Saturday, January 28, 2012

Incorrigible, Frustrating and Draining. To Know Them Is To Love Them.

You first get to know many "problem" students through a random moment of glancing at a progress report. You might meet them in a PowerSchool check. There is a discipline referral that is about dress code or cursing or a walk off the campus. They end up owing credit recovery for absences or they are on the list for truancy. Sometimes, they spring up immediately in a folder that is thick. You can tell by the heft, quite often, that their road has been a troubled one. A foster care designation is often a tragic surety of a dead-end future. Word gets to you about a divorce, a job loss.
You make lists, you send out passes, you go into classrooms, and you look for them in the cafeteria or hallway. Quite often they don't come to your office, because they are absent or they just won't come. They will take the pass and head out of their room, wander around, and then never come to the office, betting on not getting caught.
There is a disassociative quality to the whole thing that can set in, and meet them.
They finally come in, maybe because they know that they can't get away with not doing so, or they want to get out of class, or possibly, quite often, they want some help, some affirmation, something. And, you work hard to give that to them, after there is some rapport established over minutes, then hours, then days, then weeks, months, years. A comfort zone can develop with them, a fondness for their idiosyncocrasies, sometimes their excuses, and you feel for their desperate moments, their hopelessness. You work with them to smooth their path, come up with a plan, pat them on the back after good moments. Sometimes, you kick their arse for rudeness to a teacher, for apathy, for crossing the line back to the bad place.
Progress is made, then setbacks come. A home situation deterioates, a project isn't turned in, and a test is failed. You call for them, then notice that they are absent for one, two, three days. A class is failed, a court apperance occurs, and they come in despondent. You notice that they are dressed too casually, with unshaved faces or their piercings in their face, more so than usual. (There is a forgiveness for such things in the Counseling Center, but a scolding does take place.). Then, they want to know about GEDs or homeschooling, and the last two years, as we have no alternative program at my school, information about the Wings Program at DeSoto. Carefully, we lay out options, encourage, to think hard, more often than not, about staying in our school, working out a solution. They nod, look gloomy or indifferent or hopeful, and they leave to go back to class, or quite often, back home again, as they know that the dress code enforcement is coming or the thought of staying in class is too much.
You think happy thoughts, and you might make a hopeful phone call, and you wait. There is a system we have in place, after withdrawals started not showing up where they claimed they were going a few years ago. We have a withdrawal form given through Cheryl Holt, counseling secretary, then onto our transition specialist Terrye Lybrand, who works closely with the students and their parents in figuring their next step, which can be a simple transfer to another school because of a move, but with these students it is a good bye to the regular route. If we have our head down or get busy, we don't notice that they have shuffled through.
First Class e-mail dings, and there is a missing subject line. This indicates that a student has transferred out.
The hours spent rush back, there is a gut punched feeling, cursing a bit mixed in that you don't have a magic wand or even a mundane solution in that true alternative school that has so much going for it but that.
Then, you say a little prayer, asking for the blessings denied for or by that student leaving, and you move on to the next one, hoping for some fresh air of success to inflate your will. The papers, the folders, the reports walked and breathed, laughed and cried in your office, and you feel better and worse for knowing them as the people they became to you. Sometimes, news comes back to you that they graduated and are happy. Sometimes, you hear about their police report or their new baby on the way.
You frown and smile, then you turn to the fresh progress report on your desk, dreading the ding that might come in a quiet moment.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

David Moore, Texas Educator: A Week In The Life

David Moore, Texas Educator: A Week In The Life: I never knew what a counselor really did until I became one. I am still not sure if I am doing exactly what others do outside the realm of m...

