When I decided to write this post, I really struggled on how I would present this information to my high school counseling audience. Would it be viewed as an attack on school counseling departments? Would someone reading this assume that I was talking about them? Would I get a lot of negative comments from counselors who never experienced internal strife? Well, I am taking my chances because I bet there are other school counselors who may feel isolated, unsupported, and even attacked by their colleagues in their own departments.
During my seventeen years as a school counselor, I have been involved with a wide variety of school counseling departments. I have been the only counselor, one of many, part of a duo, and now I am back to being alone. Although the majority of my experiences have been positive and encouraged my growth, there have been challenges along the way. Though I will not give specific circumstances from my career, out of respect for my colleagues, I am going to give scenarios that mirror challenges counselors may face internally. The following scenarios reflect experiences of real school counselors who felt unsupported in their departments and eventually decided to leave. Although these scenarios are fictitious, they contain some of the narratives I have heard over the years.
School Counselor Narratives
Molly recently graduated with her masters in counseling and finally, after many months of searching, landed a job as the second counselor at a great school that was known for its copious academic awards. During the interview, she felt lots of positive support from the administration and was happy she was chosen out of the 50 applicants who applied for the job. Not only did she feel accepted by the administration, but she would be working with an experienced counselor who she looked forward to learning from during the year. At the beginning of her school year things went well. She was learning the culture, meeting the kids, and getting to know the staff. Her new mentor took her under his wing and taught her about auditing transcripts, advisement procedures, and scheduling classroom guidance. Yes, things were running smoothly and Molly felt it was time to spread her wings and try to take initiative to create some programs of her own. Excited about her ideas, Molly went to her partner and told him her ideas. Surprisingly, she did not meet the enthusiasm and support she expected. In fact, she received the opposite reaction. The counselor said, “I don’t think we are ready to do something as challenging as this right now. You are still new and I don’t have time to be part of this venture.” Being new, Molly did not have the courage to challenge his decision; therefore, she dropped the idea. As time passed, all Molly’s ideas were repeatedly discouraged and she grew increasingly frustrated. Then, one day, a teacher she had been having lunch shared a secret with her. “You know”, she said, “the counselor who was here before you was a lot like you. She had a lot of great ideas, she was energetic, and she was great with the kids. Your colleague in there shot down everything she wanted to do and after so many years of putting up with him she just got tired of it. In fact, that is why she left. Don’t let him suck the life out of you too.” With this new knowledge, Molly was determined she was going to move forward on her ideas. Again, she went to her colleague and pleaded her case. This time she was met indignation. “I told you that I am in charge and if you don’t like it you don’t have to be here anymore. This is the end of discussion…do I make myself clear!” Now feeling defeated, Molly left his office and began to cry. After that meeting, she knew she was on her own. The two of them began to function as separate entities and she made the decision to find another position.
Charles was a teacher who earned his counseling degree later in life. After five years of waiting for an opening in his school, he finally landed a position as counselor. Charles was excited to work with the counselors as they seemed to get along and work well with each other. After Charles became part of the team, the lead counselor’s wife was transferred to another state and he left at the beginning of the year. With his departure, another counselor, who had been there for years, took over as lead counselor. At first, the new lead counselor was supportive and pretty much gave Charles space to do his job. Six months into the new year, the lead counselor started to make demands on the counselors that caused some issues. First, all the counselors had to use the same forms (even if they were they not convenient or understandable); second all counselors had to have the same schedule (which she made); third she controlled who came in the office and how long they could stay. Charles had a student who frequently came into his office to talk about his issues at home. This particular day, the lead counselor knocked on the door and interrupted the session. “Excuse me young woman, I need for you to leave so I can talk to your counselor.” The surprised student looked at Charles, but Charles calmly looked at her and said that she needed to go because there may be a situation he needed to attend to at that moment. After the student left, the lead counselor told Charles that he needed to set up boundaries with this student and teach her how to stand on her. Before Charles could defend himself, the counselor made a statement that made his face flushed. “Charles, I don’t want to be accusatory, but a lot of people are talking about this student coming to your office and that it doesn’t reflect well on our department. “At that point Charles was upset and asked what was the insinuation behind that comment. “I can’t say Charles, but you need to think about the length of time that you allow students in your office.” At the end of the day, Charles called his former supervisor to vent about what happened at work that day. Following his conversation with the lead counselor, he had to make a decision to stay at a job he loved or leave.
