School Counselor of the Year Reflects on What Students and Teachers Lost...

Opinion | Teaching and Learning

School Counselor of the Year Reflects on What Students and Teachers Lost and Gained in 2022

By Alma Lopez     Jan 4, 2023

School Counselor of the Year Reflects on What Students and Teachers Lost and Gained in 2022

As 2022 turned into 2023, EdSurge asked educators and education leaders to share reflections on learning “lost” and “gained.”

Over the past two years, most of us have lost the certainty in everyday life that we once knew and perhaps took for granted. In addition to the loss of certainty and routine, many of us have experienced loss in our personal and professional lives. As our new normal continues on and we begin 2023, I’m reflecting on what my students and I lost in 2022—and what we’ve gained.

As a school counselor, I spend my days serving 835 middle school students in a rural district in Livingston, California. My days involve a combination of classroom counseling, meeting students in small groups and one-on-one sessions and consulting with staff and caregivers.

My profession, like many others, has had to pivot repeatedly over the past few years, which has taken its toll. Since March 2020, we’ve seen so much change. As students have struggled to return to the school building, make friends, resolve conflict in a healthy and effective manner, readjust to school and learn to cope with the many losses and changes that they and their families have endured, more of our students have needed individual counseling than ever before. To add a layer of complexity, many counselors, myself included, lost loved ones due to COVID or other causes. That kind of heartache hurts profoundly, yet the continued needs of my students forced me to move forward without the time needed to grieve and begin to heal.

School was once thought of as a safe place for students and educators, but many students, staff and families have lost a sense of safety and security. The teachers and counselors in my school have been working harder than ever it seems, but despite our best efforts, the effects of the past two years are palpable.

In some of the schools in our district, we have seen regression in academic test scores, significant learning loss and an increase in students dropping out of high school. We’ve seen more disruptive behavior resulting in increased disciplinary actions including suspension. We’ve heard more students say they don’t want to be in school and we’ve seen more students engaging in self-harming behaviors and reporting suicidal thinking. And it’s not just the students, more staff are retiring early or leaving the education system altogether.

Our district has been reflecting on what changes we can make to better support members of our community in these areas. For example, how can we continue to increase students' sense of belonging and connection to school so that they want to attend daily and behave in ways that keep them engaged in their learning? We are asking ourselves how we can intentionally support the mental health and well-being of our students and staff so they can feel empowered to be the best version of themselves.

While the losses we experienced in 2022 are indisputable, there have also been gains, and we’ve been reflecting on our growth as well. Personally, I have gained an incredible sense of purpose over the last year and that motivates me a great deal. I’ve realized that as an educational leader, I have a responsibility to get loud and speak up for future generations, starting with today’s young people. The borrowed words of Congressman John Lewis often echo in my mind: “If not us, then who? If not now, then when?”

Fortunately, over the past two years, there have been more efforts to build awareness of the youth mental health crisis. Education and government leaders are talking about mental health and well-being more directly. In 2021, U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy issued a Protecting Youth Mental Health advisory which called public attention to the urgent mental health matter and provided recommendations for how families, communities, educational institutions, health care organizations, companies and more can take meaningful action.

There has also been guidance issued for how schools and districts can prioritize and promote the social, emotional and mental health of students and educators. The U.S. Secretary of Education, Dr. Miguel Cardona, outlined recommendations in The Road To Success For the 2022-2023 School Year, identifying four priorities that I agree are essential to making meaningful and intentional impacts as we move forward:

  • Priority 1: Support the health and safety of students, school personnel and families
  • Priority 2: Build school communities and support students’ social, emotional and mental health
  • Priority 3: Accelerate academic achievement
  • Priority 4: Support educator and staff stability and well-being

There is still work to be done, but my district has been able to add some much-needed resources, and that’s something we’re celebrating. These resources have bolstered our teaching, strengthened our connections with families and improved access to high-quality health care and social services.

For example, we added more K-2 teachers to decrease the student-to-teacher ratio for our youngest students who spent their earliest years in distance learning. And we have added parent liaisons to each school site to strengthen our home-school connections and our relationships with families.

Early on in the pandemic, we added health aides and an additional nurse to address immediate health and contract-tracing needs. We recently added a third school counselor to our middle school, increasing student access to a school-based mental health professional. A certified behavioral analyst will join our district’s staff this month to support our students’ behavioral needs. We have enhanced our community partnerships to include an on-site mental health clinician as well as telehealth counseling for students. We also offer professional yoga classes to both our students and staff and we've created a virtual calming room for our students to access.

As we move forward into the new year, it is critical that educators stand together and speak up for our students and their needs. We’ve learned a lot about the role schools play in our lives and we can leverage what we’ve learned to bring about change.

COVID-19 changed education in America—permanently, and it is now widely recognized that schools do much more beyond teaching academic skills. Schools need massive, ongoing reinvestment as they provide daily meals, child care, school-based mental health counseling, medical and dental care for children and other services that support student well-being. In many communities, school is the hub for services and we need to ensure that schools have what they need.

We’ve learned the difference between physically distant and socially distant and that connecting can happen in-person and virtually. We’ve learned the incredible power of giving grace to one another and ourselves. We’ve learned that schools support and raise children—and school communities include teachers, instructional aides, bus drivers, cafeteria workers, principals, superintendents, families, service providers, school counselors, and the list goes on. We each play an essential role in the lives of the students we serve and our students' success is determined in part by the collective belief we have in each of them—and in ourselves.

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