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Q: I’m a counselor at a public middle school in a high-achieving area. Our students are so stressed that we expend a disproportionate amount of energy counteracting the academic pressure. We have a crazy number of kids with suicidal ideation, cutting, and other self-harming behaviors. My large school system now wants us to adopt an online program to track our middle schoolers’ college readiness. It includes interest inventories and course planners and information about admission requirements and college majors. Aside from the fact that I need another documentation requirement like I need a hole in the head, I think this is wrong-headed. I’m so annoyed I could scream! I recognize that I don’t have a choice; these are orders coming from above, and our efforts will be monitored online. Is there any way for me to rebel, even a little, and do you agree with me?

 

A:  As a counselor who’s worked with high-achieving populations, I understand your concerns. The bulk of your students probably have educated parents and consider it a given that they’ll attend college. They’re focused on achieving good grades and preparing for the future.

I also appreciate the burden posed by the additional documentation requirements. For many counselors, large caseloads already make it very difficult to devote adequate time to immediate counseling needs. That said, you work in a big school system. I’m assuming this program has been adopted, in part, to address the opposite problem. In other schools in your district, kids might not have access to information about college admissions or college readiness at home. They might be the first generation in their family to go to college. These students may be getting all their information from school counselors and other educators. Don’t dismiss the notion that you also might have some students who fall into this category. It’s unlikely that all your students come from comfortable, educated families, and every student should understand that college is an option for them.

But you state that isn’t your issue, and you asked me how you can rebel. For starters, take a look at the requirements to see if they need be modified or tweaked to meet your population’s needs. If they can, perhaps you can make some suggestions. Yes, this is an order from above, but that doesn’t mean you can’t ask questions. Before you do that, however, consider whether there may be some hidden benefits to this program. You may be dismissing it too quickly. There could be a silver lining, particularly if you’re able to use it to focus on students’ self-discovery. If kids are on autopilot and simply following a prescribed path, they may feel a lack of agency or excitement about college or beyond. They may have little idea where their strengths and interests intersect, and that’s a problem. It’s empowering to understand what you do well and what you enjoy.

Middle school is the perfect time for exploration. If your students are already so focused on checking boxes that they’re perpetually anxious, that’s all the more reason to shift the focus to self-awareness. If this tool helps students see how their traits and skills align with different careers, they may feel more in control of their future. That in and of itself can alleviate stress.

As you complete this new requirement, you also can bring your own perspective to the table. When you design a course plan with your students or administer assessments, talk about the importance of balance and figuring out what brings them joy. And look on the bright side — the mandatory extra time with your students will help you get to know each other better. That, too, is a way to decrease their anxiety.

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