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The Opposite of Splitting

By Eddie Levisman

07/07/2017

In the past decade or so, Shanghai American School and other signature international schools in Asia proudly promoted the “full service” counseling model as the jewel on the crown of their hiring paradigm for high school counselors. It almost seemed inevitable in those days to land a position unless you firmly and convincingly held the belief that this was the ultimate paradigm and that you had the credentials to succeed in it. Interestingly, the tides seem to be turning these days. Go figure why.

In Shaun McElroy’s “To Split or not to Split” essay (TIE, December 2016), the author’s initial point is that “finding qualified counselors who can effectively service both the social-emotional needs of students and understand the nuances in higher education advising proves difficult.”

And right there lies the problem, for this statement implies the wrong question. The true issue is defined at the priority value level, not in the marketplace. For decades, high school counselors at international schools were professionals trained first and foremost as mental health specialists—well versed in personal/emotional/social/family interventions—who were later introduced to college counseling and academic advising.

The principal and foundational skill set and mindset among counselors was always to ensure the emotional wellbeing of the student, not to secure college placement. School heads did not search for college counselors but rather for high school counselors able to deal with guidance but also willing to invest in learning the “nuances” of the fast-rising college counseling demands.

Furthermore, a key issue was to find counselors able and willing to relocate internationally, adapt and function in foreign cultures, perhaps be proficient in local languages, and certainly have a globalized mindset and an open-mindedness with respect to diversity.

As stated in Shaun’s article, it was never easy to find such creatures. But they were there all along. With the advance of globalization, international schools appeared everywhere and the explosion created huge demand for qualified counselors. Schools opted for one model or another depending on what was available in the job market or, worse yet, contingent on school heads’ personal biases. There were no agreed-upon guidelines regarding the basic qualifications for counselors, nor are there still. There are no specialized college degrees in this area, no unified training. The field is left to local interpretations at best.

For many years, international schools were able to succeed with a full-service practice. One of the most predominant models around the globe was to hire local English-proficient mental health professionals, train them in the arts of college counseling (many started with the College Board summer institutes), and follow a full-service paradigm, sometimes—depending on the size of the school—with the help of a second expatriate counselor to support it. As schools grew larger and demand increased, this practice faced big challenges.

One of the most notorious challenges, especially in Asia, was the relentless demand for prestigious college placement by a rising educated and financially powerful upper class hungry for the best higher education the West could offer—namely, the Brand universities. In response, many school heads are under tremendous pressure to shift the focus towards aggressive and effective college counseling and academic advisement programs that yield what parents are expecting: college acceptances.

An interesting trend took place as a result in recent years of employing counselors with no mental health training or background but rather with rich experience in, and strong connections with, college admissions offices, especially at top-tier universities. Naturally, many admission officers jumped to the other side of the desk to offer their highly valued expertise. Remuneration by international schools is, after all, much more attractive and easily justified the switch. In some cases, teachers rose into academic advising positions and created a path to college counseling as well, but with no counseling training or credentials.

Did it come at a cost? Perhaps. As the pendulum swings back, parents are now concerned about typical adolescent issues such as bullying, cyber addiction, career education, chemical dependency, work overload, stress, mental illness, and more. If counselors at the high school level are college placement specialists, who’s to attend to these personal/emotional concerns? Where are the parents’ priorities these days?

When I was a young counselor, there was a teacher in my school who repeatedly proclaimed, “I don’t teach math; I teach kids.” It stuck with me all these years because as counselors we are in the same boat; college counseling is not about colleges, it’s about children, and it’s about a journey into the self in search of itself and its future expression. Let’s not become the hammer that only sees nails.

The question is not “to split or not to split?” There is no split other than the one in our head. The student is still one indivisible human being. You cannot be a true college counselor without attending to the personal, emotional, and social aspects of the student—including, and especially, the family. Likewise, you cannot be effective if you are not in tune with the academic, career, and college needs of your students.

We are witnessing the rise of a new dawn in defining 21st-century skills and agreeing on what we value. Let’s ask the right question and move toward training programs that produce the professionals that are needed in 21st-century international education: holistic in every sense of the word, well rounded, global, and committed to international education.

Most crucial of all, to serve our clients all counselors ought to have two sets of qualifications: counseling skills and college placement know-how. I choose the opposite of splitting. That would be pulling together, I guess.




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