DPS School Counselor of the Year Adrienne Haith; Alexandra Armor, DPS Elementary School Counselor of the Year; and, Ashley Bennetone, DPS Middle School Counselor of the Year
When the office of Public Affairs sat down with the district’s School Counselors of the Year for a chat about the joys and challenges of their work, their thoughtful responses were heartfelt and clarifying. First and foremost, counseling has evolved, they say. Read on to find out how, why it’s evident that our *Counselors of the Year are deserving of the accolade, and how they advocate for their work. (*The recognition process begins with an open invitation for any stakeholder to nominate for School Counselor of the Year. Counselors vote on their peers that were nominated at the elementary, middle, and high school levels and the names of the top vote-getters from each group are interviewed by the DPS School Counselor Leadership Team.)
Here’s a newsflash: the term guidance counselor is not only archaic but misleading. The title School Counselor reflects its all-encompassing role. Simply put, “we do everything,” said Adrienne Haith, DPS School Counselor of the Year, who serves Southern School of Energy and Sustainability.
“Everything” might include serving as MTSS coordinator as an “other duty as assigned,” but Mangum Elementary’s Alexandra Armor, this year’s Elementary School Counselor of the Year, says School Counselors remained focused on advocacy.
“Every day you come in and you might have a million things going on and being pulled in different directions, and I know a lot of counselors at DPS also do other roles like MTSS facilitator and 504 coordinator—I’m in that spot—but when I feel overwhelmed, I’m here to advocate for the students. I’m here to support their whole well-being, I’m here to lead my school in that as well.”
Tomeka Ward-Satterfield, Director of School Counselors, says the leadership of a school counselor keeps students at the center of everyone’s work. "Durham Public Schools has an unmatched group of competent, caring, and ethical school counselors that strive to put the student front and center in every conversation. These ladies represent the best of us! Our DPS School Counselors are fortunate to have a school board and senior district leadership that understand the value of every student having access to a highly qualified professional school counselor as indicated by the Strategic Plan Addendum Strategy to reduce the school counselor-to-student ratio to 1:250. This reduced ratio, combined with an enhanced understanding of the appropriate duties of professional school counselors and our transition to the American School Counselor Association's National Model would help to ensure all our students maximize their potential."
In order to bring that potential to the forefront, collaboration and communication are key. “The counselor’s role is often misunderstood and underutilized. People just don’t know what we do,” said Haith. So School Counselors take time to explain their work, she added.
There are differences among counseling roles in elementary, middle, and high schools, so her focus is on advocacy and simultaneously ensuring students are functional citizens after graduation. They’re also crisis managers and first responders, though they may not be seen as such. School counselors have undergone specialized training to address mental health issues, grief, signs of depression, even panic attacks.
“It’s not just making sure they graduate but making sure they have a plan once they graduate. And that does cover everything from their mental health to their academic strengths to their career knowledge and what they’re good at so I feel like we’re doing it all with very limited resources a lot of the time,” said Haith.
Neal Middle School’s Ashley Bennetone, DPS Middle School Counselor of the Year, adds that the role is proactive, data driven, and collaborative. There are guidelines and training that school counselors use to do their work. And because they are involved in many different aspects of the school, they can answer many questions.
Haith was a math teacher who transitioned to counseling “because I felt like I could do more,” she said. She can remember taking the time to work with students and their social and emotional needs while teaching.
That type of flexibility is what defines the role, according to Armor. “I think that we are very used to looking at the big picture and trying to be that person in the school building who works with everybody. It can be tough to be in so many places at once but I find that that’s what I need to do.”
Armor works with her colleagues on school goals, attends leadership meetings, meets with grade level PLCs, and works with teachers to support students who may have anxieties or be a little less confident in their academic abilities.
Bennetone said, “Visibility is just really important. At the beginning of the year, I make sure I am very intentional about outlining the things I do as a school counselor. Like Adrienne said, there’s a lot of confusion around our role sometimes. They see me all the time, everywhere. I try to make sure that I am present, in different places.”
It’s a constant reminder to everyone of what a school counselor can do, said Haith, who also gives an overview of her role at the beginning of each year.
These school counselor leaders say their efforts are working. Mindsets are changing about the work, and where there has been resistance, they’ve seen it wane. What hasn’t waned is their commitment to the students.
“I want to make sure that I’m doing as much as I can to make sure that our students can be successful, and have the skills and tools to be calm and feel safe and secure so that they can learn as much as possible. It’s a lot,” said Armor.
And yet, they remain committed and selfless. Why?
“Just the kids,” said Haith. “All I have to get is one text from a kid or a call or a thank you, and my stress is diminished. You love it because of them. If it weren’t for them, I don’t think any of us could do it.”
It’s not always easy but celebrating together makes it easier.
“You don’t see every day the impact you’re making, but when you do, it is so worth it,” said Bennetone.
Bonus: So how do these servant leaders take care of themselves in order to be at the top of their game?
Haith honestly admits that her strategies change depending upon what she needs. She relies on scheduling for time management. She also looks forward to professional development, like the upcoming National School Counseling Leadership Conference that will be held in San Diego this year. Half-jokingly, she says she’s scheduled it, but needs to raise the funds to participate.
Armor likes to knit and garden. She also says she’s not afraid to ask for help. Above all, she enjoys fun time with family. Bennetone prioritizes her spiritual well-being. She also takes care of her health and nourishment, and enjoys spending time with her two daughters, who are three and five.
Lucky for Durham Public Schools that they follow their own recommendations for health and well-being.