Monique was one of four counselors in a really demanding high school counseling office. The office was so busy that some days she was unable to eat lunch and she often worked over to catch up on her paperwork. The first year, she was so busy that she really didn’t pay attention to the other counselors and their workload. During her second year, she decided she was going to make time to eat lunch and talk with the other counselors. It was during the counseling lunches that she asked the other counselors how they managed their time. Two of the counselors confided in her that the other counselor didn’t have any problem managing her schedule as they had experienced her working on projects for other initiatives, leaving the building during the day to go home, and even planning her wedding. With her new found knowledge, Monique decided she would try to be more aware of her surroundings and began to explore if this scenario was true. Over the next couple of months, she noticed that her colleague had a different schedule than everyone else. In her third year as counselor, Monique and her two colleagues began to notice that when the kids were looking for their colleague she was rarely available. Eventually, Monique was not only seeing her caseload, but her colleague’s caseload. To make matters worse, when a student was seen leaving her office by her colleague her coworker would catch an attitude. “Why is my student in your office? They need to make an appointment to see me before they decide to see someone else.” Feeling overworked and helpless, Monique decided to go to the administration to discuss her concerns. Because the counselor had been there for so many years, the administration felt there was nothing they could do to change her ways. Disappointed by the lack of support, Monique decided it may be time to leave the next year and start over.
Marcus, Pamela, and Gladys were all hired the same year to join the counseling staff at a distinguished high school. When they joined the staff, they discovered that the majority of office staff members had been at the school since its inception. One person who had been there the longest was the counseling administrative assistant. Although she had a lot of knowledge, she was very protective of her territory and anyone who tried to change her structure. Each day the administrator and her friends had lunch together for two hours, hoarded the supplies, and controlled the flow of the traffic. Marcus, Pamela, and Gladys quickly realized how much control was in the administrative assistant’s control. If someone wanted something in their office, the secretary had to approve the order; if someone wanted to something in the suite changed, she would have the final say; and if they wanted to order materials, she controlled all the money. Then there was the tension in the office between the counseling administrative assistant and the career counseling assistant. The career counseling assistant would often cry and pick up to go home at least once a week. The straw that broke the camel’s back for the Marcus was when he heard the counseling secretary speaking negatively about him openly in the office to a student. Apparently, the secretary told the student that Marcus was incompetent and he should see another counselor. After the student left, Marcus confronted the secretary. The secretary sat quietly and did not respond to his accusation. Several weeks later, he noticed that the secretary began to ignore his requests, was curt in her remarks toward him, and made efforts to avoid him. The rest of the year was frustrating for Marcus and he had to make a decision of whether to stay or transfer schools.
How to Deal with Unsupportive Co-workers
If you are in a work environment with an unsupportive co-worker, there are some strategies you can employ. Diane McLain Smith says that when someone frustrates us professionally that we have reached our level of competence. Our frustration is due to our inability to handle our feelings about our coworker and we should use these opportunities as professional development. People who irritate us usually show us things in ourselves that we do not like. It is like holding a mirror in front of our face and showing us our imperfections.
So, how do we survive situations in which we find ourselves facing uncooperative colleagues? According to Lolly Daskal, there are some strategies we can use to help us with difficult colleagues.
1. Probably the hardest step is to fully accept what is happening in your workplace and wishing it would disappear. In fact, you may be your difficult person’s difficult person.
2. Accept that future problems will arise and begin to prepare for those situations.
3. Find something positive in that person to acknowledge. Sometimes we have to look at our own negative characteristics and hangups as we often dislike those characteristics in others.
4. If negative situations continue to exist, make efforts to limit contact with that person.
5. If following steps 1-4 becomes difficult and if you find that are you stressed at work, you may consider leaving and going to another job site.
However if you decide you want to stay at your job, you may want to confront your colleague. Here are some tips you can follow:
1. Start the conversation by telling the person that you value your relationship and you would like to address some concerns that seem to be impacting your working relationship.
2. Separate the person from the behavior.
3. Cite specific examples of what is bothering you.
4. Tell the person what you would like to change in the relationship.
5. Request feedback from your colleague s soon as possible. For example you can ask, “Have you experienced the same feelings?”
6. Pay attention to your colleague’s tone of voice and non-verbal communication.
Dealing with an unpleasant work environment is often difficult and draining. If you are in a difficult work environment, consider trying some of these suggestions. Also, remember that just because we are student support staff doesn’t mean we always support each other. If you are in a great counseling department, count your blessings! Unfortunately, not all of our colleagues are so lucky.