Dealing with Difficult Parents

My least favorite part of my job is dealing with parents.  Maybe that is why higher education is so appealing and tempting.  Not that it would come riddled with it’s own politics and issues.  But dealing with a difficult parent is probably my least favorite thing to deal with.

Today I got one of “those calls”.  “My daughter’s friends told me that you told them that they shouldn’t hang out with her, is this true?”

Well, your daughter is a ring leader.  The entire school calls her a “mean girl”.  I’ve watched her earn this reputation at lunch while yelling at a student walking by “Hey, are you from Mexico or something?” or a tiny 5th grader in my office who is in a puddle because M told her that her outfit was stupid on the bus.  She was going to be on a “hunger strike” the summer before I was graced with her presence in my school because the girls in the homeroom she was put in “dressed… ya know…”

I told these girls if they didn’t want to get into trouble, then they might want to rethink who they hang out with.  Honest statement.  Guilt by association runs rampant in middle school.  Choose wisely.

I recently got the Teaching Tolerance magazine for Fall 2013 and it had on there “There are no bullies, just children who bully – and you can help them.”  How can I help them when they are getting an entirely different message at home?  That it’s okay to bully and be mean?  That putting others down to bring yourself up is an acceptable way to climb the social ladder?  How can I compete with that?

And I realized the only way I can is to watch what I say to my daughter. Watch what I say around other people’s daughters.  Make sure they have a model of kindness and see that it’s even cooler to support and raise others rather than bashing them down.

I told this parent that the perception in the school is that her daughter is a “mean girl”.  Straight out of the movie.  The four of them literally follow rules from that movie and think it is adorable.  So I told her that kids talk about them like that.  And that I hope that this restorative justice counseling they are talking about can help change their reputation before high school so they can start fresh.  She was pretty unhappy with my honesty and said good bye bluntly.  She has been dragging my name through the mud all morning long at the local hospital where she works.  She called my principal to tell him she doesn’t want me having anything to do with her children.

I’m hurt, but I also know that I am right.  I spoke the truth.  I stood my ground.  I wasn’t a bully myself.  I tried to share what the perception was, and as I’m beginning to learn, perception becomes personal truths.  What we perceive is what we know to be true.

Why didn’t I think of this before????

Every year I have taught Careers 8 I have struggled to get kids to bring in guest speakers.  Therefore, I resorted to finding some myself.  They didn’t ask questions.  If they weren’t interested in the career, they showed the guest speaker just how much they weren’t interested in becoming what they were.  I would fill in the silences with pretty basic questions – what did you want to be when you were in 8th grade?  Where did you to go school?  What classes should kids take if they want to go into this field?

So I decided to up the ante.  I gave them a choice.  They love having a choice.  Little do they know, I tricked them.  They can interview someone and write  a 1 page paper about what they learned (then share with the class so we can learn about different careers).  Kids hate writing papers.   Hence the tricking.  I know they won’t go for this.  But their other option (for a healthy number of points in the gradebook) is to bring someone into class to talk about their career.

Genius.

Why didn’t I think of this before???????

The second week of school I had a student (who is notorious for not following through on things) bring in his grandpa.  I was really nervous.  A) I had no clue this guy was actually going to come in and B) I had pretty negative experiences with kids and guest speakers.

I was blown away.  Proven wrong.  Dead wrong.

The guy maintains the roads for a county north of our school.  The kids asked SO MANY QUESTIONS.  Kids I know are not the least bit interested in going into that line of work.  But they asked such great questions.  I was in shock for a good three days afterwards.

And after that, I had kids lining up to get their parents to come in and talk about their line of work.  Which has brought in not only the county worker, but an electrician, a social worker, an EMT, a dental assistant, a nurse, an occupational therapist, and a beautician – and this is week 4 out of 9.

I have had kids make comments after the class has ended “I didn’t know that was a job!! I might want to do that…”  Music to my ears.  Far better than the stupid DVD I bought two years ago “Real People, Cool Careers” which is probably the worst video I’ve ever seen (and I’ve watched sex education videos from the 80s….) and engaging as all get out.

So if you teach careers – offer the kids a choice.  A paper, or bite the embarrassment bullet and invite their parents (or anyone they know, really) in to class.  It will enhance your careers unit like you wouldn’t believe!!

Penny taskStudents attempt a task with their thumbs taped as an activity our occupational therapist guest speaker had them do.  

 

Lunch Bunch

There are two reasons why people become school counselors.  Either they had a school counselor who was amazing or they had one and never even knew they had one (as in, they weren’t very effective…).  I had an amazing counselor in elementary school, Ms. Harlan.  She came to us in 4th or 5th grade.  I have no idea who was there before (probably falls under the category of “uneffective”) but Ms. Harlan came in, played guitar, and had what she called “lunch bunch” when I was in 6th grade and fighting constantly with the group of girls in my grade.

It wasn’t anything fancy.  Just grabbed our lunches from the cafeteria and brought them into her office.  We sat around and just visited.  Maybe discussed an issue if there was one, but for the most part, just had time to get to know her and to communicate better with our peers – something that was much more difficult at the traditional lunch table.

