Secondary school students in Canada are trying to cope with more stressors than ever before. Social media exploitation and bullying, access to drugs and alcohol, mental health issues and socio-economic factors like unemployment, divorce, and abuse have infiltrated virtually every corner of our country and are challenging educators and pupils in all regions.
High school guidance counsellors are on the front lines of the battle to provide a safe and inclusive learning environment for all students – a battle some would say is getting tougher and tougher to handle.
Erin Luong is a school counsellor and Mental Health Literacy Teacher for the Calgary Catholic School District. She is also the president-elect for the Alberta Teachers’ Association Council of School Counsellors. She has been a practicing school counsellor for the last 14 years and has experience counselling at all grade levels from Kindergarten to Grade 12, with the majority of her time spent working at the high school level. Erin was the proud recipient of the Alberta Teachers’ Association Murray Jampolsky Award (2016) for Outstanding Practice as a School Counsellor.
She believes her most important roles include supporting students with high school and post-secondary course selection and scholarship information, individual and group counselling with special assistance during times of crisis, coordinating school and community services for education, mental health, justice, newcomers and health care, as well as career counselling.
“As our students’ needs become more complex, it is important that guidance counsellors use evidence-based approaches to work with students. Opportunities for life-long learning, networking to share best practice and mentorship are important for both urban and rural school counsellors,” she says.
Statistics Canada released a report in 2017 which was based on the 2012 Canadian Community Health Survey – Mental Health. Findings indicate that 11% of youth aged 15 to 24 fit into the criteria for depression at some point in their lives and almost half of them reported suicidal thoughts.
The most recent report available from Statistics Canada regarding the use of illicit drugs among young people was commissioned in 2015 and found that 21% of youth aged 15 to 19 years reported that they had consumed at least one illegal drug including cannabis, cocaine or crack, ecstasy, speed or methamphetamines, hallucinogens or heroin in the previous year. Overall in Canada, the use of illicit drugs increased from 11% of the nation’s population in 2013 to 13% in 2015.
Melissa Fuhr is a high school counsellor at John Paul II Collegiate in North Battleford, Saskatchewan. She has a Bachelor of Arts Psychology/Sociology from the University of Saskatchewan and is currently completing the last three classes towards her Bachelor of Social Work from the University of Regina.
Fuhr describes her thoughts on some of the challenges facing guidance counsellors in today’s school environment, “Each of these students require a number of different supports whether it be providing relevant information and coaching, identifying and connecting them to resources in the community, communication with parents and teachers when necessary, and all of the required documentation that comes with those things. There doesn’t ever seem to be enough time to see the students we need to see plus implement mental health promotion. Perhaps the biggest challenge, however, is mentally switching gears; in any given day we deal with such diverse and complicated issues such as addiction, suicidal ideation, anxiety, family problems and struggles with gender identity, just to name a few. Students will come to us at times feeling overwhelmed and require immediate assistance. To finish with one student and their concerns and then shift our thinking into an entirely different mindset, within minutes, takes practice!”
Poverty can also adversely affect kids in the school system. With almost 1.2 million Canadian children younger than 18 (17.0%) living in a low‑income household, it is inevitable that secondary school counsellors will encounter a student without adequate food, shelter, clothing and school supplies at some point in their career.
Geographical location can also be a factor that may pose additional complications for school counsellors. The challenges of isolation combined with difficulty in accessing additional resources can impact a counsellor’s ability to perform their duties as they may wish.
Trent Langdon, M.Ed. (Counselling Psychology), C.C.C. has been a teacher since 2003 and has worked as a guidance counsellor for the past 13 years. Prior to this, he worked in adolescent, residential group homes, and within senior management roles with Boys and Girls Clubs of Newfoundland and Labrador. Trent is currently Vice-President of the Newfoundland and Labrador Teachers Association (NLTA). He has served two terms as President of the Newfoundland and Labrador Counsellors and Psychologists Association (NLCPA) and one term as President of the School Counsellors Chapter of the Canadian Counselling and Psychotherapy Association (CCPA).
