspects of their lives. When I was teaching at Holy Cross High School, I found many of my students coming to me for many different issues. 

Most students came to talk to me about issues they were having whether it be at school, home, friends, etc. I found myself enjoying having that time with the students. So, I decided to go get my masters in school counseling. 

Laura Schnitzler:  I have been a counselor for five years, but this is my 20th year in education. I chose this profession after my positive experiences with my high school counselor. I knew I wanted to help high school students have a positive school experience. 

I also enjoyed the subjects of psychology and counseling. I entered college majoring in psychology and then moved forward to major in Secondary Education and English when I discovered the former state requirement that school counselors needed to complete a few years of teaching before they could become a school counselor. I believe that my 14 years of experience as an English teacher have benefited me as a communicator and a leader as I have moved into the role of school counselor. 

Erica Thomas:  I have been a counselor for 14 years. This is my fourth year at Highlands High School. I previously served the Fort Thomas Independent School District with the last three years in the role of transition and freshman counselor. This year I am taking on a new role and will be working with all students in grades nine through 12 (last names Q to Z). 

I received my bachelor’s degree at Franklin College of Indiana and my master’s degree and Rank I at the University of Kentucky. Growing up, I always felt a calling to be in a helping profession. I wasn’t always sure which direction I wanted to take. 

After having an opportunity to work as a family resource center coordinator, I was able to see first-hand the positive impact that our educators make on their students. Through this experience, I knew that I wanted to make a difference by working with students in an educational setting. This was the spark I needed in finding my calling as a school counselor. 

Trinity Walsh (college and career counselor)I have been a counselor for 17 years, and this year will be my 10th year at Highlands. I sort of fell into this profession. I always planned to be a high school band director, and I have an undergraduate degree in music education. 

When it was time for me to start working on my master’s degree, I really started to think about what it was about my job that I loved – it was the part of being able to really talk to kids. From that moment, there was a spark, and I decided that to do the part that I really loved full-time, I probably should be a school counselor. 

1. What would you say your primary role is as a counselor? What are some other duties you have?

Listerman:  My primary role as a high school counselor is fulfilling the immediate needs of our students. This will range from helping students with social and emotional needs, behavioral issues and academic needs. 

Schnitzler:  My primary role as a school counselor is to be an advocate for students. Whether their concerns are academic, personal, social or something else, I’m here to listen to them and to help them move forward. 

The duties of a school counselor are numerous — enrollment, scheduling, listening, providing classroom lessons, informing teachers of important information, keeping parents and students updated on testing information and other important information, staying up-to-date on developments in the school counseling, among many other responsibilities. 

Thomas:  As a school counselor, my primary role is to help ALL students in the areas of academic achievement, career and social/emotional development, as well as, ensuring today’s students become the productive, well-adjusted members of society. 

As a high school counselor, we are educators uniquely trained in child and adolescent development, learning strategies, self-management and social skills, who understand and promote success for today’s diverse students. My role is to collaboratively work with teachers, students and parents on early identification and intervention of the student’s academic and social/emotional needs. This is essential in removing barriers to learning and developing skills and behaviors critical for academic achievement. 

Walsh:  This year I am taking on a new position of the College and Career counselor. HHS has not had this position, and I am sort of building as the year goes. I am really excited about working with students and families from grade nine to 12 to build a college and/or career path. 

I will also work closely with college representatives and business/companies to bring opportunities to HHS students. It’s a great chance to be able to showcase and talk about what life after high school is really like. Lastly, I will be working closely with our teachers (specifically the career and technical teachers… but really anyone) to help build their programs and help students understand the opportunities that these programs have for them. 

I am sure there will be a variety of other things that I will develop and try this year. I am really excited to see what this position can become and how we can help students and families like we haven’t been able to before. 

2. Are you involved in academic planning for students? How/what input do you provide? 

Listerman: Yes! We at Highlands walk the students through the scheduling process for the following school year. We make sure students are taking classes that they will need to help prepare them for what they hope to do in their future. We also encourage our students to challenge themselves in the classes they take. By doing this, it helps the students be prepared for the next stage after high school. 