A Week In The Life

I never knew what a counselor really did until I became one. I am still not sure if I am doing exactly what others do outside the realm of my world. In fact, I think that each and every place is probably unique to the locale, the makeup of the kids, the dynamic of the ratio of kid/counselor. Country, city, you get the drift. Elementary, middle school and high school are completely and utterly different, I have discovered, from conversations had and mutual blank stares while trading acronyms in district wide meetings.
Now, while I am detailing what I do, as I said once before, there is a rhythm to the year, with highlights and lowlights, and some weeks can be frantic while others are mundane and have a grinding quality. So, in order to fully edify and illuminate, I am going to do, by memory and creative license, a condensed version into a week. Everything is true, but the time frame and details are changed for dramatic purposes.
Over the weekend, there was a move by a family from a neighboring town. They want to enroll first thing, and they don't have all required paperwork. They must make phone calls, ask for faxes, meet with their assigned counselor, after Cheryl has greeted them and  explained what is required, by law, to be able to enroll. They don't like it, and they are not dressed to sit in a school setting. One "uncle" has their pajama bottoms on, with Homer Simpson prominently featured. The student is mad, sad, glad, sleepy, scared to be moving to what is their third school in the last two years. They will be reassured, assessed, checked over for discipline issues at their prior school, which WILL be transferred to us (something they don't want to happen.) Parents and their grandparents and a squirmy toddler finally leave them sitting alone, waiting on a schedule and a tour. We strike up a conversation with them, and we try to make a connection.
E-mail and phone messages are checked, triaged for urgency. A grandmother has died, and the parents are letting us know, and they have concerns about missing school. Someone needs a transcript or a VOE (driver's license attendace form) or a password for PowerSchool. There is a request for a conference to discuss the teacher who has failed their preciousness, and there is a call from a teacher who wants to know why another student has been put into their room that holds 30 with Susie being 31. We apologize and shrug, all at once, as there is no place to put that student and helpful suggestions about space aren't asked for or appreciated.
We call for students as the day starts, with our aides delivering passes. Many we call for are absent, but we block that time aside. There is a link to not being there and why we are needing to call for them. We make plans, hear rationalizations and justifications, and we give information regarding tutoring times. Some are receptive, and others give death stares and stumble out.
Classroom guidance day in English classrooms to our freshmen, sophomores, juniors or seniors. We divvy up the assignments into mostly 5 classes out of the 7 periods, but sometimes we go to 6 classes, if a counselor is away. We talk about study skills and show a Cosby clip where Cliff gives Theo the business. We play a game related to GPA and how much more goes into preparation for college than just grades. We give information about the SAT or ACT or PLAN or PSAT. We do surveys, and we hand out transcripts, and we go over scheduling requirements. (The state of TEXAS makes changes daily, monthly, yearly, and we have to get ahead of the curve. Sometimes, we get twisted.) We end most sessions by imploring or inviting students to come see us with issues, get applications turned in for classes or college, and there is some begging involving tutoring.
Testing day with the PLAN, the PSAT, an EXIT level TAKS test in the library technology center or the administration building. Our jobs have been to conduct trainings, get materials into testing boxes, check those materials out, roam the halls maing sure rooms are unlocked, desks are arranged, clocks are on walls. During testing, we put out little fires, with a reluctant scholar slobber sleeping on their desk, a late genius strolling in late, and a dress code issue that is beyond reasonable. We check tests back in, sort them, count them, package them, check for mistakes, load them up and we take them on a huge cart across the campus. They can't be left alone, at any point, and every single one must be accounted for or there is high anxiety. We leave later that day than usual to make sure all is secure, but we do get to wear jeans.
Meetings are plentiful, as we meet in ARDs wtih our Special Ed kids and their parents, either in person or by phone. 504s convene in our offices or the conference rooms,. Some take a few minutes, and some take hours, with legal types in the room. (I have personally been in a meeting with 16 people discussing one child's modifications, and I have heard some obsene language. Police have been summoned to be there as a precaution. I got breathed on by a nice lady with some Bud Light on her breath. She called me Tiger once on the phone.)
We trudge over to the admininstration building to meet with all the other counselors of the district. Sometimes, there are cookies there, and we have an agenda. It is nice to see all the other counselors, but we often have very little in common.
A military rep asks to meet with us to check on the progress on their recruits. A college rep comes by to give breakfast and update us on all the exciting opportunities there. The local workforce contact comes by to tell us of specifics of their program. The mental health facility invites us to come tour their programs, and there is a future lunch invitation.
Traditionally, this has become on most Fridays "Lamp Day" as previously mentioned, and there is a sense of closure to the week.  This is a day for catchup on paperwork, schedule changes, recommendation letters, checking credits. Jeans are worn with a spirit shirt, and there is a pep rally.
Many teachers are gone to events or tournaments, and there is a free flow into the Counseling Center by students with wanderlust or real problems. We try to touch base with students with more dire circumstances before the weekend. More students are absent on this day than Monday, so that makes time even more precious when they are there, with reassurance for the weekend ahead.
Once a month is birthday cake day in the lounge. We make sure we grab our piece early before it all disappears. There is sighing, and then there is an empty building by 4.
Some of us give the SAT or ACT on 9 Saturdays a year. We get paid for it about a month or so later, and often it comes in handy. The duty is about 5 hours long or so, and we feel that it offers a reassuring testing experience that we are there on our campus. We get to see our students' pajamas and what their hair looks like in a backwards cap. They get to go the college of their choice or get that scholarship.
Transcripts books are worked on from home, often, and e-mail is checked late in the evening. Tragedy strikes, and we spend time back at school helping kids or getting ready to do so on Monday.
A new week looms ahead, and there is less sleep on Sundays than any other. Sunday is a day of reflection, of rest, of dread and anxiety.
Henry Kissinger once said it well, "There can not be a crisis next week. My schedule is full."

