A Transition Plan for the Counselor

As a school counselor, I am used to transition.  In a comprehensive counseling program, transitions are an integral piece of student support.  I help students transition from one grade level to the next, one division to the next, or in and out of schools.  I am also used to supporting staff in transition as people come and go, move divisions, change positions, retire, or accept another job at another school in another country.  Transitions are normal, healthy, and in my wheel-house.  I know what to do, how to process, plan, and support .. when it is someone else’s transition.

Personally, I am going through a major transition in about every capacity of my life. In the past 4 months I have said goodbye to friends and students, packed up my life, moved halfway around the world, started a new job, in a new country, with new coworkers, programming, students, staff, and more.  About every major transition you can possibly experience, I just did in the span of a few months. And guess what? … I have felt lost and floundering.  I have been struggling with my own transition and making sense of who I am in time and place.

So, I did what I do for others — I sat down and drew up a transition plan.  Except this time the person who I was supporting and developing a plan for was myself. Here are the elements of my transition success plan and what I did to be kind to myself and make sense of what I was going through.

  1. I identified my support group.  I clearly outlined who could help me in my transition.  Who would understand the various pieces of what I was experiencing and be able to support me through those aspects?  Who would be gentle enough with my emotions but also provide tough love and alternate perspectives to my thinking? Who was already not overwhelmed with their own life so that they were open and willing to let me lean on them when needed?  Who could support me personally? Who professionally?  I quickly realized it was not fair to my husband to be my sole support as he was in the same stage of transition. Rather, I reached out to a few family members, some old friends, and some new staff who were in the transition boat right along beside me.  Each were able to help me in a specific way that was not overwhelming to them or me.
  2. I clearly defined what support looked like to me. As I discuss in this post, I clarified specifically what support looks like for me so that my needs were met in a manner that felt meaningful for me.  I spoke what I needed and was willing to ask for help. Sometimes my support had everything to do with school.  Sometimes it had nothing to do with school.  I was just clear in what I needed at my transition at that moment to set myself up for success instead of disappointment.
  3. I found my slice of “normal.”  To ease transitions, I am a firm believer in establishing routines and settling in.  This meant I identified what I needed both personally and professionally to feel like I could conquer the day in a manner that felt true to who I am.  Coffee maker in the kitchen.  Planner filled out and updated daily.  A comfortable couch to curl up on at night.  A gym membership to maintain my workout (aka sanity) schedule.  A really good pencil sharpener and a set of pencils.  Knowing where to access the daily schedule.  Knowing what standards guide the counseling department at my new school.  Once I had those pieces of “normal” figured out, I felt more settled and like life was not so different after all.
  4. I allowed my emotions to be.  I named my feelings.  I acknowledged what might have made me feel that way.  I sat in the emotion for a while and honored it.  Then, I did something to move through it instead of letting it swallow me up.  I did not apologize for pure glee.  I did not apologize for pure sadness.  I recognized there was a reason that emotion surfaced and then I moved through it.
  5. I created “triage lists.”  I created three different sets of lists: What needs to be done/known/understood now?  What needs to be done/known/understood soon?  What needs to be done/known/understood in the future.” This helped me break life into manageable pieces.  It also helped me understand that there were things to focus on now and gave me the grace to push some things to the back burner.  Instant grace. Instant clarity.  Instant focus.
  6. I embraced the new and I stopped comparing.  I realized I was packing a pretty hefty “back home” or “at my last school” suitcase.  That was not fair to my new situation to compare or score one item against another.  It also did not allow me to fully embrace the new and engage in the change process.  I realized that as long as I was constantly comparing I was not fully embracing.  Transition means reflecting on what was while also looking forward to what will be.  So, I stored that suitcase away in a closet and opened myself up to being vulnerable, unsure, unsteady, and ready to tackle the new.

As I wrote and worked through my transition plan I realized that just like every other individual in transition, having some tangible actions to focus on helped make the unmanageable seem doable.  The scary become less overwhelming.  I seemed to move through the chaos quicker and found my semblance of normal.  The plan helped me clarify my goals and gave me a sense of purpose while still honoring the change, emotions, and fear that goes hand-in-hand with transitioning.  Most importantly, I reflected on how essential a solid, individualized, student-centered transition plan is to support students through change.  I more fully see the benefit of a comprehensive plan that meets student needs as they move into the next unknown.

What are some ways you support student transition?  How have you supported yourself in a major transition?  What would you include in your transition plan?

Simulations in Guidance: Mock Day

Socratic Seminars.  Tea Parties.  Historian’s Breakfast.  Process Dramas.  In today’s relevant classroom, simulations are everywhere.  Simulations — intentionally staged activities and event that bring real world experiences in the classroom setting so as to enhance student learning — are an integral portion of a student’s learning and understanding of concepts in today’s global classroom.  Simulations — no matter how simple or complex — are a powerful learning tool in that often mimic real life and real world experiences.  According to Edgar Dale’s Cone of Experience, the very best learning experiences occur when doing the real thing.  Simulations fall only second to the “real thing.”  Therefore, to create meaningful learning for students, simulations should be planned and included in their educational process.

