What, exactly, does a high school counselor do?

During the past two weeks, I was visiting my wife’s family up in Connecticut.  In addition to escaping the Texas heat and spending time at the beach, I also met up with one of my best friends, who is a teacher at a prestigious private school in CT.  He was having a cook-out at his house, and several of his colleagues were also there.

New England private schools tend to have a much different personnel set-up than ours in Texas, and I got into an interesting conversation with their school’s Director of Student Life.  After talking with him for nearly an hour, it sounded like his role was very similar to mine down here in Texas, despite my title being High School Counselor.
Thinking about my current role and having an in-depth discussion about it with a person in a similar role at another school made me realize that not everyone knows what a high school counselor does.  There are vague notions of “guidance counseling,” but what does that actually mean?  I want to take this opportunity to break down the four essential functions of my job.  Not all of these apply to every “high school counselor,” but I think it gives a pretty good idea of what it is counselors do.

1.  Academic counseling

Before I started working at my high school, I served seven years as the academic counselor for the University of Texas football team.  The main part of my job involved managing my 50 or so students’ academic lives and ensuring they met various NCAA academic eligibility requirements.

At my high school, I provide a similar service, although it does not necessarily involve athletic eligibility.  I monitor students’ progress towards gradation to ensure they are on the right track.  I also advise students and families of which particular courses they should take (Pre-AP/AP vs. on-level) and work with transfer students to determine course equivalencies.  Additionally, the rise in dual credit courses (those that offer both high school and college credit) has created some confusion as to what counts for our school versus what counts at the college the student will ultimately attend.  The key to successful academic counseling is knowing each student personally and tracking his or her progress the first day they step on campus.

2.  College counseling

Although we have a separate full-time college counselor, I do provide support for her.  It’s not unusual for me to work with a select few students throughout the year, with whom I have a good relationship, to walk them through the college admissions process.  I actually enjoy helping students discover new college options and help tailor their applications to optimize their chances of admission.

One important aspect of college counseling is establishing excellent relationships with the various college reps in our area.  Many of our students want to attend regional schools such as Texas, Texas A&M, Baylor, TCU, etc., so knowing those reps on a first name basis is essential.  We also have students who want to attend schools out of state.  Fortunately college reps practically break down our doors trying to get on campus, so it’s not too hard to find them.  Keeping positive relationships in the ever-changing world of college admissions is a big part of the job.

3.  Spiritual counseling

This is an aspect that is somewhat unique to faith-based schools such as ours.  We have a campus pastor that provides the vision and guidance for spiritual growth.  However, every adult on campus is expected to contribute to this mission.  For our school we have chapel every Wednesday and every student on campus spends an entire week on a mission trip, either in Texas, the U.S. or internationally.  Spiritual growth is built into our school, and it is my job to nudge students in the right direction.

Because we don’t require our students to be of any particular faith, we do have quite a range of faiths and beliefs (Christian, Muslim, Jewish, even atheists and agnostics).  It makes for some really dynamic conversations around campus.  Fortunately our campus pastor is amazing and open-minded.  He really has created a welcoming environment where students can ask questions and not feel judged.

4.  Social/Emotional counseling

This is the primary role for anyone with the word “counselor” in his or her title.  The rise of anxiety and depression has led to a prioritization of social/emotional programming in schools around the country.  About once a semester I am involved with a very severe case of SEL counseling that takes priority over anything else.  It’s heart-breaking to hear what some students are dealing with, but knowing there is help makes it a little easier.

The majority of SEL cases can be handled between the school and the parent.  However, in instances where the issues are beyond my or the school’s capability, I refer out to clinicians in the community.  Part of the role of SEL counseling is having a reliable list of psychologists, neuro-psychologists, social workers, and other crisis-intervention professionals on hand.  I’ve been building my list over the past 12 years, and the list will continue to grow.

High school counselors, no matter what their official titles are, have a very challenging yet rewarding careers.  This is just an overview of what I do as high school counselor.  Other counselors may have other duties, but at the end of the day, the overall goal is to promote the well-being of our students.