5 Ways to Empower Your Counseling Team to Thrive

The counseling department at my school is famous throughout our district. They’re incredible. They’re transformative. They are opening doors for our students and driving results with post-secondary successes.

One achievement we’re proud of is our students’ FAFSA completion rate. Our school has led the state in FAFSA completion for large high schools, winning us Arizona’s Most Improved FAFSA Completion Award a couple years ago, and ensuring that more of our students can afford college. The counseling team deserves the bulk of the credit for this growth.

Often people in the district will come up to me and say, “How come your counseling department is so magical? What is it? Can they train my staff?” And I’ll say, “Sure – my counselors will love to talk with your staff, but the truth is, they work hard. It’s hard, hard work.”

Part of the “magic” is that we do have amazing people on the team – and no, you cannot have them! – but, as administrators, we can do a lot to give a group of amazing people the space, time and resources they need to thrive. 

There’s no precise formula, but here are 5 guiding approaches that seem to be working for us.

1. Spend time listening in on the work of the counseling team, so you know how to lead them.

School leaders need to invest time in truly understanding what counselors do. I’ve attended some of the team’s meetings to build my own expertise. I go in just to listen – not to contribute or add any expectations, but just sit and listen, and sometimes ask clarifying questions, like “What was our FAFSA completion rate last year?” Or “What is a College and Career Readiness Indicator and what are we doing for it?” I knew I couldn’t lead a department if I didn’t grasp what they do, what they do well, where they face barriers and how I can help them overcome those barriers.

2. Make sure the whole staff understands and celebrates the work of the counseling team.

When I started as a teacher, I had a different lens on how the school worked than I do now. Sometimes I felt so frustrated when I started the school year and saw that I had a class list with 42 students on it. I didn’t understand everything on a counselor’s plate, and how prioritizing credit checks and senior placements and family communication might mean it took them longer than they would have liked to balance all the classes. As leaders, we can ease these tensions proactively, communicating with our staff about all the roles and responsibilities the counseling team juggles. When the whole staff gives the counseling department a bit more grace and compassion, it makes their work feel more sustainable.

3. Let your counselors tell YOU what they need.

As school leaders, we don’t “manage” our counseling team. We have schoolwide priorities such as making sure first-generation college students have the support they need and making sure every student completes the FAFSA, but our counseling team maps the course toward success. They create their own norms and systems.

When the counselors ask us to fund additional hours in the summertime, I find the budget. I know they will use those hours to pore over the schedules and make the changes and do whatever students need them to do. They’ll make personal phone calls about FAFSA completion. They’ll have intense conversations with students and families about the opportunities they might be giving up if they drop that AP class or take a part-time course load as a senior.

Counselors let us know what they need from us, and our job as a leadership team is to give them autonomy and wildly support them. What could be a better investment than personalized support for every student?

4. Remove every barrier you can.

When you have a counseling team like mine – a team that is committed and full of expertise – the best thing you can do is remove anything getting in their way. I tell counselors. “If you have a barrier, my job is to get it knocked down.” It’s my job to offer help and problem-solving ideas, to make connections and find resources. 

This is what it takes to make sure the counseling team feels like we’re part of the same team. If they don’t feel that support and see me making way for their innovative ideas, they’re not going to keep working to innovate.

5. Find ways to reward and recognize achievements.

I was so glad that my school was recognized for our improved FAFSA completion rates, and I did what I could to make sure the glory went to the people who deserved it most: our counselors. It’s important to recognize them, celebrate them and reward them for their transformative work. That’s what’s going to make them want to stay.

You can learn more about how the counselors in my school community support students and partner with families in this blog post.