An Interview with Middle School Counselor, Phyllis Farlow

by Doug Schmitt
An Interview with Middle School Counselor, Phyllis Farlow

Characterized by an above average rate of physical growth, middle school students grow the same way on a mental level. This leads to connecting what takes place in the classroom to real-life applications, pursuit of individual interests, and a quest to identify who they are as a person.

The school counselor plays a critical role in the middle school student's lives. As the students turn to their ‘friends' more than they do their parents for advice and acceptance, they become extremely sensitive to comments made by others, which could be uplifting or emotionally damaging. Not only promoting academic achievement, middle school counselors strive to make an enriched environment that supports the students in their time of self-discovery.

Phyllis Farlow, a middle school counselor at Phillips Middle School in Chapel Hill, NC understands the importance of school counselors in the lives of young people. She loves her career and enjoys being able to aid students with the challenges they face, both academically and emotionally. Her love of counseling shines through in the following interview.

Where did you go to college and what was your major? Did you anticipate becoming a school counselor?

I earned my undergraduate degree in Journalism from the University of North Carolina (UNC) - Chapel Hill in 1985. For 20 years I worked in graphics and communications, mostly in a public relations setting, but I felt there was something missing. I had always wanted to work with children, and in public education. I did some research and discovered school counseling. I completed a Master's of Education in School Counseling degree from UNC-Chapel Hill in 2005.

Where and how did your career start? What do you most enjoy about being a school counselor?

As part of my masters program, I completed an internship at a Chapel Hill, NC, middle school. A position came open; I applied and luckily I got the job. This is my first year working as a school counselor. I work with 200 sixth graders, and I realize I'm in a great school district with a small case load, compared to state and national averages.

I love my job! The best moments are when the kids open up to me, and I know it's because we've established a level of trust. They know I want to be here with them, and I value their differences, talents, and unique personalities. Classroom guidance is also a blast for me. There's a part of me that likes being on stage, and engaging 25 to 50 twelve-year-olds all at once is quite a thrill. I love to ask them questions and the see their reactions when I really listen to the answers. They have so much to teach me.

What all does the job of a school counselor entail?

That's a difficult question to answer because our jobs are so complex. School counselors have lots of variety in their days, and they spend a lot of time working with people either one-on-one or in groups.

The most important part of my work is providing direct services to the children. That can mean individual counseling, running groups, and providing classroom guidance. I work hard to protect a large part of my time for students. My role in consultation work – whether with teachers, administrators, or mixed groups – is also rewarding and effective. This can sometimes mean lots of meetings, but it's not time wasted if I can develop outcomes and goals for each step of the process.

School counselors provide valuable connections between groups who have to come together to support student success. For instance, it's important that I assist parents as they navigate school processes. When parents come in to meet with teachers or special education facilitators, I can assist the group by providing insight into the student's needs, I can make sure parents understand the processes, and I can advocate for best practices.

This year I've also spent a good deal of time working with student data. I assist with class registration and scheduling, but the more valuable work is in data analysis that leads to improved programs or policies. I also use student data to develop and follow a "counselor's watch list." Students on this list warrant careful monitoring to make sure they achieve their personal, behavioral, or academic goals. I will also play a role in the coordination of our standardized testing. I appreciate the valuable data that the testing provides, but I worry about the time I won't have for the kids because I'm managing testing.

What, in your opinion, is the primary role of a school counselor? How does one lay the groundwork for that role and then deliver on that?

The primary role of the school counselor is to support the development of children – specifically, their academic, personal/social, and career development. That's quite a mandate, but counselors who implement the American School Counselor Association (ASCA) National Model can develop programs and provide responsive services that are all designed to promote the optimal development of their students. To lay the groundwork for this work, the counselor needs to use leadership and communication skills, collaboration strategies, and advocacy skills. We are essential members of education teams that address all aspects of student development.

What is the most stressful aspect of your career? The most rewarding?

This is my first year, and my greatest source of stress has been defining my role. I know what I want to accomplish as a school counselor, and I know I have the training to reach those goals. However, I don't always have the big picture that school administrators have. The situations that stress me the most are the ones where I am acting on instinct without an understanding of the priorities of the school or school system. Luckily, my principal and assistant principal, as well as the other counselors and staff in our guidance department have been patient, informative, and supportive as I learn.

I love the "ah-ha" moments when kids come for counseling and through the process come to their own solutions, but the moments I find most rewarding are those when I take the role of advocate and assist in bringing about change that makes our school better for all students. It's also fulfilling to speak up on behalf of an individual student and know I was part of a team that created a plan that helps a child succeed.

Do you feel that school counseling is effective?

Yes, most definitely. I move up with my kids as they move through middle school. That means I am the one adult in the building who gets to know them and is in a position to advocate for them throughout middle school and as they transition on to high school. I do, however, feel it is extremely important for me to track the effectiveness of my programs and produce real data. That's a challenge, considering the magnitude of the job description, but it's essential for me to be results oriented.

What is the average salary for entry level school counselors? For experienced ones?

It's different all over the nation and can also vary by district. The only moment I don't like my job is when I open the paycheck, but I knew what I was getting into when I changed careers. I make a little more than $30,000 as a school counselor with a master's degree and no experience. My salary will increase over time. Those thinking of a career in school counseling should check with their state departments of public instruction and local school districts.

How is the job market now for school counselors? How do you think it will be in 5 years?

All 24 members of my graduate program found jobs in school counseling. I believe the job market is growing, and will still be strong in 5 years.

What are the hottest issues/specialties in school counseling currently, and what do you think will be next?

I think school counselors with good skills in applied behavior analysis, developing behavior contracts, and managing those contracts will find their expertise highly valued in schools at all levels. We are also becoming increasingly important partners in data analysis and using research methods to evaluate programs.

Is there anything else you can tell us about yourself, your career, or education that would be interesting or helpful to others aspiring to enter and succeed in school counseling?

I can't say it enough: I love this job! I feel I bring a special set of skills and talents to the school environment, and my job is different, but complimentary to the teacher or administrator. I would encourage anyone interested in school counseling to explore the field and really know what you're getting into. If you find this is for you, I can't think of a better profession. Schools are so important to the lives of kids and their families. I learn so much every day, and I love working in education.

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