3 Habits of Efficient (Yet Caring) School Counselors
3 Habits of Efficient (Yet Caring) School Counselors
School counselors, as you likely know, are busy creatures. We have our hands in 20 different things at one time and our attention is pulled in 10 different ways. We often must prioritize our actions and activities to ensure our students are served and our jobs get done. I started post-secondary education as an Aerospace Engineering student and my brain has always been geared towards this type of thinking. This, I believe, makes my approach to school counseling a little different than some others. I love processes, I strive for order, and it may come to no surprise if you know me that I am an ISTJ personality type.
Being one with an “engineering mindset”, I try to optimize what I am doing no matter what it is. From making my computer work better, finding a better way to prepare a steak, or folding laundry – easier is better. Now, I love working with my colleagues across the country and each of us is super busy at our own levels. Whether we have 100 students or 1000 students on our caseload – our mental fortitude and our students can benefit from us optimizing our office, routines, and approach to school counseling. Too often, I see a vicious cycle hitting educators. It looks like this:
- Counselor X has 20 things on their to-do list.
- Counselor X gets 3 things done and adds 5 more to this list. They only got 3 things done because “they don’t have time, caseloads are too big, students kept coming in, etc:”
- Counselor X now has 22 things on their to-do list tomorrow.
- Rinse, wash, repeat.
We find ourselves stuck in a rut of always being behind, complaining about being behind, but then not being willing to make somewhat radical changes to how we do things to help alleviate that issue. Change is not easy, sometimes not fun, and typically takes time. If you want to see your time, energy and counseling practice improve – but you need to take that step if you want to see improvement.
Efficiency Tip #1: Create boundaries
I know some of you may reel when I say my first tip is to create boundaries, but if you know anything about kids – you know they hate (but silently flourish) within a box. Humans push their boundaries naturally – that is where innovation, discipline (the good kind) and self-management comes into play. As a school counselor at any level – you need to start creating these boundaries with students, staff and parents. One metaphor that I love comes from Dr. Trish Hatch – the school counseling office is NOT an emergency room. We are highly trained professionals and we should be running our program like the general practitioner office. Too often – I see school counseling offices acting like emergency rooms. Putting out fires here, patching things up there. Never doing any preventative work – always reacting. This creates stress, disorganization and hurts your ability to find success.I am learning to be the general practitioner - not emergency room #scchat Click To Tweet
Build a system
One way that I immediately created boundaries at my site was to require appointments for all (students and parents) unless it was an emergency. I use ScheduleOnce to manage my appointments and love it – but there are a number of high and low tech tools out there to manage appointments that you may find helpful. Students and parents actually love this boundary. They have told me “I really love knowing that I get your full attention for the 30 minutes we have booked together”. Not that my full attention is not on them if they didn’t have an appointment – but they know that when they show up, barring an emergency, they have that full time to work with me.
This is our job…not our charity
Another boundary that I think is healthy and helps you be more efficient is your time. I have made it a goal of mine to ensure that, when I am at work I have 110% of my energy invested in my students and my job, but sometime between 3pm and 4pm – I go home. I hear of counselors staying almost every day until 5pm or 7pm. If this is you on a regular basis – this is not healthy. One way to become more efficient with your time, and it is kind of counterintuitive, is to actually decrease your time at work to reasonable levels rather than staying until all hours. It’s called scarcity and it will make you prioritize the most important and impactful things to support student success. Believe it or not – you do NOT have to get everything done you think you do. Many of those things can wait, can be delegated, or scrapped altogether. This is also wonderful for your family and self-care.I am a better school counselor when I am rested than exhausted.
