What's in a name?Why being called a school counselor matters.
School Counselor vs. Guidance Counselor: I didn’t always get it.
I am still a baby when it comes to time served as a school counselor – starting in the profession in 2012. When I was going through graduate school and even in the first year or two of work – I felt it was silly to be so concerned about what we were called as a professional title. School counselor…guidance counselor (henceforth “the G-word”) – it was all semantics in my mind. How much really could our title impact the work that we do daily with students? Why do we spend so much time and energy worrying about it? It’s just a name – can’t we get over it?
I will chalk it up to naivety and being overwhelmed with starting my role as a school counselor. I will also say that working in California – most people refer to us by our proper title of school counselor anyway. I think the G-word tends to be more prevalent back east and in the mid-west or among some of the older generations (though it does exist out here in the wild west), so it’s not as big of a problem in my everyday world. I never got the heated debates on social media about it. However, I have grown and learned since my freshman year of school counseling that semantics, words, and titles DO matter and matter in quite a big way. Hopefully, you hang with me as I unpack some of the facts and my opinions about our titles (I’ll be sure to cite the hard facts and call out my opinions).
1. Using the G word is like using VHS to describe the latest and greatest in video recording technology.
It’s simply outdated and inaccurate. The most common analogy you will hear in this conversation is the Stewardess to Flight Attendant title change. In that analogy – a stewardess (with a heavy female emphasis in the title itself right off the bat) on a plane, train or ship’s main function was passenger comfort. Taking coats and bags, helping them to their seat, serving food and drink, being and the service of the passenger. While those still are some of the things that a modern day flight attendant does in their position – they also have many other duties like ensuring passenger safety, supporting the flight crew, solving conflicts, preventatively solving problems before they may arise, and more.
In a similar fashion – the role of the school counselor and it’s development over time is (pretty) well documented. Starting about one hundred years ago – the role began as a focus on vocational guidance and was filled by those who felt they had a calling and desire to help, but often little to no formal training or education in relation to the role. They were teachers and educators. Another big time frame in the profession’s past was in the 50’s and 60’s after the Russians launched the first satellite Sputnik when there was a big push to improve our position on the innovation map. Heading into the 1990’s was when our profession really started to make some concerted efforts to change our roles and perceptions.
Below are several excellent resources and citations (especially the first two) talking about the history and development of school counseling:
School Counseling: A Brief Historical Overview by Dr. Christine Schimmel via West Virginia DOE
2. Using the G word changes the perception of our roles and our competence.
Think about your last trip to the supermarket. If you have a local Trader Joe’s (or can think of a time you may have been to one) – head to the wine aisle next time you are in (I know – it’s a heavy hitter for school counselors). During college and graduate school after I was 21 – I took a pretty awesome “job” with a company that does secret shopping. A few times a month – I would get a job to head to a local TJ’s and buy some booze (usually wine) and not offer my ID at check out. I was to report back whether or not I was prompted for my ID. I got about $12 + reimbursement for my purchase so we had a well-stocked wine cabinet and made a few extra bucks. A note that this wasn’t a law enforcement related activity – but rather TJ’s hired the company to run these checks and coached the employees who were not following their legal requirements for ID’ing customers.
That set up leads us to the point of the paragraph – I learned quickly that TJ’s carries store labeled wine that is the exact same as brand name winery produced labels selling for 3x-5x the cost. I am not talking close imitation – but literally the same. It’s a great example of how labels keep their prices high – by limiting production. Scarcity makes us think it is better and we will pay more for it. The winery will then sell the excess off as another label or to another company to bottle it under their label (as TJ’s does).
You may say that you actually LIKE the cheaper wine (if you’ve ever been to a blind wine tasting – you know how that usually goes), but from a marketing and branding perspective – if there are a few TJ’s selling a $50 label for $15 – it diminishes not only the demand, but makes you question why we are paying $50 at other stores. When we go by, call or are indifferent to the use of the G-word – we are selling ourselves under a cheaper label. We place a lower price on our profession that leads others to believe we are not of quality, value or worth sitting at the table. We may be the same – no matter what we are called – but we are not the same in the eyes of many.
Recent (as in a about a week ago as of this writing) research by Zyromski, Hudson, Baker, and Haag Granello published in ASCA the Professional School Counseling journal (Vol. 22, Issue 1) highlights the impact of using the term “guidance counselor” over school counselor. In the research brief, they found that those that used the G-word “…were statistically significantly less likely to believe school counselors were able to perform the 25 tasks on the survey” which were from the ASCA Professional Standards and Competencies Draft.
Please read the brief (publicly available) and full text (available to ASCA members) to grasp the full impact of their findings. They call it a vital implication for practice that school counselors adopt the title instead of the G word. Additional research into our field as a whole, but into this area, in particular, is needed, but this provides some powerful evidence.
3. Your lack of concern affects my advocacy efforts and my professional perception.
If you head over to Facebook and check out ASCA’s page and look back to May 23rd, 2019 – they posted a link to the above article with a nice infographic. Now do something that most people tell you to avoid – check out the comments. Any time this topic comes up (I suppose really like most topics these days) – there are people on both polar ends of the spectrum. But I am almost always amazed at the number of responses that arise that are so anti-school counselor by name, whether outright or just in the fact that they are indifferent and feel it’s not worth the effort (re-read the above if you are in that camp).
This section is mostly my opinion, without lots of corroborating data, but I feel it would generally ring true. When you do not care about our title or professional identity – you, directly and indirectly, impact my ability to advocate for the profession and my professional perception. This is true if you work in my building or work across the country from me. Your disinterest or non-concern over our title makes it much more difficult for those trying to affect change in their region or district because those against change use you as evidence it doesn’t matter. “Such and such school district or their G words are fine with that title – why is it such a big deal” and comments/push back on why it isn’t a big deal from those who work in the profession are damning things when trying to get change to occur.We cannot even seem to agree on it internally - why should Joe Public or Steve Superintendent think it was a big deal? Click To Tweet
Secondly – it affects others in our profession for whom it does matter. When our roles are vague, antiquated or mislabeled in our job descriptions, districts, schools, DOEs and beyond – it has farther reaches than just your local community. It heads into mainstream media (Counselor Mackey anyone?), parent and student perceptions, legislation, laws, education code, and onto ballots. Changing the perception of our profession means changing how our profession is used. If I went and talked to most of the folks on the ASCA post who are commenting why it isn’t important – I would bet that they would also have plenty of beefs with their roles in their schools (non-counseling duties, student-to-counselor ratios, etc.).
We have to stop thinking just about our short game in this profession. While yes – education does seem to find it’s new shiny object every 3-4 years to focus on – this perception piece is all about our long game. Will changing your title from the G word to school counselor magically reduce your ratios? Very likely not. But by changing your title – you can now use the many pieces of evidence-based research that show the valuable impact of school counselors (not G words), what appropriate duties are for school counselors and use that new piece of ammunition in your advocacy efforts.
Do I get angry or offended when someone uses the G word in reference to me? Almost never. It does hit me deeper when a school counseling colleague uses it – but I get over it. Do I think that everything will be better in our worlds if all of a sudden every school counselor had an accurate title? Nope.
But what I do hope is that we are not the very people keeping our identities stuck in the mid-1900’s. I know my work is not done in black and white nor do I want my professional identity to be stuck in the 8-track era. It’s high time that we take a fresh look at our profession, get involved in making a positive change outside of just our office or building (in an active or more distant fashion) and bring our identity out of the ancient days.
School counselors around the country are depending on you to do your little bit in advocating for our profession as a whole.