So what does this mean for a school counselor?  How can a school counselor create simulation experiences that are meaningful, authentic, and have a lasting impact on student learning?  How does a counselor engage students using simulations that impact the academic, social-emotional, career, or global development of a child? Should school counselors spend time creating simulations or should that work be left to homeroom teachers?

Just like a homeroom teacher, a counselor should be skilled in creating simulations to engage student inquiry and learning.  One way I have managed to successfully use simulations to create meaningful learning opportunities for students is during our elementary to middle school transition program.  In spite of all three divisions being housed on the same gated campus, our grade 5 students complete a comprehensive transitions guidance program.  This includes classroom guidance around reflecting on the elementary and PYP experience, having questions answered about middle school and the MYP, participating in middle school tours, meeting middle school ambassadors and advisors, attending a middle school assembly, and more.  However, what came to surface is that even with all this programming, students still walked around with a lot of unease and trepidation about what middle school looks like, feels like, and sounds like. The unknown experiences were causing a lot of stress.  I could answer all the questions I wanted about changing for PE but since the students had never experienced this activity — their unease remained.

Enter guidance simulation activity.  

After consulting with the grade five teaching team, a Middle School Mock Day simulation was designed and implemented.  This means our grade 5 students spend a whole day experiencing middle school in the comfort of their own elementary hall.

Students in first five minute transition period.  Chaos ensues.

Students in first five minute transition period. Chaos ensues.

How it works:  Each homeroom teacher is assigned a teaching subject for the day. These subjects are based off the current offerings our grade six students have.  We bring in specialist teachers to cover specific subjects and to create prep periods for our homeroom teachers.  A master set of student schedules is created based on the middle school timetable (55 minute classes with 5 minute passing periods).  Students are assigned a schedule at random with consideration being made to accommodate mother tongue class needs. PE space, break space, canteen needs, supervision, and supplies are all arranged as necessary.   A meeting is held with all staff involved or impacted by Mock Day to go over logistics and questions.  Students are then briefed about the day and informed that, just like in middle school, they are going to have a random, rotating schedule of classes that is made up of random groupings of their peers.  They are informed that they might not have all the classes being offered (as true at the middle school level) and that they might have different peers in each class.  They are also notified about now only having one lunch break (compared to the 2 in elementary) as well as only having one small “play” area instead of a playground.  They are told about the daily advisory class in middle school which in the simulation means the students go back to their homeroom teachers to do some debriefing and reflecting about the day.  Just like in middle school, advisory is a brief time with a trusted adult to discuss current things happening in the students’ lives and create strategies or interventions to solve problems and be successful.  In the Mock Day simulation planning process we try to balance the amount of information we provide students so that they are comfortable while still leaving room for inquiry and for an organic experience to unfold.  It is important to let the day play out for the students — we have not made everything “safe” for them which would create an inauthentic experience as there are always unknowns in life.

To allow the simulation to have the most impact we also enforce middle school rules: students must wear pants (no shorts) with their uniform, they cannot use mobile phones as devices, they collect tardies if they do not make it to class on time during the five minute transition and — the biggest one of all — the students have to change into and out of their PE uniforms prior to PE (which every student is guaranteed to have on his/her schedule).  *Out of all the biggest fears, worries, and concerns about moving to middle school, changing for PE is consistently listed as the biggest worry.  Once again, we could talk about it being easy and not scary but until the students experience it, the fear remains real.*

On Mock Day, students arrive to school with their schedules and begin the rotation process.  A bell is used to indicate the start and end of classes and warnings are provided as the 5 minute passing period counts down.  When staff see students struggling, frustrated, or perhaps engaged in an undesirable behavior, we pull the student aside to have a conversation and to make a connection to middle school. Every situation is presented as a learning experience.

Students during the first 5 minute transition period.  Chaos ensues.

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The energy at the start of Mock Day is high.  Students are excited, staff are engaged, and learning is occurring authentically.  Not only is there the academic learning, but more importantly, social and emotional learning is taking place.  It is amazing to see the student energy shift throughout the day when students get settled in.  The frenzy dies out and the confidence sets in.  Students are spending more of their transition time at their cubbies (lockers), having snacks between classes, visiting with friends.  Also, after their PE changing experience when students successfully change clothes, fill their water bottles, and make it to class on time, the smile on their faces is evidence that this unease about changing is diminishing — through experience, the students have developed in the social-emotional domain.

By the end of Mock Day, students are tired yet happy and invigorated.  The feedback/reflection sheets are genuinely positive and supportive of the simulation process.  Student feedback shows an increase in confidence about middle school, a connection that middle school is not that different from middle school, an excitement to move up to the middle school campus, and a lot of thanks for having the mock day simulation.