Efficiency Tip #2: Aim for Inbox Zero
Oh email – one of the best and worst things at the same time. Immediate access to send people information around the world. It really is an amazing thing. However, it also takes a lot of time to manage. How do we, as school counselors, stay attentive to our inboxes but present with our students? An efficient, yet caring, school counselor actually loves email. Imagine if every email you got came in the form of a phone call or voicemail. I find fielding calls and returning phone calls immensely more challenging than emails. I have to actively carve special time (and often more than I think) for calling people back. You never know if a call will take 2 minutes or 30 minutes. But the same message sent via email lets me work on it in between meetings – using a minute here and two there. An efficient school counselor encourages people (staff, parents, and students) to use email frequently for questions. It also is a fact of the 21st century and beyond. Students must learn to use email and to use to well to be College and Career Ready.Inbox Zero is possible - I am becoming a more efficient, yet caring, school counselor #scchat Click To Tweet
Block 15-30 minutes each day
The concept of Inbox Zero is that you don’t have 10,000 emails (read and unread) lingering in your inbox. Modern email systems allow you to archive, folder or delete messages that arrive. I shoot to maintain Inbox Zero but don’t always. One way I do this and a way that I have parents and students telling me “Dang Mr. Ream – you are so quick! You got back to me almost immediately” is I address emails right away if I am able. I have notifications that tell me I have an email plus a short snippet of what the subject is so I can quickly filter it as they come in. Another method I use to stay efficient is to build chunks of time into my schedule. I use the first 20 or 30 minutes of each day, usually before school starts and my appointments arrive, to dive into my email and return any phone calls. This system works for me. The big thing is that you actually take action on your emails. When I am done with something – I archive it. You almost never need to delete anything these days with Gmail or Outlook. This keeps my inbox tidy and I can quickly glance to see what I still need to do at any time during my day.
Another way I stay on top of it that goes against my “go home and leave work at work mentality” is I DO get emails on my phone. I will occasionally check and respond from home or on the weekends. I find this doesn’t impact a big part and makes the week much easier, so it is something I do. Not everyone does. Consider it for yourself.
Save it for later
I will often get emails that I cannot respond to immediately or have something else contingent that I have to see before I reply. So I will either mark it as unread or use a cool tool called Boomerang to archive a message and have it pop back up at a specified time. This keeps my inbox more organized and I can be much more efficient with my time.
If you have Gmail – I think an underused feature is using multiple inboxes. You can set it up a number of ways, but I have two different inboxes – the first section has all unread messages and the second has everything else. If I read an email and I am not done – I mark it as unread and this acts as my to-do list.
Efficiency Tip #3: Collect Data
Efficient people love to repeat the same thing over and over again and expect different results…oh wait…that is insanity (and actually it is not — it is perseveration). While this is a cliche these days, it is not all that different from what we school counselors do. We develop an intervention, run our intervention (without collecting data), don’t find the results we are looking for and then try the same intervention again. The piece missing here is our proof. Another cliche, the proof is in the pudding, can be re-written as the proof is in the data.If you are not collecting data in your school counseling program - you are not being efficient.… Click To Tweet
A logical fallacy we run into frequently is we don’t have enough time to collect data. I counter that we do not have enough time to NOT collect data. Collecting data gives us a target to shoot at and a reference to know how close we got to our goal. It also tells us if we are even shooting in the right direction in the first place plus gives direction to how we must adjust our intervention to work. So before you say you don’t have time – consider the following quote:
“Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.”
― Abraham Lincoln
Data is intimidating. It has probably been a while since you took your stats class, so crunching numbers can seem too daunting to take on. Where do you start, how do you know if you did it right? All valid questions and concerns. I have a few tips and resources to get you started.
Tip #1 is to start small. Pick one or two things you can track from beginning to end and are aligned to your goals. You don’t have to go from zero to sixty here. By picking just a few, targeting things to track – you are not going to be overwhelmed and can use that to guide more data tracking. You also get to practice!
Tip #2 – buy these books and read them.
From there – you can start you journey to using data! Ask your colleagues, use your resources and grow!
You Can Do It!
Believe me when I tell you that you can become more efficient and even more awesome at helping your students! It takes some work, some change to your work-style, and conscious thought, but it is do-able. I hope you take these three tips for becoming a more efficient, yet caring, school counselor and put them to work in your life! Do you have other ways you become more efficient? Post them below!