Guiding students through a pandemic
This year has seen unprecedented calls on the expertise of school guidance counsellors in supporting students coping with the Covid-19 pandemic. PPTA News talks with Fiordland College guidance counsellor Fiona Humphries about her experience on the frontline.
Fiona has been a guidance counsellor for 14 years and has worked at Fiordland College – a year 7 to 13 school in Te Anau – for five. She is guidance counsellor, careers advisor, TIC music and also teaches health.
"I did my Masters of Counselling through Massey, which worked really well for me while working and being a Mum," she said.
Challenges and rewards
Fiona became a guidance counsellor because she was interested in helping people and the opportunity to take up the role, along with further training, appealed to her. The job does have its challenges however.
"Wearing so many hats provides challenges timewise, and in transitioning between my diverse roles. There are times that my dual roles of teaching and counselling provide challenges, but I work hard to run a positive classroom and build constructive, genuine relationships with students, which is the key to most things in education.
"Since our school is small, I get to know many of the students and their families, which I find the most rewarding part of my job," she said.
Increased connection through Covid
During level 4 lockdown the vast majority of students did not access support through counselling. However, since returning to school Fiona noticed a distinct difference to previous years.
"The presenting issue is primarily anxiety – in volumes much greater than in previous years, presenting at all levels and particularly prevalent in our senior students," she said.
Another difference was the greater number of parents who had noticed distress in their children and sought help themselves, then involved the school, she said.
"More parents are contacting either a dean or me directly and seeking support and guidance for their children too. This increased connection is a positive which I believe is a reflection of our Covid year."
Support can come in many forms
The role of school guidance counsellors is important at any time but vital during this ongoing situation, Fiona says.
"Our role in supporting not only our students but also whanau and staff means that there is a youth mental health specialist on-site, usually highly qualified and experienced, who can provide specialized skills, consultations, expertise and resources. Providing a safe and confidential environment on-site removes access barriers which is crucial, ensuring all students can access support," she said.
Guidance counsellors also play a role in supporting teachers, many of whom are feeling stretched this year.
"Our role is to also support teachers, many of whom are also feeling stretched this year. This support can come in many forms but we are working together, providing a supportive school environment and helping students reach their potential."
Counsellors need to look after themselves
Fiona herself has had her moments this year but is doing well. "Overall I am great, but I constantly monitor where I am at and try to make good choices. As always, it is important to get enough sleep, and practise self-care, and cuddle grandchildren," she said.
"Counsellors are experts on wellbeing and self-care and we sometimes need to be reminded to put this knowledge into practice for ourselves."
Fiona works with a very supportive staff, pastoral deans and senior leadership team, in particular her principal, Lynlee Smith. "My regular clinical supervision is another vital part of sustaining a professional practice. However, I couldn't do this job without the support and understanding of my family, especially my husband."
All schools need guidance counsellors
Fiona believes one of the best ways to support the wellbeing of teachers is by ensuring schools have sufficient guidance counsellors to do the specialised pastoral work.
She wants PPTA to keep up the pressure for all secondary schools to have guidance funded at a ratio of 1:400 – although a lower ratio would be her preference.
"There is empirical evidence of the positive outcomes for students who access school counselling and having counsellors in schools is beneficial for both students and teachers. Advocacy for staffing counsellors appropriately across all schools is crucial for the mental health of our students, and to support the wellbeing and workload management of our teachers.
Fiona is currently working on a doctorate through the University of Otago on New Zealand Teacher Wellbeing and emerging findings show that staff connecting and positivity within a school is beneficial for wellbeing.
"This year, more than ever, laughter and positive connections in the workplace are healthy for us all."
Access for all students in all schools is vital
The government has recently announced an increase of 90 full-time equivalent guidance counsellors across large secondary schools, a move Fiona says will benefit many. However, she believes equitable access is needed whatever the school.
"Large schools have been sorely in need of more counsellors, so this was a welcome announcement. But I was disappointed that the government didn't acknowledge that providing access for students in all schools is vital. Youth mental health would be best supported by ensuring equitable access to the specialized services of onsite school counsellors for all students regardless of geographic region, decile or size of school."
School guidance counsellors are the best solution
A further $44 million over four years has also been announced to contract local organisations to provide counselling in schools most affected by the Covid-19 downturn.
Fiona welcomes the increase in funding but believes it would be better spent supporting the existing infrastructure and systems in schools that support students in accessing school counsellors.
"I strongly believe that guidance counsellors are the best solution for providing more counselling for students. School counsellors work effectively and efficiently within existing school systems and ensuring that schools have appropriate counsellor to student ratios would be more beneficial.
"Furthermore, school counsellors are youth mental health specialists and I believe that being specialists in working with youth, we are well situated to provide this counselling support, in school," she said.