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The Fragility of Children and the Strength of Counselors

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Kids are fragile; a recent spate of bad news has me ruminating on this fact. Yes, Florida, and yes, the young man from Glee, whose rehab experiences started when he was 19. But yes, also, kids on bike trips, kids who have made bad choices in college, and desperate kids who elect to check out before their time.

In independent schools college counselors, as opposed to general guidance or therapeutic counselors, are de rigueur. In my days as a college counselor I regularly encountered a piece of information so startling that it was hard for me to wrap our heads around: the average counseling load in public schools is something over 400 students per counselor. This staggering figure defies any possible rationalization.

It feels as though, like art and music, guidance seems to be regarded--Oh! how wrongly!--as one of those ancillary aspects of education that students and school districts can live without when budgets shrink and student populations soar. Even if the numbers were not so crazy, the average school guidance counselor is responsible for an enormous array of student services: college counseling, general counseling, vocational counseling, drug and alcohol ed, sorting out a world of services for at-risk kids. Any school with a counseling staff that does any one of these things well should be given a standing ovation--and many, many of them do. I can only shake my head in admiration.

The other day I wrote about small schools and very small schools. I also had a funny (odd) conversation with an independent school colleague last week that made me realize both how spoiled I have become and how warped is my sense of scale. As a teacher I have rarely taught a class of more than fifteen students, and I have never worked in a school with more than 80-some students in the largest grade. I've been able to know every kid I've worked with very well, with my own overall student load always something below the old threshold number (80, as it happens) that the Coalition of Essential Schools used to promote as an upper limit for effective education. For me and for many of my colleagues these numbers, 15 and 80, are kind of the defaults of what we assume a teacher should have to handle. I'm pretty sure I could rise to the occasion of larger numbers (I've had elective classes of 20, but that's still pretty small), but I don't suppose I will ever know for sure.

So when I read about guidance counselors having to, and succeeding in, keeping on top of 400 lives (and that's on the low side of average, so there are many counselors with way more than that), I once again find myself wishing that our society had the courage and good sense to commit itself to looking after kids' personal growth in our schools as thoroughly as we seem determined to look after their ability to take standardized tests.

No, more counselors probably wouldn't have saved some of the kids whose stories have been piling up on me in the last few days, but they might have helped many others find direction, strength, and support to make it through the sometimes brutal years of childhood and adolescence.

Because kids are fragile, you know.


Engage with Peter on Twitter: @pgow

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