If there is one constant in the life of a school counselor, it’s that, regardless of how well you plan, just about every part of your day is subject to change at any given moment.
It’s barely mid-morning and already Evans Middle School counselor Errin French has been to two meetings, fielded a call from a teacher concerned about a student, met with a student who walked in and just really needed to talk and answered a call from a parent asking French to meet with their child.
“One day recently, I told my secretary, ‘I have six meetings. You’re not going to see me at all,’” French says. “Before I even got to my first meeting, we had a student in crisis, and they’re calling me. I made it to the next meeting, and I came back to eat lunch, and I’m like, ‘Ok, I have another meeting,’ and on the way to that one, two children had serious things happen, so I needed to go help with that. I made it to one meeting the whole day, and I had six on my calendar.”
She’s not complaining. It’s just a typical day in the life of a school counselor.
And, French, who was chosen as the 2017 McKinney ISD Counselor of the Year, is really good at juggling it all.
“Errin French is such a fabulous asset to our school,” says Evans Principal Darla Jackson. “We could not do the things we do without her. Anything from crisis prevention to helping us with our programs such as AVID. She’s the first one who’s going to jump in and say, ‘Yes, let’s do this!’”
It’s a big job. McKinney ISD employs 51 counselors who serve the district’s nearly 25,000 students as part of the Comprehensive School Counseling Program mandated for school districts by the state of Texas. Those numbers put their average case load at around 500 students.
Counselors have a curriculum they are responsible for implementing throughout the year as they help kids learn how to develop coping skills and healthy relationships, recognize dangerous situations and prepare for college and career.
They run point on substance abuse prevention initiatives and suicide prevention, provide professional development for teachers and staff, help establish campus procedures and serve as a resource for the sometimes difficult questions and situations that arise in the course of educating the students of MISD.
And, they’re just…there. When a student needs someone to listen. When a teacher needs someone to listen. When pretty much anyone just needs someone to listen.
“Counselors are critical to student success,” says MISD Director of Counselors Jennifer Akins. “They really have a variety of ways that they serve students on campus, and one of the big challenges that counselors face is prioritizing their time because there are so many tasks to complete, and students can often have a lot of different types of needs. When you’re covering the gamut from college and career readiness all the way to personal and social concerns, that can be a very broad range of things to absorb your time.”
Like her fellow counselors across the district, French’s focus is on meeting the needs of others. “It’s the weirdest job,” she says with a smile, “because I have my list of everything I need to do, and most days everybody else determines what I do.” But, when your chief aim is to help people, that’s…OK.
“The toughest part is probably those days when you feel like everybody needs something from you at the very same moment,” French says. “You know you’ve got to be off campus at 10 o’clock for a meeting, and three kids need you, a teacher needs you and a parent is calling and the principal needs you. That’s the toughest part of my job.”
French has been at it for 18 years—11 of them at Evans. Before she became a counselor, she taught third grade for eight years in Houston and Katy—and still describes herself as an elementary teacher at heart. But, there is something about middle schoolers that has stolen her heart.
“I love middle school. I really, really love this age. I did not ever dream I would be at a middle school, but I’ve only ever been a counselor at the middle school level. I don’t know that I could ever teach them,” she says with a laugh, “but, I love being their counselor, and I feel like I can relate to them.”
One way she relates to them is through her love of Star Wars. Stepping into French’s office is like wandering into a gift shop at Skywalker Ranch—and that serves a purpose.
“Sometimes getting middle schoolers to talk is hard because they come in, and there is this adult looking at them and they think, ‘What am I supposed to say?’ I feel like I’m pretty approachable, but there are still kids who aren’t sure what to do. So, they’ll say, ‘Hey, you like Star Wars?’ And, I’m like, ‘Yeah!’ It’s just a great conversation starter. It kind of breaks the ice because they’re thinking, ‘That lady who is really old knows about something that is kind of cool.’ My fellow counselor next door, she’s all Harry Potter in her office.”
Beyond time-management wizardry and the ability to connect with students, there’s a particular courage possessed by school counselors. They are called upon to step into issues and situations that are emotionally difficult, situations that others often don’t have the confidence or expertise to deal with. And, it can be a heavy burden to bear, but for French, all of the demands on her time, all of the tough stuff that she has to tackle is worth it. And, it doesn’t take a whole lot to keep her going.
“When a kid leaves you’re office and says, ‘Thank you for talking to me. I feel better,’ it’s like I say to myself, ‘Ok! That’s why I do this every day.’ Or when a parent says, ‘My kid really loves you, and she trusts you and she loves talking to you about things.’ That’s all it takes to get you coming back every day. Or just, ‘Thank you for listening and just being that person.’ That’s all that counselors really need is just, ‘Thank you.’ That’s what keeps us going: knowing we’ve helped a kiddo.”
So…to Errin French, 2017 MISD Counselor of the Year, and to all of her colleagues who do this tough, demanding job….
From all of us.