Advice from the 2015-2018 National School Counselors of the Year

By Laura Hoxworth

Award-winning school counselors present at annual UVA School Counseling Summit

From left: Kirsten Perry, Terri Tchorzynski, Katherine Pastor and Cory Notestine, the four most recent National School Counselor of the Year award recipients.

School counselors from across the Commonwealth gathered at the University of Virginia this week for the annual UVA School Counseling Summit, hosted by the Curry School of Education and Human Development and co-sponsored by the American School Counselor Association and the Virginia School Counselor Association.

This year’s speakers were the four most recent recipients of the American School Counselor Association’s School Counselor of the Year award: Cory Notestine (2015), Katherine Pastor (2016), Terri Tchorzynski (2017) and Kirsten Perry (2018). Each delivered an individual presentation, followed by a question-and-answer panel discussion where they fielded questions from an audience that included elementary, middle and high school counselors – from current graduate students to professionals with more than 20 years of experience in the field.

“It was a pleasure to have the four most recent national school counselors of the year in one room,” said Derick J. Williams, associate professor and director of the Curry School’s counselor education program. “Each gave a different perspective concerning the role of professional school counselors. The information they shared was foundational to our profession. They gave practical strategies for being educational and mental health leaders in our schools. Their talks motivated us to make a difference in our communities, schools and in the lives of school-aged youth.”

Throughout the morning, the group discussed topics including systemic change, counselor-principal partnerships, career development and professional learning communities. From specific tips to personal anecdotes and broad words of wisdom, they offered a wealth of advice.

On collaborating with administrators

In her presentation on counselor-principal partnerships, Pastor emphasized that if educators want their students to work together, they have a responsibility to model that behavior. “It’s important that your students see you and your administrators collaborating outside of the office,” she said.

In addition, she urged attendees to focus on solutions instead of problems – and to find common ground with administrators as a way to facilitate difficult conversations. “Find your relevancy within their position, and then you can have those crucial conversations,” she said.

Notestine, in his address focused on system change, said that change starts with a single idea – but even the best idea won’t get off the ground unless you find the right people to collaborate with you. “Great ideas flourish all the time," he said. But, "you’ve got to find a way to collaborate across networks."

On gaining buy-in from teachers

Cultivating an environment of collaboration extends to working with classroom teachers, too, the speakers said — and much of the same advice about building trust and focusing on solutions applies. Teachers, in particular, want to work with counselors in a way that helps them reach their goals in the classroom. When working to create change, “You have to find people and bring them to the conversation early on, so they feel like they have a say in the process and take some ownership of that,” said Notestine.

The speakers suggested that creating professional development opportunities for teachers is one way to work toward common goals. Counselors can partner with English teachers to build resume-writing workshops, for example, or lead professional development on topics like self-care, mindfulness and relaxation – skills and activities that teachers can bring into their classrooms for both their students and themselves.

Ultimately, they said, it’s about building relationships with teachers around the common goal of doing what’s best for their students. “We are all educators,” said Pastor.

On communicating with parents

The presenters also offered practical advice for how to encourage parents to get more involved. “One thing that I did was try to create opportunities to bring parents into the school,” said Tchorzynski. She also suggested that counselors consider planning fun evening activities and work on figuring out how to meet parents where they are – like setting up a financial aid workshop at the basketball game, for example.

The speakers encouraged counselors to consider the tools they use to communicate with parents. Making sure that contact information is up-to-date is key, as is considering how to use technology like text messaging and social media. In addition, Tchorzynski shared that her school found success in intentionally and personally inviting parents to events whenever possible, instead of sending mass emails or letters. “I think that one-on-one, proactive approach was much better received than just a letter,” she said.

On the value of data and evidence

To facilitate conversations with teachers, administrators and parents alike, all four speakers emphasized the importance of including data gleaned from needs assessments, time-task analyses, and other relevant measures that support the work of school counselors.

In her presentation on career counseling, Tchorzynski spoke about the value of bringing in relevant labor statistics – such as salary data and hiring projections – to help families envision a range of future career paths for their children.

Perry, who delivered a presentation on professional learning communities, argued that data matters because it gives focus to the work of school counselors and helps leads conversations back to impact on student achievement. She advised attendees to look for data points that demonstrate the impact of their work on student outcomes. “The work that we do needs to be data-driven and intentional,” she said. “If you’re going to be outside of your school building, it’s important that you can show the work that you’re doing.”

On becoming an advocate

Throughout the conference, all four counselors encouraged attendees to become advocates for the work of school counselors. “There’s a lot of misconceptions out there – a lot of misunderstandings about what we truly do,” said Tchorzynski. “It’s on us to make sure that we’re the advocates for our profession.”

Everyone, they said, has a unique skillset they can leverage in their day-to-day life to help others understand the important role that counselors play in a school. Depending on the particular school, that may involve working within the school, or it may involve leaving the boundaries of the district to find the right people to collaborate with. Either way, they encouraged attendees to say “yes” as much as possible – because even small conversations can serve as opportunities to advocate for the profession.

“It’s not just about us, it’s about all of the kids in our country using these critical services that we uniquely can provide for them,” said Perry. “Any small way that I can bring a voice to our profession through this position, I will. But what I’ve realized is that it didn’t take me having this platform to do that – we can all do that just by getting involved in our larger school communities.”