The Good Blog: Good Work in School Counseling
The original Good Work study examined the relationship between top quality performance and ethical responsibility by interviewing professionals in various fields to assess the current status of their profession and to speculate about its future (Gardner, Csikszentmihalyi, & Damon, 2001). My dissertation study followed the Good Work model, continuing the extension of Good Work analyses into other fields by focusing on professional school counselors. Ten in-depth interviews were conducted with practicing high school counselors. Qualitative analysis revealed three overarching themes: Obstacles to Alignment, Concern for the Future, and Implications for Counselor Education.
Within each category are two central recurring themes. The “obstacles to alignment” category includes themes of the persistent struggle with role definition among stakeholders, and unrelated duties that obstruct effectiveness. The “concern for the future” category includes two main themes: budget cuts that threaten positions, and the danger of rising caseloads. The national average caseload for a school counselor is perilously high, at 459 students – almost double the maximum recommended caseload and four to five times the ideal ratio. Perennial threats to school budget cuts cause concerns that these numbers may rise, reducing a school counselor’s ability to work effectively. The “implications for counselor education” category includes two themes: calls for more practical training, and calls for more instructors with experience in the field. Participants felt that their graduate training overemphasized theoretical background at the expense of practical training, and saw the need to have more courses taught by practicing school counselors instead of professors who lack recent experience in the K-12 school environment.
While the original Good Work study found journalism to be a field that is presently not well-aligned, it also revealed hope for alignment within the domain as evidenced by the consensus among 92% of the respondents who separately and spontaneously mentioned the importance in their work of adherence to professional standards such as truthfulness and fairness. Their focus on common core values of the profession is essential to maintaining their common sense of direction and restoring alignment. Similarly, my study found the field of professional school counseling to be not well aligned at present but also revealed signs of hope for future realignment.
Professional alignment is analogous to the way a well-aligned car has all wheels working together smoothly, in conjunction, to all pull in the same direction at the same time to maximize efficiency. A car in need of alignment may still work, but it does not function nearly as effectively as it could.
Good Work in School Counseling
My qualitative investigation of professional school counselors began immediately after the release of the results of the largest quantitative survey of school counselors ever conducted, which revealed several significant, widespread concerns regarding school counselors’ professional identity. The survey of over 5300 practicing school counselors identified such disparity within the field that the report is subtitled “Counseling at a Crossroads.” A counselor educator mentioned that the field lacks identity, and a prior survey of college students rated the high school guidance system as inadequate. The school counselor’s role is perceived differently by administrators, teachers, parents, students, and even counselors themselves at various levels (elementary, middle, and high school) and in different settings (public and private schools). The pervasive lack of role definition often results in counselors trying to be all things to all people, an insurmountable task that invariably leaves them falling short.
My interview participants echoed this sense of misalignment. Their overriding sentiment is that few stakeholders have a clear picture of the actual role of the school counselor. Three participants offered concise but direct answers. One referred to “a disconnect in what they think I do, what I really do, and what they’d like me to do.” Another was more blunt: “I don’t think they know what our role is…I don’t think they really have a clue.” One stated, “I think it is a basic lack of understanding of what it is we do.” Others suggested that various stakeholders each see one piece of the puzzle, but none sees the complete picture of the school counselor’s role.
Upon closer examination, other participants pointed out that beneath this apparent lack of alignment on the surface, there is some fundamental underlying harmony. “They are aligned in the sense that they will all say I want what’s best for the kid. But then everybody’s opinion is different on how you get what is best for the kid…There is a commonality but there is a difference of opinion of what is best for the kid, know what I mean. And we are the peacemakers, we are the mediators, the diplomatic person in that picture and we are supposed to make that all smooth and work, where everybody is coming at a different angle.”
Similarly, one respondent referred to alignment in the sense of having a common objective:
“We service each of those groups differently, for the same common goal, but each one has a different view on things…I think the expectations are similar, they just have different outlooks; their perspectives are a little bit different for each person. The goal is to have the kid graduate and be successful. I think everyone would have just a slightly different bend towards that.” Just as the key for journalists to restore alignment is to focus on their core principles, school counselors can improve alignment by continuing to focus on the best interests of their students.
The Cornfield Effect
To make an analogy that combines the imagery of a professional field’s stakeholders’ common roots but varying perspectives of alignment, the concept of the Cornfield Effect is introduced. Upon first glance, something that initially appears disordered, arbitrary, or chaotic may suddenly appear to make more sense when viewed from a slightly different perspective. When one drives past farms, the crops first seem to be scattered randomly across the field – until the moment when your angle of vision suddenly allows you to see that the plants are actually systematically arranged in precise patterns of parallel rows. The phenomenon of gaining a clearer understanding of something by looking at it from a slightly different perspective can be called The Cornfield Effect. [see images below]
In Good Work terms, a professional field may initially appear to be uncoordinated, but closer inspection reveals it does have some alignment if stakeholders share common roots. A profession’s stakeholders often have a partial view of the field, where it overlaps their vested interests. They may make conclusions about that profession based on extrapolating from their limited familiarity, but getting the most complete, accurate picture requires an analysis of the insider’s viewpoint. Good Work studies of various professions provide illumination deep within each field to discern the influences that steer its future direction. In any field, strong roots are essential to produce the fruits of workers’ labor. In both journalism and school counseling, closer inspection reveals that a field lacking alignment on the surface does share some common ground among stakeholders.
Beyond Good Work, the term Cornfield Effect can be used to describe that moment of clarity when an unclear or abstract concept suddenly makes sense. I have experienced the Cornfield Effect in math class, when a slightly different explanation causes me to say, “Oh, now I get it!” and more recently in a multicultural counseling course when I reacted, “Huh, I never thought of it that way before.”
The full text of this dissertation study is available online at http://gradworks.umi.com/35/41/3541167.html