School Counselor Leadership: One Size Does Not Fit All
By Dr. Patrice S. Banks
A review of past literature shows that school counselors have not been seen as integral parts of their schools. Rather, school counselors were seen as appendices of the body that make up the staff. In many schools this is still true, according to many school counselors. In these schools, counselors are rarely seen as leaders. However, when responsive services are necessary (i.e. suicide threat, death of a student or staff member), school counselors are often given the task of leading. In the 21st century, school counselors are not only required to provide prevention services, but are required to demonstrate, with data, how students are different because of their work. At these schools, the extent of counselors’ work is to change schedules, talk about secondary education options, perform fair share duties and retain responsibility for cumulative folders and transcripts. Though these are important tasks that help schools run smoothly, they do not begin to encompass the complex job of schools counselors nor do they provide little opportunity for leadership.
Counselors are uniquely positioned to serve as formal leaders in schools because they have an opportunity to see the overall “picture” of the school. The American School Counselor Association recognizes the importance of school counselors and their overall impact on students, school climate and the wider community. ASCA believes that all counselors should advocate and lead. Furthermore, many states’ evaluation tools for school counselors include leadership. Similarly, the National Board of Certified Teachers, which is considered the “gold standard” of certifications, requires counselors to demonstrate how the lead in schools and in the community.
Current literature and school reform efforts encourage school counselors to demonstrate leadership in areas other than responsive services using data. But how does this actually look in the “real world of counseling?” On a daily basis counselors are faced with challenges that create roles of parents, nurse, teacher, confidant, social worker, truancy officers, among other roles. In short, counselors are expected to be miracle workers. School counselors are like superheroes. Their supernatural power is being able to shapeshift into any form that is needed. Does this leave any time to think about leadership on a daily basis?
It is true that counselors do not have much leisure time to peruse journal to find literature that helps us understand how to become leaders. But it is incumbent on us, as school counselors, to learn what needs are specific to our school and find ways to lead in those areas. It is important to understand that counselors must advocate for themselves and leave their comfort zone. This means that counselors must think “out of the box” and be willing to take on responsibilities that many may not see as the traditional counselor role. This may mean delving into the instructional areas of school and going to meetings to learn the instructional needs to students and how you “fit” into that puzzle. Be prepared to explain why you want to go into classrooms to co-teach and the benefits of doing so. However, counselors still need a guide to formal and informal leadership. This article does not attempt to give counselors very specific ways to be leaders in schools. Rather, it attempts to generate thinking about conversation and thoughts about our individual leadership strengths and needs for improvement
Thankfully, Bolman and Deal, two researchers and counselor educators have put many years into the consideration of school counselor leadership. This means that we do not have to reinvent the wheel to understand and apply leadership skills. ASCA and National Board for Certified Teachers provides a definition for school counselor leadership. In order to understand where you need to be, you must understand where you are in terms of leadership skills. Bolman created a six question leadership orientations questionnaire that helps counselors discover four leadership orientations: structural, symbolic, human resources and political. This is not new information. Masters level courses contain this information and it is not just specific to counselors. However, this can serve as an organized guide for counselors to use in their current settings.
After taking the questionnaire, which can be found online, counselors will find out in which areas they are strong. Bolman and Deal’s research has shown that a majority of counselors work well within the human resources and symbolic frame. This means that counselors are adept at using stories and traditions to affect the climate and culture of the school (symbolic frame). Counselors are also generally very good at helping teachers solve problems by showing that they understand their feelings and can relate to them (human resources). Conversely, research states that tells us that counselors are less likely to use political skills. Examples of these skills are being able to “fight” scarce for resources while maintaining good relationships with colleagues. Counselors working within the political frame must be able to withstand a great deal of criticism and confrontation. People who do not like confrontation may find this more difficult, but having these skills can help advocate for students. A counselor working within the structural frame is generally a “stickler” for the rules and rarely deviates from them (i.e. testing, suicide screening protocol). As you can see, it is rare that any counselor can be skilled at each of these leadership orientations. Some may be uncomfortable using some of these leadership skills, while some counselors may rely too heavily on certain skills. Relying too heavily on certain leadership orientations can hamper one’s ability to grow as an effective leader.
It is likely that we can all think of situation in which we just did not know what to do or say. Situations like this easily lend themselves to the use of a clear decision-making approach. So if you are required to explain your thinking and actions in relation to a situation, you will be able to state your case clearly, concisely and with confidence. Who wouldn’t like to have more confidence in the “sticky” situations in which counselors often find themselves?
This article does not dare to assume that counselors do not already use these leadership orientations. However, it is possible that we have used them, but did not realize they were research based forms of decision making. Recognizing how to use research based strategies helps us grow as leaders. As the article’s title suggests, you do not have to master all of the leadership orientations. Knowing is the first step to understanding and growing. Being an effective leader can help in advocating for students and your comprehensive counseling program. This information can also help counselors to make the case for moving into the instructional realm of the school. Using these frames require more intentional and strategic ways of thinking and acting. This is prevention as opposed to reacting to situations without having a plan.
One size does not fit all. But keep learning and growing to become a more effective leader. Be prepared to leave your comfort zone and do things that most people do not think counselors should or can. Because, counselors are the heart of the school.