His face reddened and the blue veins in his neck bulged over his black and white clerical collar as he leaned in toward me for emphasis. "Your job," he sternly declared, "is to get these kids into the top colleges." The school president made it abundantly clear to me on my first day on the job that the role of the school counselor at a private high school is different than what I was used to in public schools.
He had little interest in my counseling skills or credentials; I was hired for my experience navigating students through the college admissions process. His vision and purpose clarified my role. This private high school already had a solid reputation for college placement, and much of the burden to maintain that standing had just been placed upon my shoulders.
"The role of the school counselor, in both public and private education...is a complex role consisting of multiple hats. Many school counselors, in addition to counseling, spend time in tasks that involve advising, administration, teaching, and program planning and development." (Goodell & Robinson, 2008, p.522). Scarborough (2005) studied school counselor work activities and recognized that the assignment of non-counseling duties relates to counselor roles being determined by administrators, not by best practice. Counselor education training programs emphasize counseling theory and practice, which often turn out to be a small percentage of a high school counselor's tasks. I have often said that counseling is all of my training, half of my title, but only a fraction of my actual job.
Career Counseling in Private Schools
While I enjoy working in the private setting even more than I did in public schools, there are some clear differences in the role of the counselor. Since the college advising function dominates at private schools, it necessarily detracts from other useful aspects of the counselor's time - especially counseling itself. At the Catholic schools I have seen, the counseling function is, to some extent, supplemented by campus ministry. For example, a student with a concern about a counseling issue may bypass the counselor and present the issue to a campus priest, a pastoral counselor. Religious retreats for students often have a component which resembles group counseling, but it is without the stigma because they don't call it that. School counselors are more likely to engage in group guidance (i.e. meeting in classes to teach about the college admissions process.) I often remind my students (or is it myself?) that I am a trained counselor, not just the college guy.
Regarding career planning, public and private school curricula reflect different approaches to career preparation. Public schools naturally offer more vocational training options for the non-college bound students, but there are also differences in the options for college-bound students. While private schools tend to focus on traditional college prep courses, many public schools offer more creative opportunities such as internship programs and a wider variety of specialized electives. It is a tradeoff- would a college prefer to see an applicant to its accounting program who took a high school accounting course, or one who used that time to take a more traditional advanced math course?
Image is Everything
Private school administrators are often concerned with the school's public image. The importance of statistics is reflected in annual reports to alumni, donors, and parents. Everything is done with another key stakeholder in mind: prospective parents. Two anecdotes illustrate this emphasis.
I wrote a monthly school newsletter submission that cited startling statistics on current record levels of college applications and selectivity. My purpose was to help our students anticipate a national trend. Before publication, the administration insisted the article be modified to show more "value added" - with fewer statistics about competitiveness and more about how well our students are prepared. I realized that the purpose of this newsletter was not just to disseminate news, it was also to serve as a marketing tool.
After one local scholarship program publicly announced its annual winners - and our school was not represented - I was called out for not promoting the scholarship aggressively enough and causing our school to miss an opportunity to publicize the accomplishments of our students. These two examples illustrate how private schools work hard to build, maintain, and promote their reputations.
Once Upon a Time
A colleague of mine had the opposite experience, first working for years as a counselor in a private high school then transitioning into a public high school. She describes her first years as a "trial by fire" but loved building relationships in the school community and having the autonomy to create programs and run things her way. Then her shift to public school got off to a rough start. She missed the smaller, closer knit private school and felt the public school was a rude awakening. Looking back, she recalls, "Almost immediately I knew that I wasn't in Kansas anymore."
I am careful not to over-generalize from my experiences to all private or all public schools. I also observed other noteworthy differences, including: student caseload ratios, admissions selectivity, involvement in special education, job security and tenure, salary, etc. Both public and private school counselors face similar challenges, but different schools emphasize different parts of the job.
Counselors must juggle multiple responsibilities - balancing allegiance to students, fidelity to professional standards, and a commitment to their employer. New counselors must be alert to each school's priorities and role expectations.
Goodell, J., & Robinson, D. (2008). Through the Glass Darkly: New Paradigms for Counselors,Courage, and Spirituality in Contemporary Education. Catholic Education: A Journal of Inquiry and Practice, 11(4), 522-542.
Scarborough, J. (2005). The School Counselor Activity Rating Scale: An instrument for gathering process data. Professional School Counseling, 8, 274-283.
Mark Veronica is a doctoral student in Counselor Education at the State University of New York at Buffalo, where he earned a B.A. in psychology and an Ed.M. in School Counseling. He is a full time school counselor, with experience in various public and private high schools in western New York. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org