So naturally, it was one of the first things I wanted to do here.  I had kids sign up and I got to know them really well this way.  Until I had to teach 5th hour during the 5/6 lunch.

This year, I’m free during that time, so I’m re-introducing it with a group of 5th grade girls who could use some extra attention and some time getting to know each other.  A new student, an anxiety stricken student, one who is friends with all of them, another who chronically states she is moving (but never does) and apparently a mean girl (who I would never have guessed was one until I spoke with her previous school counselor…)

While I join the kids at lunch most days, there is something different about gathering around a quiet table, away from the lunch room with a group.  Looking forward to reliving lunch bunch.  Thanks Ms. Harlan.  You are the best…

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Back to School!

Another year begun and it’s going to be a great one!  I have a fantastic group of kids this year – so much fun!  I also requested a different schedule, so I am no longer packed with classroom from 11:30-3:30 (not exactly great for a counselor to be unavailable to kids) and I teach careers earlier in the day so I am available for the lunch tracks to meet with kids.  I am not the 5th and 6th grade teachers’ only prep anymore, so I am getting into the 5th grade classroom, but I can take off the weeks around state testing and cancel at a moment’s notice if there is an urgent need to help another student.  Like when a student becomes catatonic in your office and you’ve got 30 kids waiting in your classroom for guidance… for example.

Unfortunately, I have lost both of my “teammates” in the guidance department.  Our high school counselor left for health reasons, as I mentioned in an earlier blog, and my close friend who was our elementary guidance counselor got a position working in the same district as her husband.  A great move for her and I’m jealous of how they treat counselors there, so I’m happy for her, but miss her dearly.  She is on all of these district leadership committees and is included in all of the administration meetings – something that is unheard of here.  Counselors are on an administration contract, which makes more sense to me considering when we are clumped into the same category as teachers, we don’t fit there either.  The review my principal does for me is a teacher’s evaluation – something my job description doesn’t really fit.

My careers class is going better than ever and there are many things I am wondering “Why didn’t I think of that before?????” as I go through it.  It helps that my kids are fantastic, but I’m also learning some tricks to the trade in my old age :)  We are on year 7 here, afterall!!

Here’s to another school year!  May it bring new perspectives, new tricks, more creativity, and even more conviction that I’m in the right field!

 

Another year gone…

I’m exhausted.  I actually went to bed at 7:30 last night after I put my daughter to bed.  I haven’t written in this blog for months and I fear it was because I was Negative Nelly for the last semester and didn’t want it to seep into this blog that is supposed to be positive and inspirational for other counselors.

This year was pretty tough.  I had more duties and classes than I ever have had.  My principal who was in his sophomore year of principal-ness was still not quite meeting my expectations (which I will admit, were high).  The 8th grade class we just said good bye to was tough to love during recess duty.  My homeroom was a handful, to say the least.  Our high school counselor left in early April due to her head injury and ended up leaving for good.  Which left the schedule in my lap and double-duty.

I’ll admit, helping in the high school was a bit fun at times – it was great to see the kids I remember from their middle school days.  They still called me Ms. Stromberg and it felt good.  The kids who were 7th graders my very first year graduated this year, which was surreal.  I got to learn more about their post-high school plans because I was in the building far more than I normally would have been.

I learned I can be sucked into the negativity far easier than I wish I was.  I learned that I falter in an environment with a low morale.  I wish I were more positive.  Able to rise above the environment and be that person who everyone refers to as the “positive one”.  And especially with only 6 years under my belt, I wish I could have more positive things to say at this point.

I hope in July I do.  I am giving myself some time to recollect, rejuvenate, and regroup.

I love counseling.  There were so many moments this last year that I found myself thinking “God, I love this” and I know that I am where I am supposed to be.  Next year will be better.  It has to.  After a tough year with more on my plate than I felt I could handle, another year has to be better.

Happy summer, fellow school counselors.  Another year down, a hundred new lessons learned – both personally and professionally – here’s to a summer of self-care and new perspectives!

Lesson gone wrong…

I should have learned my lesson the first time.

One activity I’ve done in the past for “Appreciating Individuality” is the “Pass It On” lesson where you have each kid write their name on a big piece of paper and then you pass the paper around the room and let each student write something nice about that person.  I emphasize the word nice. 

Four years ago I did this lesson and I had a few kids write something really mean on another student’s paper.  So, like any good school counselor, I became frustrated and gave up on the lesson…

I stumbled upon an idea on Pinterest of a “self-esteem portrait”

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And part of it was to have other students write “really nice things” around the picture.  So I gave it a shot.

The first class of 30 6th graders did beautifully.  Really sweet things written down.  Kind words.  Words that impressed me.  Words that I hope really made a kids’ day.

The second round was a different story.  One kid was writing ” very ‘special’” on several kids’ papers and one had “likes nips” on it.  Now I would not have even noticed the “likes nips” comment if the boys in the back of the room hadn’t been snickering about it and the boy whose paper it was had been awkwardly trying to cover it up when I walked by.