“There exists a ‘Standards of Practice’ document for Guidance Counsellors in Newfoundland however the role is not clearly defined nor is it equivalent across schools. One thing that is common however, is the guidance counsellor’s role in ‘triage’ for its school. They are responsible for comprehensive assessment procedures (psycho-educational testing), counselling, family supports, crisis response, management and consultation of student support services, school-wide Guidance programming, and student issues as they emerge. The ‘triage’ reference relates to the guidance counsellors role in addressing emergent needs and unexpected situations, frequently consuming their efforts. It is also important to note that guidance counsellors are typically assigned based on a ratio of 1:500 students, many being responsible for multiple schools, some with excessive travel within rural areas, and often having ‘other teaching duties’,” Langdon says.
So what is the state of school counselling in Canada? In this article, we will explore the challenges and rewards for secondary school counsellors in the various regions of our nation, from coast to coast to coast.
The sheer remoteness of Canada’s north correlates directly to school staffing issues and a lack of educational options for students. For some, getting to school every day means a long bus ride or even requires a young person to leave their home in order to gain their high school diploma. In addition, housing shortages, food insecurity and health issues can directly impact youth who are trying to achieve an education. However, advances in technology including video conferencing and faster internet access, as well as a growing acceptance of non-conventional learning opportunities provides students with more opportunities than ever before.
In Nunavut, there were 676 students in Grade 9, 975 in Grade 10, 775 in Grade 11 and 790 in Grade 12, with 43 schools in 25 communities that include 711.5 teaching positions and 9,889 students enrolled in the school system. While the number of guidance counselling positions was unavailable, the teacher to student ratio in the region is 1:13.9.
The total population of Nunavut is 35,944. There are 6555 residents are aged 10-19 years. Population density is 0.019 per square kilometre with 1,877,778.53 square kilometres of land area.
Yukon Territory has four secondary schools with Grades 8-12 students. There are also 13 other schools that provide secondary school programming to students. As of September 2018, there are 1,984 secondary students enrolled in Grades eight through 12. 6.88 full-time equivalent (FTE) high school guidance counsellors are employed in Whitehorse. Outside of Whitehorse, there 6.4 FTE guidance counsellors that assist Kindergarten to Grade 12 students and are not dedicated to a specific grade level. The guidance counsellor FTEs are also combined with teacher or other educator roles that have guidance counsellor responsibilities. Those numbers add up to one guidance counsellor per every 149.3 students.
While the total population of Yukon Territory numbers 35,874, there are 3955 residents were aged 10-19 years. The total land area includes 474,712.68 square kilometre and population density is 0.1 per square kilometre.
In Northwest Territories, there were 2782 students enrolled in grades nine through 12 during the 2017/2018 school year. There are about 6 individuals who perform guidance counselling duties, some of whom also have other duties. That means there is approximately one guidance counsellor for every 463.7 students.
Total population in Northwest Territories is 41,786 over 1,143,793.86 square kilometres, with a population density of 0.036 per square kilometre. 5455 residents were 10-19 years old.
As of the 2016 Canadian Census, there were 35,151,728 people in Canada, with nearly one in three living in the West. Over half of Canada’s Indigenous population also live in the western provinces so it is especially important that school counsellors are knowledgeable about Indigenous history and culture.
In British Columbia there were approximately 266,341 students enrolled in grades eight to 12 during the 2017/2018 school year. Schools in B.C. are organized to provide educational opportunities for students in specific grades or grade ranges. These grade ranges are: Elementary (K-7), Elementary-Junior Secondary (K-10), Elementary-Secondary (K-12), Middle School (6-9), Junior Secondary (8-10), Secondary (8-12) and Senior Secondary (11, 12). There were over 700 teacher counselor positions in the K-12 public education system in 2017/2018.
The total population of British Columbia is 4,648,055, with 492,840 in the age range of 10-19 years old. Population density is 5.0 per square kilometre with 922,503.01 square kilometres of land area.
In Alberta, there are 627 public, separate, Francophone, charter and private schools with students enrolled in grades 10, 11, 12 with 162,149 students enrolled at the beginning of the 2018-19 school year. The number of guidance counsellors in the province was not available, however there were a total of 49,816 teachers throughout Alberta.
The total population of Alberta is 4,067,175, with 481,955 in the age range of 10-19 years old. Population density is 6.4 per square kilometre with 640,330.46 square kilometres of land area.