Schnitzler:  Yes, for all incoming freshmen, we provide a meeting with student and parents to discuss not only the ninth grade schedule but also the four-year plan to help students and parents see options that are available and to help them see that sometimes, classes build upon one another and it’s important to plan ahead. 

For students in other grades, we provide guidance as requested for the next year’s classes. We also provide information to students during classroom sessions describing what new courses are available and what options students have from year to year. We highlight this information in evening parent meetings. 

Thomas:  Academic planning for each student is individualized and begins before the student enters high school. Through the utilization of the four-year course planner in Naviance, counselors are able to work collaboratively with the student, their parents and teachers to ensure the student has an academic plan that aligns with the student’s plans for after graduation. This plan is reviewed annually during classroom guidance visits, as well as, individually to help the student update or make changes to the plan as needed. 

Walsh:  Yes, all of the counselors are very closely involved in this. We start planning high school courses as early as the eighth-grade year. We ask lots of questions about students’ interests, future goals, and plans, assess their strengths and weaknesses through grades and test scores, and help them to develop a plan that is right for them. 

3. How are you involved in the social or individual development of students? 

Schnitzler:  When situations arise that require me to intervene, I help students deal with anger, anxiety, friend problems, etc. Typically, if a parent or teacher asks me to meet with a student, I initiate contact. I also welcome students to come to me if they have a social problem. We also encourage students to be involved in extra-curricular activities to help them feel connected to the school. 

Thomas:  We also try to take opportunities during classroom guidance to teach the soft skills that our students need to have for effective communication. We reinforce these skills when meeting with students individually. Technology has heavily influenced the way our students communicate with one another. Teaching them ways to navigate these situations effectively often leads to better social outcomes. 

Walsh:  We’re always available for the “as needed” for immediate social or emotional concerns. It’s more difficult at the high school level to provide “programming” per se, but we try to really emphasize appropriate skills and traits when we do have the opportunity to go into classes a few times during the year. 

This past year we did a lesson with students on soft skills — what they are, how to hone them, which ones are really important for their future plans, etc. Unfortunately, this isn’t a topic that can really be taught due to academic needs during the day, and we were really excited that we found the time to do this in the past year.

4. What would you like parents and students to know about your role? 

Listerman:  My role is to support all our students at Highland High School! This can range from social and emotional help, academic support and whatever may come up unexpectedly. 

Schnitzler:  I would like them to know that every day is a new adventure. Often, there are tasks that need to be completed but don’t get accomplished when planned due to issues that arise. I always get back to students and parents as soon as possible, but sometimes I have to prioritize what needs my attention right at that moment vs. something that can wait. 

Walsh:  I want them to know that I am always willing to help… just ask, but like Mrs. Schnitzler mentioned, every day is a new adventure and we try to get to everything as quickly as possible. There has never been a day where my schedule has gone exactly as it was listed on my calendar. I try to focus on the kids in the building in my room first and then move on to the emails and phone calls. I only have the opportunity to see kids from about 7:35 a.m. to 3:15 p.m., so I have to maximize my time with them.

Fort Thomas school counselors: Britane Bednar, Ann Listerman, Erica Thomas, Lori Maines, Trinity Walsh, Laura Schnitzler, Whitney McKay, Shauna Luebbers and Rachel Caswell.

5. While school and personal safety have always been a concern, in light of recent shootings and violence, how has your role changed or intensified? 

I do not think it has changed that much. If anything, it has made us more aware and observant when dealing with our students individually and within group settings. 

Schnitzler:  I think that more than ever, students should be encouraged to come talk to their school counselor if they have concerns about themselves or others. It’s important for me to help students feel safe at school. 

Walsh:  While safety concerns are always in the back of my mind, I really try to stay positive and encouraging to our students. It would really make me sad to see any of our schools turn into a “maximum security” prison environment. We are really blessed to have such a wonderful community and to be able to enjoy some of the privileges that come with that – like open campus lunch at the high school. 

