People are moving to Palm Beach County at a fast rate. That means more students are entering the School District of Palm Beach County, which is the 10th largest school district in the country, with almost 200,000 students. At some point, those students will meet their school counselor. And chances are it may just be one of the few good men and women who have been raised up at Palm Beach Atlantic University’s Counselor Education Program.
According to the American School Counselor Association [ASCA], there are a number of competencies that “outline the knowledge, abilities, skills and attitudes that ensure school counselors are equipped to meet the rigorous demands of the profession and the needs of pre-K–12 students.” Studies also indicate that the role of a school counselor has changed in the last decade, and so, their training has also changed. Today’s school counselors must be able to handle challenges with students’ home life, suicide prevention, stresses associated with academic performance and so much more. In a time when community resources are also dwindling, there’s a great need for more school counselors to step into the gap. For PBA, the alternative is unthinkable.
“The school counselor’s primary service is to be a partner in academic achievement with everyone else in the school,” said Dr. Tom Dodson, professor of Counselor Education and the program’s school counseling coordinator. “The counselor is someone who is trying to remove barriers and address issues of a variety of types in order to help students learn what they need to learn.”
To get that accomplished is quite something, and Dodson should know. Before coming to PBA, he was on the frontline as a school counselor for 12 years. He was good at it and well-liked by kids, and now he’s training school counseling students to enter what he sees as their mission field.
According to him, school counselors often are responsible for hundreds of students, and the impact makes the profession one of the most rewarding for those willing to pursue it.
The statistics for our program is impressive. “There are 317 school counselors in the School District of Palm Beach County, and 56 of them are from Palm Beach Atlantic University’s Counselor Education program,” said Kelly Beauchamp, human resources partner in the office of the chief of human resources for the School District of Palm Beach County. That’s 21 high school counselors, 18 middle school counselors and 17 elementary school counselors. In addition, there are 83 ESOL [English for Speakers of Other Languages] counselors in the District and 12 of those are graduates from our program.
That means that one in five school counselors in the District is a graduate from Palm Beach Atlantic University, and there’s a reason why our program is so well respected in Palm Beach County. According to Dodson, no hour is wasted in this seminar-driven program.
In his classes, he trains his students to think. “If you’re a school counselor, you have to be a good thinker—on-your-feet type of person, who gets to know people relationally and responds to that,” Dodson said. He teaches classes that help students find their own voice, asking them, “what do you think, what’s your standpoint, and why do you believe what you believe?” He says that explaining that to others will give his students the credibility they need when facing situations, traumas and crises in today’s changing world.
Beyond everything, he pushes professionalism and demonstration of quality as they connect with people. “Teachers or administrators won’t know how credible the school counselor is in an individual counseling meeting with a student, but they’ll see the school counselor’s faculty meeting presentation—how sharp they are in their presentation skills,” Dodson said. “So I tell my students to mean what they say, because if people don’t see them as professionals and depend on what they need them to do, they’re going to be seen as less effective.”
This program is not about being a lone ranger. The average elementary school has about 600 students, 40 teachers and one school counselor. That person cannot spread himself in different ways, so they need to empower teachers and administrators to directly help kids. To that end, a counselor learns not only to find ways to reach out to people, but also to guide students to be responsive rather than reactive to events that happen so they can manage self-regulation.
As Dodson trains prospective counselors to see things, he recalls his days on the field. “I was not cloistered in an office, hiding out. For me, building relationships was key. Having that human factor, not being a judgmental person and having that kind of mindset allows students to get close and tell you things,” he said. “The point is, this is between the trust between a counselor and a student. Kids know more than they’re telling anyone—mainly adults. So, you’re catching situations early.”
In the way of training, Dodson brings the chapter his counselor students are reading to life. “I try to get them to be passionate and understand that this is a big job, not a playground; there’s a lot of serious business going on at the schools,” he said.
In the course requirement, counselor students must develop a crisis plan for their imaginary school, identifying those things that are essential—understanding that they have to be seen as the key person in an essential crisis team at their school in the event a crisis happens.
He pointed to the Stoneman Douglas High School incident that happened on February 14, as an example. “There were two school counselors who completed the paperwork for Nikolas Cruz to be Baker Acted,” he explained. “School counselors need to fight a good fight, and they were trying to do just that by filling out the paperwork,” said Dodson.
In his classroom, Dodson talks about such cases, emphasizing the importance of having a point of view and conveying that to people. And as far as the faith-based school counselor, he encourages them to look at it as a ministry. “This will be my second year as a school counselor and I am so grateful for the program at PBA and where the Lord has led me,” said Erin Lincoln, ’16, sixth grade school counselor at Jupiter Middle School. “I love my job and what I do.”
In Dodson’s video called: “School Counseling Mission Field Adventure,” we see counseling from a faith-based point of view. “Students can go other places, but they come to PBA because of the faith orientation,” he said. So what does it look like to be God’s man or woman as a school counselor in that setting? “If you have any doubt about the nature of man, go to a middle school. If you have any wonderings of what’s happening culturally, the school setting is a mine field. Textbooks can’t keep up with all the things going on and the change processes.”
So, imagine 21 high school counselors who have PBA master’s degree diplomas on their office walls, and the kids coming into their offices are building relationships with these counselors. When they see their cool school counselor has a master’s degree from PBA, they’re going to associate cool counseling with a great school, and perhaps as a career path of their own.