January 26, 2015

How High Schools Promote Isolation and a Lack of Support
Brady Norvall, M.A.
Founder and C.E.O. at FindaBetterU®

In the past few months I have heard and read a lot about the transportation disrupting company, Uber, and the ongoing debate about whether it infringes on, or is unfair competition for, city taxicab systems. It makes me think about how we have a natural tendency to be cynical with regard to new services or industry disruptors. To err on the side of skepticism is not a mistake in most regards. But when it comes to our kids, we are often too carefree about the most important areas: time spent reading and the individuals with whom they surround themselves, and far too much energy and resource into those elements which satisfy our own vicarious, wheel-spinning notion of parenting: youth sports, summer programs and standardized testing, just to name a few. The only common disruptor to adolescence today has to be the one institution we believe to be stable and positive in our kid's lives: school.

High schools, in general, are a disruptor because they continue to change, continue to look for greater efficiencies, more exceptional results both in the immediate and long terms. High schools are an industry and an agent of change (not for the better, in most cases) and this is a big problem because it's challenging (read: near impossible) to change from the inside, particularly as young people will always NEED the human response and interaction to grow socially, emotionally, spiritually and psychologically, but these are not quantifiable outcomes. Whether we like it or not, these ought to be imperative areas of focus for all schools, elementary and up. But it's the high schools which are "performing" the worst, in this regard. For most parents born before 1985, schools were much more likely to have been a supportive, growth-focused, humanistic community, than they will be/are for our kids. Teachers are still great, for the most part, I would argue. But working in a broken system takes its toll on even the most patient, thoughtful, well-meaning educator.

This all gets back to a larger problem about our approach to the outcomes of education: teenagers aren't a customer-base and high schools are not high-level service providers, no matter how much they charge. So it baffles me when I hear that high school counselors are warning parents away from hiring private counselors. For whatever reason, college counseling offices, particularly those at private schools, demean, discourage, and deny any added value of a private counselor if/when the subject is broached. Oftentimes, they volunteer this information without being prompted at all. Do English teachers get riled up when a student seeks out extra help by way of an English tutor? On the contrary.

I am not saying high school college counseling offices are bad at what they do. Actually, most school counseling offices are probably just fine at what they do, they just don't do enough of the good things, the growth-focused, positive-reinforcement-things. Let's explore five reasons why school counselors ought to stop wasting energy on this concept of parents hiring extra help.

1)      Can teenagers ever have TOO MUCH support? No. The entire premise of a school counselor is to help students do what's best for them, not be the answer, themselves.

2)      They have no trouble directing students to therapists, tutors, test prep centers, or elsewhere, so they need to grasp that a private counselor is another area which is not overlapping their school counseling responsibilities. It's an extra. An add-on. It isn't about the school or the school counselor. It's about the kid.

3)      School counselors imply that it's about not needing the support, but it's really urging the parents not to spend money on something which impedes upon the area for which the school counselor is responsible. Yet, in situations in which these same services are provided at no charge, school counselors cannot talk them up enough. In other words, it's a school counselor telling a parent how and where to spend his/her money. They're school counselors, not financial adviser. Sadly, this is most often the case at the most expensive private schools.  

4)      Stop telling families to "gather information" and "do their research" and then act incensed when the family takes a step toward hiring someone privately. Most people refer to this as "support" (see: #1).

5)      Instead of focusing on parents and private counselors, let's work hard to reform the systems which we serve, both high schools and university admissions. If enough counselors speak out about how unfriendly the system is, perhaps universities will listen. As of now, all counselors can agree on one thing, at least: this process no longer serves the best interests of the students.