I think by giving our high school students freedoms, they actually feel that we trust them and therefore don’t do stupid things. Yet, at the same time, we have to be prepared, and I try and encourage students to talk to us, another trusted adult, anyone! 

6. What are some of the more pressing issues you deal with on daily basis such as bullying, cyber safety, grief, depression, drugs (not just use by students but how they might affect students’ family dynamics), fear and other concerns? 

Listerman:  I believe social media is a major issue among young people. Our students are connected 24/7 with each other and they never get a break. Social media is a powerful tool that can be great for some things but also detrimental in other ways. I believe it is very important that we continue to educate our young people on the dos and don’ts of social media. This is a changing dynamic every day, and it is important that our students are aware of all of it. 

Schnitzler:  Issues dealt with most often include anxiety, social/emotional problems and academic concerns. 

Walsh:  I have been a counselor for 17 years, and I can definitely say that students’ anxiety levels have increased as society’s expectations and social media has increased. Social media is tough, and we are constantly giving students lessons on how to appropriately use social media and how to communicate with others face-to-face and not via technology. In addition, increased electronic communication has heightened the levels of parent engagement/worry, which affects our students’ behaviors. 

7. Are there issues you feel could use more attention? Is there a need for more resources to address these issues? 

Listerman:  Internet and social media safety! 

Schnitzler:  I think that we are always working to see what we can do to improve. I think with our additional counselor and our restructuring to allow for a college/career counselor, we will be able to provide more for our students. 

Walsh:  The district has been really generous this year by adding two new counselors and allowing us to create the new college and career counselor position. There is always so much more we can do, and I think we are heading in the right direction to be able to do some really innovative and helpful things for our families and students.

8. How do you keep up-to-date on issues of concern? 

Listerman:  Stay connected with the students! When you are connected with your students, you learn so much from them. By doing this, I am able to keep up with what is going on with young people and move forward in helping them with those issues. 

Schnitzler:  Attending state and national conferences are a wonderful way to stay connected and up-to-date. I also read articles and share information with students and parents through our Twitter account — follow us at @hhs.go and our Facebook page — Highlands High School School Counseling Department 

Walsh:  I try to attend as many conferences, workshops and online events as possible. In addition, I am on about 1,000 email lists and get bombarded every day with lots of good information — and sometimes junk.

I also try to ask lots of questions of my students and families to find out what they want and what they have heard; sometimes they hear things at colleges that the reps don’t tell us. Lastly, I have created an extensive network of professionals that I reach out to on a regular basis to answer questions and brainstorm with. 

9. What are ways students and parents can seek help or support from counselors? Are there ways to identify when you might be able to help? 

Listerman: Just ask! Email or call is the best way to communicate! 

Schnitzler:  Counselors are available to help in a variety of ways. Students and parents may reach us by email or phone. We can provide help and support for personal, social/emotional, academic and college/career guidance. 

If the problem is something that you have tried to work through and aren’t seeing results, it would be a good idea to reach out to your school counselor. If we can’t help, we can refer you to someone who can. If you have a classroom problem, it’s always best to speak to the teacher of the class first. 

Walsh:  Laura’s answer above is perfect! 

10. What part of your job do you enjoy the most? 

Listerman:  I love working and interacting with young people! They bring a lot of excitement and energy to me and others around them. Helping young people through hard moments in life as well as celebrate their successes is what makes doing what I do so awesome! 

Schnitzler: I enjoy working with teenagers and helping them navigate through high school. I enjoy getting into classrooms and working with students. I enjoy helping seniors through the college application process. I also love our Freshman Transitions program, which allows freshmen to have a smooth start to their high school career and provides leadership opportunities for 10th through 12th-grade freshman mentors. 

Walsh:  I love working with teenagers and learning what they want to do — and how I can help them achieve their goals. I enjoy watching them “grow up” and change their minds from freshman to senior year. I love watching them make connections and helping them to discover those connections throughout their high school career.

Special thanks go to Trinity Walsh, college and career counselor at Highlands High School, who helped organize and gather information for this project.

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