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What Is School Counseling?

by Dr. Joseph Stewart-Sicking

As heavy as the world has been these past few months, one consistent bright spot for me has been ABC’s mockumentary, Abbott Elementary. I love its good-natured ability to both celebrate educators and laugh with them at the absurdity of American education. Quinta Brunson, its creator, says that she named it in honor of her sixth-grade teacher who inspired her to grow and learn. It’s no surprise then that the show actually loves its educators. When so many onscreen teachers are props or idiots, Abbot Elementary shows them as professionals. It takes skill to work with students. It takes endurance to be able to hold on to some idealism when cynicism is so easy. And it takes students’ cultural background as a source of joy. One great episode featured a Philly words reading list, which was not only a great example of culturally responsive teaching but also a great chance to expose the broader country to the usefulness of “jawn.” The show makes me happy to be in a School of Education.

There is one person missing from the cast, at least for me. I don’t recall seeing a school counselor portrayed there yet, and I am hoping for them to show up, but part of me dreads what they will act like. Too often, school counselors are portrayed as kind but clueless do-gooder teachers who tell kids what they should grow up to be without any practical guidance. As a counselor educator, I know the reality is much more fascinating.

For a long time, there was confusion in the counseling community. Were school counselors/guidance counselors basically very nice teachers who have some special training about careers and emotions, or were they counselors who worked in a school setting? Over the past decade, the American Counseling Association and its accreditor, CACREP, have come down unambiguously on the side of seeing counseling as a single profession practiced in multiple settings. Mental health counselors and school counselors are—first and foremost—professional counselors, with the same core professional training and competencies. This is also true for many other helping professions in a school setting: social workers, OTs, SLPs, etc. What distinguishes between counseling specialties is the setting in which counseling is practiced. Practicing in a school setting means that the way school counselors work to support well-being and healthy development occurs at multiple levels: through promoting a healthy school environment and through curricula delivered to all students; targeted interventions with students in risk groups or dealing with a common challenge; and individual counseling.

Which brings me back to popular conceptions of school counselors. Unlike a mental health counselor, everyone will encounter them. But where people get tripped up is in not recognizing the entirety of what constitutes counseling. It is not just an activity done in a room with individuals, groups, or families; it is a profession practiced at multiple levels of systems. At Loyola, we are proud of the education we give our students in creating comprehensive school counseling programs. We encourage them to see being a counselor as a professional identity that is practiced in lots of different settings and to be proud of that training.

Starting this fall, Loyola’s M.A. and M.Ed. in School Counseling has moved to 60 credit hours. This change is the culmination of the field’s reflection on professional counselor identity. At graduation, our students will not only be eligible to be serving as school counselors recognized by state departments of education, but they will also be eligible for licensure as clinical professional counselors across the country due to our CACREP accreditation. Counseling in the schools has matured, and Loyola is at the forefront of these exciting developments.