How to Become a School Counselor
The role of a school counselor is vital to the success of students of all ages, from elementary school to college. These specialized counselors have a positive impact on the students they work with. They help their young charges gain a stronger understanding of themselves and their potential.
A school counselor acts as a dependable, informative mentor and guide, typically for a vibrant community of students with diverse individual personalities, interests, and future plans. These compassionate professionals work with youth to help students set reasonable and realistic academic, social, and career goals; create the strategies needed to fulfill those goals; and develop the necessary skills for success.
School counselors work one-on-one with students of all ages, performing a range of assessments to pinpoint their strengths and to uncover any areas in need of improvement. With younger students, counselors are charged with additional responsibilities that include safeguarding the health and wellness of the children, and reporting suspected cases of abuse or neglect.
At every level, becoming a school counselor is an opportunity to contribute to the positive growth and development of an entire generation. School counselors often take pride in their career accomplishments, and with good reason—they are a driving force behind the success of their communities, and society as a whole.
A school counselor may work at any level of education, including elementary, middle and high school as well as college. They are employed for all grade levels at both private and public schools. In general, counselors work a full-time schedule, but some have summers off depending on the school's operating calendar.
The specific scope for the day-to-day activities of school counselors varies according to the grade level of the school that employs them. Counselors who work at an elementary school are more involved with behavioral issues and overall student health and safety. Middle school counselors typically work with students on social skills as they make the difficult transition from youth to young adult.
For high school counselors, the most essential tasks are helping students choose the best strategies for formulating future goals and preparing for either further education, or entry into the work force. Finally, college-level counselors assist students with making the most of their impending degrees through the development of career selections, job skills, resumes, and essential interviewing techniques.
The first step in the education of a school counselor is to obtain a bachelor's degree—usually in counseling, psychology, or social work, though a degree in a related field can be acceptable. Following this four-year program, candidates must obtain a specialized master's degree in school counseling, which is required by most states for employment as a counselor in a school or university setting.
Basic coursework for this master's degree includes counseling techniques and various approaches to academic, social, and behavioral issues. For those looking to become college counselors, additional courses that deal with career counseling are required. School counselors should also expect to enroll in continuing education courses throughout their careers, in order to keep up with the latest developments in the field.
Once classroom training is complete, the majority of counseling programs continue with an internship or mentoring program, where the candidate is teamed with an experienced counselor to learn through observation. Some states require this mentorship stage as a condition for employment.
Licensing and/or Certification
Most states require school counselors to hold some form of certification or license. These requirements and programs vary from state to state. The American School Counselor Association (ASCA) provides links for each state's requirements, as well as information on professional development.
Necessary Skills and Qualities
Successful school counselors have excellent, highly developed listening skills, and both written and oral communication skills. These professionals are detail-oriented, able to think critically, and efficiently organized, with the ability to maintain detailed records.
Any counselor, particularly those who are employed in a school setting, must maintain high ethical and professional standards at all times. School counselors often have serious legal responsibilities, such as state laws that mandate the reporting of suspected abuse, and must be able to deal with delicate and potentially damaging situations.
Finally, an effective school counselor is compassionate, understanding, and enjoys working with people of all ages, from youth to parents and school staff members. School counselors must possess the ability to read personalities and potential, in order to guide the decisions that will have a lifelong impact on their students.
Opportunities for Advancement
Within the academic framework, there are opportunities for school counselors to advance into positions as administrators or educators. They may also become mentors for students seeking to enter the counseling field, or they can choose to enter management or supervisory positions, where responsibilities include overseeing the work and training of other counselors.
College counselors can advance into positions as college professors, where they often work to further the counseling profession through teaching and field research.
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According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average annual income of school counselors is $56,160 as of May 2013. However, salaries stretch as low as $31,850 for the bottom ten percent and as high as $86,870 for the top ten percent.
The salary for a school counselor is typically dependent on the level (elementary or secondary school versus college and university), the location of the position (rural or urban), and the experience of the individual counselor. The BLS reports that counselors at the elementary or secondary level earned an average $63,100 annually, whereas counselors at university level earned an average annual income of $49,320.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that school counselor employment will increase by 12% from 2012 to 2022, which is roughly the same as the average for all occupations.
With rising enrollment in schools from elementary levels through college, the prospects for employment in school counseling should continue to improve. Currently as a nation, we employ not nearly enough school counselors to meet the nationally recommended ratio of one counselor for every 200 students; our current ratio is roughly one counselor per 471 students (less than half the number deemed sufficient). An increase in employment of school counselors depends to an extent upon increases in education funding.
Recent stirrings on the national policy front may bode well for greater job prospects in the future. In July 2014, as part of an effort to bolster college attendance among low- and middle-income students, the Obama administration organized a summit of experts to discuss ways to make school counseling more robust, casting greater focus on the vital importance of counselors in the lives of students. As long as young people attend school, there will be opportunities for school counselors to make profound and positive contributions in their lives.