Containing six of Canada’s top ten largest cities, the eastern region has a large proportion of youth living in metropolitan areas. A recent study from researchers at Duke University and King’s College London discovered that 12-year-olds in urban neighbourhoods were almost twice as likely to suffer from a psychotic symptom as those living in rural areas. In their study, approximately 7.4 percent of children living in urban areas had experienced at least one psychotic symptom by age 12, compared to 4.4 percent residing in non-urban areas.
In the school year 2016/2017, there were nearly 2,000 guidance teacher-counsellors in publicly-funded secondary schools in Ontario with a total of 629,538 students. Those numbers add up to a ratio of one guidance counsellor for every 314.8 secondary school students.
The total population of Ontario is 13,448,494, with 1,566,200 in the age range of 10-19 years old. Population density is 14.8 per square kilometre with 908,699.33 square kilometres of land area.
As of 2013/2014 there were a total of 1,183,590 students enrolled in public elementary and secondary schools in Quebec. In 2015/2016 there were 99,243 full and part-time teachers in public elementary and secondary schools in the province. While specific numbers of guidance counsellors were unavailable, the approximate ratio of teachers to students is 1:11.9.
The total population of Quebec is 8,164,361, with 848,985 in the age range of 10-19 years old. Population density is 6.0 per square kilometre with 1,356,625.27 square kilometres of land area.
On September 30, 2016, there were a total of 97,842 students in New Brunswick and 7,382.4 teaching positions. 32,121 students were in grades nine to 12. There were 161.5 guidance counsellors employed in all levels which equates to about one guidance counsellor for every 605.8 students.
The total population of New Brunswick is 747,101, with 78,485 in the age range of 10-19 years old. Population density is 10.5 per square kilometre with 71,388.81 square kilometres of land area.
In the province of Nova Scotia, there are 91 schools that have students enrolled in a senior grade (Grades 10-12). Depending on the configuration of the school, there may also be students enrolled in other grades such as Primary-12 or 7-12. There were 29,245 students enrolled in Grades 10-12 in 2017/2018. In 2017-18, there were 128 Guidance Counsellors in the 91 schools mentioned above. Currently, the provincial recommended ratio of students to guidance counsellors is 1:500. This applies to both elementary and secondary schools. In areas, where there are fewer than 500 students, guidance counsellors may be shared between schools.
The total population of Nova Scotia is 923,598, with 97,100 in the age range of 10-19 years old. Population density is 17.4 per square kilometre with 52,942.27 square kilometres of land area.
Prince Edward Island
There were approximately 5000 students enrolled in Grades ten to 12 in Prince Edward Island in September 2014. Exact numbers of guidance counsellors were not readily available, however the teacher to student ratio in the province over all grade levels was 1:12.7.
The total population of Prince Edward Island is 142,907, with 16,425 in the age range of 10-19 years old. Population density is 25.1 per square kilometre with 5,686.03 square kilometres of land area.
Newfoundland and Labrador
In Newfoundland and Labrador, there were 15,413 students in grades ten through 12 in 2017/2018. There were 175 full-time equivalent guidance counsellors employed at all levels. With a total enrollment of 65,401 from Kindergarten to Grade 12, the ratio of guidance counsellors to students was 1:373.7.
The total population of Newfoundland and Labrador is 519,716, with 53,290 in the age range of 10-19 years old. Population density is 1.4 per square kilometre with 370,514.08 square kilometres of land area.
The low ratio of guidance counsellors to students appears to be a common issue across the country.
Martia MacLean is a School Counsellor with the Cape Breton Victoria Regional Centre for Education as well as President of the Nova Scotia School Counsellors’ Association, a Professional Association of the Nova Scotia Teachers’ Union. She has been a School Counsellor for the last 15 years and has been fortunate to have had the opportunity to work with all grade levels as a School Counsellor.
MacLean says, “In Nova Scotia schools are funded based on student numbers, and funding for school counsellors fall within that formula. Currently the recommended ratio is 1:500 (counsellor to student). Numerics don’t always represent need, and this has also been a struggle for School Counsellors. I also believe it is fair statement to say that we are facing a shortage of School Counsellors in the province.”