Thursday, January 12, 2012

A Light In the Darkness

I am no fan of bright lights. Whether it be in the big city or simply in my office or slumbering in my bedroom, the harsh glare of overhead lights shocks my brain and leaves me without rest. I used to blame it on an astigmatism that flares with weariness. As days marched on this semester, I slowly had the epiphany that I was experiencing doldrums of a new dimension.
We have in our offices quite often something we call "Lamp Fridays", which is, of course, a day of only lamps without the fluorescence burning into me, I first began to breath easier, but then I realized that I was slowing to a crawl as the weeks passed. There is a subdued, quieter feeling to our offices that I believe the kids sense. This started to become something more than subdued for me. Just before Christmas break, I began to have a strong desire to sit all alone in the dark, dimming even the mildest of lamps. 
This may have been to do with the fact that I have more than one child struggling with cancer on my caseload. Brave, big eyed young ladies. It may have been that we had more than one student lost to illness or accident. Again, smiling, dimply bundles of energy snuffed out. 
The sheer bulk of 477 students in my alpha, each with their own unique joys and miseries, started to become like running in mud, a steady, unrelenting slog. Finals are a "hurry up and wait" process, with anticipation and dread equally ladled. Counting credits, staring at exam grades, doing math, helping students who had to miss exams, due to commitments and an appendicitis, helped pass the time. Christmas music through Pandora or an early gift CD with some Bing Crosby gave some background rhythm to the day. Great food and company with a Secret Santa party and a fantastic present of a Twins banner lifted my spirits. 
But, again, I wanted to crawl into a dark place, stay quiet and still for a while and ponder things. This I did after wrapping up things with an unplugging of all lamps and the mini-fridge in my office. I had one last conversation with a student in a soundproof room over their rough home life. Then, while it took a long time to get out of the parking lot, it was a short trip home and a snoozling moment. 
Days of shopping, some Christmas family gatherings, then to Christmas Eve. In Grandview there is a traditional service, with songs, with communion, and then there is a lighting of candles. A night a year or so ago saw driving snow. 
I will admit, without rancor, that I was not in the happiest of places that evening, as I helped Amy gather the four together, packed them in the car, scrambled then to find a seat inside the crowded church. 
Music began to play, songs were sung, in a traditional style. I looked over and saw a man I worked with, who lost his wife to leukemia, sitting alone, singing with conviction. Down the way from him was a lady who had been dealing with serious medical issues with her son and his family, with a peaceful look. Behind me, I honed in on the sweet voice of my 7 year old Jamie, who is a GLEE fan and made us play their Christmas CD repeatedly. Robert sat next to her on a row behind us. Her voice was sure and without a hint of hesitation. Next to me was Annie, my 9 year old, who blazes with great intelligence and personality, intent on the words on the screen. Moving through the service, I reflected on my lost loved ones. My dad, my Aunt Linda, my grandmothers and grandfathers, who all had such faith and sheer strength in their daily duties.  I felt a low moment, a pang. 
Then, as I got to watch Annie take her first communion, a veil started to lift. I looked over and saw wild Stephen also take part in this for the first time, and how quiet and still he was. I looked at Amy, my mom, and I took a deeper breath. The lights went out completely. Some words were spoken, as first one candle, then another begin to flame. Soon, it was our turn, and I watched how carefully, reverentially, maturely, my children guarded their candles, holding them higher. 
I felt the light come back within me. I felt a restoration and a resilience start to build. As I blew out the candle in my hand, I felt it start to glimmer within me again. I gathered all, we went out into the night, and I noticed the stars for the first time in a long time.