Maybe it was wrong of me, but I addressed the entire group and asked that the students who wrote “very ‘special’” and the “other inappropriate comment” to see me after class.  One boy confessed.  He told me that he was referring to Nips, the candy.  Image

I wasn’t born yesterday.  And those boys snickering sure didn’t think he was referring to the candy.

Ugh.

So another lesson to put on the shelf for a while.  Until I feel like Pollyanna again and give it a whirl :)

Baby Counselors

When I did my practicum experience, my high school supervisor used to refer to new teachers as “baby teachers” and she ever so lovingly called me a “baby counselor”.  She also threw me into completely uncomfortable situations as a “sink-or-swim” technique, like giving me a pamphlet on sexual harassment on my 1st day with her and having me discuss what that meant to a boy who had allegedly been harassing a girl.  Graduate school doesn’t exactly prepare you for that – hence the whole purpose of a practicum.  Part of me felt like we could do away with a good one or two semesters of class and just jump into the practicum experience.  I would have learned more anyway…

So six years in, I’m now getting a “baby counselor” of my own in a week.  While the experience is great for the counselor-in-training, it never occurred to me just how great it is for the counselor.  I’m only 6 years in, but starting to run on auto-pilot sometimes and having someone here to explain things to will bring it to a more conscious level.

I was so annoying as a baby counselor.  Ever eager.  Thought I knew everything.  Perky and on fire for the profession.  I’m sure my supervisor (who retired three years later) went home and told her husband how “cute” it was that I was so excited and perhaps rolled her eyes a few times at my naive chatterings about the world.  :)  And sometimes I still feel like the baby counselor – in situations I was never trained to handle, blindly walking through it and “faking it until making it”.  But that is what keeps this job interesting, right?

Sneetches, Beaches, and 5th grade

Dr. Suess sure was brilliant, wasn’t he?  His bizzare creatures, the way he rhymed words that weren’t really words and got away with it, and he threw in some social and historical twists in his messages that usually taught us a lesson.

The Sneetches has got to be one of my favorites.  It’s that blue book with the additional stories of “The Zacks” and “Too Many Daves” and those creepy pants with no body inside them finish the book of stories.  First he taught us how to accept each other, then how stubbornness will lead to chaos around us, then the importance of taking the time to name each of your children, and finally, creepy pants that walk around in the dark hanging out in snide trees (or whatever those were) can become your friends.

I teach the Sneetches during my “Accepting Individuality” unit although it would also tie in well to any bullying curriculum.  The neat thing about this book, as I learned after doing some research, is that Dr. Suess wrote this after the conclusion of World War II – just as the Holocaust was being exposed for what it really was.  And the guy used stars on the Sneetches bellies – just as Nazi’s used those stars to identify the Jews.  Those are the details my nerdy, historical loving self gets intrigued by.  Brilliant again, Doctor.

I used to read the book and walk around, which I know is probably best because how often are 5th graders really read to?  But I recently found a clip while scouring Pinterest that throws some song and dance in to the mix and captivates my audience a bit more than my voices would have!

Most kids have read this book, but it is a great reminder that we tend to judge people based on what we see and seldom take the time to really think about why that “star” is such a big deal.  Or that UnderArmor sweatshirt.  Or that hairstyle.  Or those jeans.  Or that skin color.  Or the way someone walks.

We ridicule because it makes us feel secure.  When we judge someone else, we put ourselves on a higher ground than them automatically.  The star belly sneetches were that “cool clique” of girls you knew back in middle school who basically thought if you weren’t wearing the latest trend you automatically weren’t that great to hang out with.

I love Dr. Suess and if I could teach him every lesson I would.  I think this is one of those lessons every guidance counselor has in their bag of tricks and it is one that a small part of nostalgically appreciates as well.

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One of the Best (and worst) Lessons I Teach…

One of the lessons in my bully unit for 5th grade makes me, well, a bully.  It was part of the curriculum given to me by our CESA 11 Anti-Bullying program and has been quite effective.  As in, kids in the high school can still tell you the day their middle school counselor ripped their poster.

After discussing bullying for several weeks, including discussing the definition, the four main types, and how to ACT (take Action, Care for the bully and victim, and Tell a trusted adult), the students are asked to make a poster to demonstrate what we’ve learned.  Something we do in most classes, right?  I give them only 15 minutes to work on this – they panic, wanting more time – and then put them up in the front of the class to share and discuss.

At that point, I begin to rip them.  Toss the pieces on the ground.  Judge the coloring, the content, the pictures.  They gasp.  Some laugh.  Some get really quiet and really mad.  Some get the point right away.  Others need some time to process what they just witnessed.  It isn’t every day that a school counselor destroys a kids’ creation.

Then I apologize and use clear tape to tape back the pieces.  We discuss how even though I’m taping them back together, the rip is still there and is impossible to completely eliminate.  This is similar to the whole “cramming-toothpaste-back-in” analogy.  I hang these posters up in the room or the hallway and it becomes a conversation starter for all of the kids that see them.  poster2 poster1

My stomach is always in knots just before I rip them up.  I feel terrible doing it, but it is such a great way for every kid in that classroom to feel violated.  It is on a very small scale compared to actually being bullied, but it makes a point – a very vivid point.