So, do simulations have a place in guidance?  Is it the school counselor’s responsibility to provide experiential learning opportunities for students?  Absolutely.  By providing a Mock Day for our students, the middle school transition process moved from theoretical to concrete.  Students developed not only in the academic but also the social-emotional domains.  Through a simulation, students were able to experience activities that helped alleviate concerns and fears.  The simulation helped students develop confidence and understand that in all actuality, middle school is not so different from elementary.  Most importantly, the simulation allowed students to face the unknown in a supportive, familiar environment surrounded by their peers and teachers who could address concerns and celebrate successes as they happened.

This is one method of using simulations to promote guidance activities.  What are some other ideas on how to use simulations as a school counselor?  How have you used simulations to support the academic, career, or social-emotional development of students?

Curse The Countdown: Teaching to the End

At this time of year, in any school community, teachers and students have their sights set on summer vacation.  An anticipatory energy seems to fill the school as the weather gets warmer and days get longer.  In the international school community, this time of year also signals a time of transition as highly mobile expat students might be moving onto their next school and as teachers say goodbye to one school to move to their next placement.  A lot of energy and resources are placed on year-end activities and providing closure for students and staff, alike.  I enjoy all the aspects of wrapping up an academic year.  All aspects except one:  the COUNTDOWN.

The dreaded countdown.  

How many instructional days left?  How many days till summer break?  How many student contact days?  How many days till I am on a plane headed “home?”  

No matter how it is framed or what method is used (corner of white board, calendar cross off, having students count remaining days, a countdown app on your device), I believe a “countdown” devalues the educational process.  Why?

A countdown tells the viewer (students, peers, parents, administrators) that the only thing that really matters is when school ends — not the learning that is in progress.  Why are we telling students to be so excited for their structured learning environment and daily inquiry process to come to an end?  If we are so focused on the end of the academic year then what value are we assigning to all the days of meaningful instruction that have not yet occurred?  By highlighting the last day of school as a celebration, I feel the messaging is that school is a chore, boring, something that has to be done rather than something we get to celebrate daily.  Educators should be counting every contact day with students as a learning opportunity yet to be had and creating an atmosphere of excitement about the opportunity to gather as a classroom community to inquire, unpack, and explore together.  We should model for students that learning is something to celebrate and build excitement for as learning happens every day. Counting down toward the end of an academic year does not promote the zeal and excitement around acquiring knowledge to create lifelong learners.  Instead it says “Hey, you get 180 days to learn and then — BOOM — take a break (and you “deserve” that break because school is hard, boring, and monotonous).”  Students pick up on our attitudes and messaging whether we intend them to or not.  If we are not placing a value on every academic day then why should they?  While we might not intend for a countdown to be detrimental to academic progress, I have yet to hear anyone to argue the benefit for student academic growth.

So, in a time when we are all getting ansty and thinking about things to come, what can we do instead of a countdown?  My suggestions:

1. Set daily goals of things you want to accomplish during the workday and cross those off the list instead of days.  Make them small goals of meaningful tasks to accomplish.  Give meaningful feedback on the latest assessment.  Get in a peer’s classroom for an observation.  Read a blog on assessment in inquiry.  Try a new teaching strategy.  Set a daily goal or two and make yourself follow through on accomplishing it.  Then, once you have achieved your daily goal, scratch it out and reflect on the process.

2. Take the initiative and lead a year end closure project or opportunity.  As the end of the academic year approaches, there are always too many projects that need accomplished at the school and never enough time.  Volunteer to take the lead on a goodbye assembly, grade 5 moving up project, organize a year end celebration for leaving staff, review documents that need updated prior to the next academic year, be part of the new staff orientation planning process, facilitate group sessions for students leaving the school and moving, or plan something totally new and innovative in your community.  By focusing on something extra or bigger than yourself, you will find the year end becomes too busy to count down.  You also model learning and growing yourself professionally and not shutting off because the “end is in sight.”

3. Develop engaging, innovative lessons that you have not tried before to promote student engagement and inquiry.  Excitement is contagious.  When students are engaged in meaningful, impactful, and purposeful learning, they will let you know.  You will also find that the more student excitement there is, the more excitement you will feel as a teacher.  When you are excited about something, do you really want whatever it is that is making you feel good to end?!?

4. If nothing else, remember — you are a teacher.  Your job means that you should be promoting learning and knowledge in your practice.  You chose to join a profession that, yes, has long breaks, but is tasked with developing a passion and desire for learning with every student you interact with.  Focus on the task you have at hand and represent the profession well.  Set high standards for yourself and then strive to achieve them.  At the end of every day, reflect and ask yourself, “Did my actions today promote or discourage students from becoming life-long, self-directed learners?”  I would reckon a big number on the board representing how many days left of the school year would not garner a tally in the “promote” column.

So, please, I implore you — wrap the academic year up when it needs to wrap up — after the students have left for the summer break.  Don’t start wrapping it up 54, 53, 52 … days early.  Kill the countdown and focus on the day in front of you.