Langdon concurs, “The challenges are heavily rooted in workload expectations, high student-to-counsellor ratios, lack of clarity (and protection) of roles, and meeting the needs of all students given the wide-spread geography of our province.”
And Luong adds, “We would like school jurisdictions to be aware of the value of investing in school counsellors. ‘In Alberta, school counsellors are certificated teachers who have received additional professional development or graduate-level training that prepares them to support students’ personal, social, educational and career development, as well as promote students’ mental health and well-being.’ (https://docs.wixstatic.com/ugd/c0e3ce_3a1a4f04556346e58afc9384ed25e82b.pdf). Employing teacher counsellors has a positive effect on student achievement because teacher counsellors understand both the individuals’ developmental needs and the school system. Dr. Merali’s research ‘Briefing on Social Return on Investment for School Counselling’ (University of Alberta) recommends that the optimal student-school counsellor ratio would be one counsellor for every 250 students.”
While student needs may vary from region to region, and the challenges may seem overwhelming at times, the emotional and professional compensation of guidance counselling positions are similar everywhere.
“Being a School Counsellor is a wonderful career. There are so many rewards it is difficult to pick one but having the opportunity to develop relationships with students sometimes at the highest or lowest points of their lives is always such a learning experience. To feel the trust that students and families share with you is immeasurable and to be invited to help, is very humbling,” shares MacLean.
Fuhr agrees, “I am rewarded daily in my job just by building relationships with our students. When we see a student struggle and then watch as they become empowered to overcome the barriers they face and achieve their goals, no matter how long it may take, is extremely rewarding. I have met some of the most amazing young people in this position. To have a student come and say ‘I could not have made it to graduation without your help.’ is the best feeling. Watching those successes makes what is a very demanding and exhausting job at times worth every minute.”
And Luong sums it up nicely, “Guidance counsellors are some of the luckiest people in the world. We are given the privilege to meet our students at their level and help them to soar.”
By: Jackie Fritz
1 Study: Depression and suicidal ideation among Canadians aged 15 to 24. https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/daily-quotidien/170118/dq170118b-eng.htm
2 Canadian Tobacco Alcohol and Drugs (CTADS): 2015 summary. https://www.canada.ca/en/health-canada/services/canadian-tobacco-alcohol-drugs-survey/2015-summary.html
3 Statistics Canada: 2016 Census Census in Brief: Children living in low‑income households. https://www12.statcan.gc.ca/census-recensement/2016/as-sa/98-200-x/2016012/98-200-x2016012-eng.cfm
4 Government of Nunavut, Department of Education 2015/16 Annual Report
5 Government of Nunavut, Department of Education 2014/15 Annual Report
6 Government of Canada, Census Profile, 2016 Census
7 Government of Yukon
8 Government of Canada, Census Profile, 2016 Census
9 Department of Education, Culture and Employment, Government of the Northwest Territories
10 Government of Canada, Census Profile, 2016 Census
11 BC Ministry of Education
12 Government of Canada, Census Profile, 2016 Census
13 Government of Alberta
14 The Alberta Teachers’ Association. https://www.teachers.ab.ca/About%20the%20ATA/WhatWeDo/2017-Annual-Report/Pages/Member-Services.aspx
15 Government of Canada, Census Profile, 2016 Census
16 Ontario Ministry of Education
17 Government of Canada, Census Profile, 2016 Census
18 Statistics Canada. Headcount enrolments in public elementary and secondary schools, Canada, provinces and territories, 2007/2008 to 2011/2012.
19 Statistics Canada. Number of full-time and part-time educators, public elementary and secondary schools, by age group and sex
20 Government of Canada, Census Profile, 2016 Census
21 Government of New Brunswick, Summary Statistics School Year 2016-2017 Prepared by Policy & Planning Division, Department of Education and Early Childhood Development
22 Government of Canada, Census Profile, 2016 Census
23 Government of Nova Scotia, Department of Education and Early Childhood Development
24 Government of Canada, Census Profile, 2016 Census
25 Government of Prince Edward Island, Department of Education and Early Childhood Development, Annual Report 2014-2015
26 Government of Canada, Census Profile, 2016 Census
27 Government of Canada, Census Profile, 2016 Census