Counsellor’s Corner: From the Classroom to Guidance: The Anxieties New Counsellors Face

When I became the Department Head of Guidance three years ago, I had 10 years of guidance experience under my belt in two schools. I replaced the existing guidance head who was retiring and he ran our department with ease.  It was wonderful working for and with him. We had a small team that consisted of our department head, myself and two other counsellors. In many ways, it was like a “dream team.”

Then came my turn. In the three years since I took over the position, the role and department has changed. This year, our department is welcoming two new guidance counsellors to replace two seasoned veterans who retired this past June.  I know these new counsellors are going to be anxious. I often think of the time when I was hired on as a guidance counsellor many years ago, and the fears and anxieties I had leaving the classroom to take on this wonderful and impactful role.

In my situation, I came to the position after I was approached by my Principal to see if I was interested in transitioning into Guidance. It sounded like a great opportunity.  However, I remember the fear, the uncertainty and the anxiety around trying to suddenly learn student timetabling, the details of various post-secondary programs, not to mention learning strategies to help counsel students.  I didn’t know if I was really ready to leave the classroom permanently at that time, but I met the challenge head on. I came in early and stayed late, trying to learn as much as I could from my colleagues. They were outstanding teachers and I am forever grateful to them.  They were very patient with me but they were also very busy themselves. I quickly learned that the pace of guidance was incredibly different from that of a classroom teacher insofar as we are not bell-driven, but rather, calendar-driven.  Where I had a prep period when I was in the classroom, as a counsellor I found I had no time.

Fast-forward 13 years and now I am the Department Head of Guidance at a different school, with established practices. This September, as the new counsellors come on board, I wonder how they feel about leaving their classrooms to join our team and work with the students in a different capacity. I hope they know how welcomed they are and how much of an impact they will be making. I arranged for a few training sessions with them as the 2018-2019 year drew to a close. I had them job shadow the veteran counsellors, helped them learn a bit about timetabling, gave them a primer on career counselling – basically helping them to get their feet wet. Above and beyond the daily tasks, I tried to help them see the more subtle qualities that make a fantastic counsellor.  I also shared some advice that I found helped me as a novice counsellor many years ago:

Fear of “Getting it Wrong” – We all make mistakes…all of us. As a new counsellor, there is always a fear of giving the wrong answer to a student. However, one piece of advice I was given, and that I continue to follow (and all the best counsellors I know follow as well) is: if in doubt, just ask!  We encourage counsellors in our office to interrupt the experienced counsellors and ask their questions; there is no question too small or insignificant to ask. As a new counsellor, I remember asking my fellow counsellors and department head many questions. They never seemed bothered by my interruptions and always encouraged me to keep asking. We continue this practice in our department today.  All counsellors, novice and experienced are encouraged to ask when in doubt.

Detailed-oriented work.  In our role, we perform detail-oriented tasks.  We double and triple check course codes, post-secondary pre- and co-requisites, scholarship application requirements, failure reports, summer/night school applications, course registrations, missing pre-requisites for various courses, and specialty program requirements. My advice would be to take your time. Even if some tasks seem tedious, they are all necessary tasks that need to be met with care and detail. 

What’s in the best interest of the student? The best and most important piece of advice I would offer to a new counsellor was shared with me many years ago by my first department head.  As I sat in an unfamiliar office, with piles of registration packages and course request forms on my newly inherited desk (and I’m sure a look of dread on my face), he said to me, “Anna, if all else fails, always remember, if it’s in the best interest of the student sitting across from you, then you are making the right decision. We are here for the students and to assist them on their journey.” 

As this school year begins, teachers new to Guidance will sometimes be uncertain of all the rules, expectations, and mitigating factors involved in the job – and that is okay.  The impact you are making on each individual student who sits across from you will long be felt by many of those students years after they have graduated.   Always remember that if, during those uncertain times, you are making a decision for a student that is in their best interest, you are doing great!  Welcome to Guidance!

Anna Macri has spent most of her 20 years in education in Guidance and Career Education. She recently took on the position of Department Head of Guidance at St. Marcellinus Secondary School, in Mississauga, Ontario.