May 17, 2010 in Features

School counselors help with issues beyond academics

Virginia De Leon Correspondent
 
J. BART RAYNIAK photo

Lori Gibson and Jacquie Johansson are counselors in Spokane schools who also teach continuing education classes on children’s social, emotional and behavioral issues.
(Full-size photo)

Teachers wear many hats.

As more students struggle with poverty, developmental disorders, social pressures and the breakdown of families, educators often find themselves shouldering responsibilities that go way beyond the classroom.

Teachers are accountable not only for meeting the academic needs of all students; they also have to take on the roles of mentor, coach, social worker and even substitute parent. For some kids, their classroom teacher might be the only stable person in their lives.

While most educators receive regular training in topics related to academics, rarely do they get the opportunity to learn more about the social and emotional needs of students, said Jacquie Johansson, a Spokane school counselor for nearly two decades.

“Educators are faced with more students who are dealing with serious depression, covert bullying, thoughts of suicide and other problems,” she said.

“The social scene for kids is a whole new phenomenon and teachers sometimes feel unequipped to deal with the new issues that come with cyberbullying, texting and Facebook. … We’re more connected than ever before but never has there been such a huge sense of disconnect among young people.”

To support teachers – as well as students and their families – Johansson and fellow school counselor Lori Manteuffel Gibson offer courses to help address the needs of the whole child.

For the past eight years, they have taught classes with titles such as “Girl Culture,” “The Social Lives of Children and Adolescents,” “Building Resiliency in Your Students,” “Angry Kids” and “Bullies Work the Web.”

Their courses, which are offered in Spokane and the Seattle area during the summer and weekends, have been taken by thousands of teachers, administrators and parents from Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Montana.

“There are many challenges beyond academics for all educators today,” said Johansson, noting the role of technology as well as the lack of resources and the time constraints that affect schools. “There’s a whole world out there beyond test scores.

“… After 17 years as a school counselor, the job I have today has so many more complexities than I could have ever have imagined.”

As educators, they’re familiar with the MSP (Measurements of Student Progress), NCLB (No Child Left Behind), RTI (Response to Intervention) and all the other educational acronyms and mandates.

But even closer to home are words such as medication, autism, depression and others related to mental and emotional health.

Schools are dealing with more social issues than ever before, both counselors acknowledged. Families, regardless of income, are stressed out; they also have fewer social and support services to turn to for help.

“Society has this expectation that education is supposed to fix everything,” said Gibson, who has worked as a school counselor in the Chicago and Seattle areas and is currently employed at Arlington Elementary in north Spokane.

It’s unrealistic to put this burden on teachers, she said, but many are willing to give all they can for the sake of their students.

“Teachers care about the emotional well-being of their students and recognize the importance of building relationships with them,” said Johansson, who serves as counselor to nearly 900 students at Moran Prairie and Wilson elementary schools.

Their goal, they said, is to support educators so that students feel safe, secure and able to succeed academically.

Gibson and Johansson first met almost 20 years ago as graduate students enrolled in Gonzaga University’s school counseling program. They became best friends and collaborated on numerous projects throughout the years as they pursued their careers and cared for their own families.

Eight years ago, while Gibson was still working in the Seattle area, they began teaching continuing education classes for teachers, counselors and administrators. At that time, their mission was to help teachers bring more counseling skills into the classroom so that students could become independent problem solvers and create an atmosphere conducive to learning.

Their partnership evolved into a small educational company now known as Continuing Credits Inc. Every year, people from throughout the Northwest and Montana come to Spokane or Seattle to take part in their classes, which are offered through Antioch University in Seattle and the Heritage Institute, a Washington state organization that provides workshops, field courses and distance classes for teachers.

“Their courses have been refreshing,” said Derick Tabisch, an educator for 22 years who serves as both the administrator and high school principal at Valley Christian School in Spokane Valley.

“They work in the field as counselors so they see the trends and issues that we, as educators, need to know in our classrooms.”

Tabisch and his staff have taken a number of classes from Gibson and Johansson, including courses on boy culture, girl culture, dealing with difficult parents and Internet safety. Many of these issues didn’t exist at schools 10 years ago, Tabisch said.

At a time when test scores seem to be the prime indicator of whether or not schools and teachers are meeting their goals, educators continue to make relationships a priority, Gibson said.

They know that by investing in these relationships and students’ well-being, they’ll be more motivated to learn.

“Teaching is one of the noblest fields,” Johansson said. “Our classes speak to the fact that teachers are trying to educate the whole child.”

Virginia de Leon is a Spokane-based freelance writer. Reach her at Virginia_de_leon@yahoo.com. You can also comment on this story and others pertaining to families and children by checking out The Parents’ Council blog: www.spokesmanreview.com/ blogs/parents.

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