Expert Interview: Paula Ferguson
Our College-Expert Interview series gives parents and students an opportunity to meet an expert who can help them on their college-bound journey. We ask each expert how they got into their careers, why their work is so important and to share their best advice, concerns our suggestions and tips!
This interview is the first for SOAR featuring,a behind-the-scenes look at top High School Counselors. And now, introducing Paula …
Name: Paula Ferguson
Title: High School Counselor/Dept Chair
SOAR: Have you ever thought or had a preconceived idea about what high school counselors do all day. Or wonder what is taking them so long to respond to your emails or calls
Take another look as we go inside the "Triage Unit" of a high school counselor. It's more than just a job, it is an adventure.
I had the opportunity to interview one of Cobb Counties top notch counselors. I too had a different perspective and heart felt ideas of what transpires in our Georgia schools.
SOAR: How long have you been a counselor?
Paula: I have been a high school counselor for Cobb County for over 13 years. I counseled in several Cobb County High Schools.
I graduated from North Carolina A&T State University (’81) with a Bachelor’s degree in Home Economics, with a concentration in Clothing, Textiles and Fashion Merchandising. I worked as a Program Director for the YMCA for many years before transitioning to a Para Professional for special education or students with EBDD- Emotional Behavior Disorders (Self-Contained).
SOAR: What inspired you to become a counselor?
Paula: I had a student that had to be removed from class and sent to the principal’s office, but I had to sit with the student to calm him down prior to going to the principals’ office. At that point is when I raised the question of what was going on with this child. Soon students began to speak with me about a variety of issues. I then was able to understand them better and decided that I wanted a job where I could make a difference in a child's life. I decided to return to school to earn a Master’s Degree in Education with a concentration in School Counseling (K-12)
SOAR: What are your job responsibilities? Little did I know the response would be overwhelming. (loaded question)
Paula: Many counselors on my staff have many responsibilities. Creating reports, handling complaints multitasking a Triage center of students, coming in and out of their offices on any given day.
Most counselors handle a case load between 450-500 students on average while also engaging in classroom guidance for each academic grade level.
Counselors are charged with providing classroom support and advisement from A to Z. This is a timeline of what the student should be doing for the next year. Often this approach is very challenging to counselors because teachers do not have enough wiggle room in their schedule to allow counselors to do classroom guidance with their students. Our teachers are under pressure of teaching the curriculum and are evaluated heavily based on student test scores. Therefore, many students are left with only a brief overview of their academic expectations for the next year. One hour or less is not an ideal time to disperse this information but it’s very challenging because of the time constraints which are understandable given the dilemma teachers face with teaching so much material in a limited amount of time. Testing always follows.
Counselor’s roles involve doing fact sheets and distributing individual assessments to students. This involves recognizing their electives, core class and recommendations by teachers. Parents are involved to a degree to discuss any issue with counselors regarding appropriate grade placements.
Advisement for students happens over a three-week process for the school year. This process consumes their entire work day for that three week period. As a result, counselors may not necessarily be able to answer phone calls, or e-mails in a timely manner. This often upsets or frustrates those parents who are reaching out with concerns about their students. . Counselors review requirements for graduation from A to Z, college application for post-secondary options, scholarship, GPA etc. Parents also have the options of going over this same information with the counselor.
Many high school counselors are unfortunately overwhelmed with the work that they must complete for their students and the caseloads of up to 500 students to 1 counselor. But it’s not just the crazy schedules and large high schools that explain why high school counselors often are stretched too thin to help families through certain processes. The issues surrounding each individual student (academic, social and emotional) can, again, be overwhelming. In addition, counselors have a variety of administrative duties that must be addressed. Most of which are time sensitive. One area of great concern is the college and scholarships process. "Paula says they simply don't have the luxury to extensively help each and every student through the process to the extent that most counselors would like to assist."
SOAR: what is one of the most prominent issues you face on a daily basis?
Paula: social environmental issues. The true Triage Counseling of modern day times.
I deal with numerous social emotional issues on an ongoing basis with students. Many social and emotional issues that students face daily is from anxiety disorders, bipolar disorders, student who cut (self-harm) multiple times a week. Some cases become so severe that I must consult with a professional licensed psychologist to combat some of the concerns students have. I often must apply therapist techniques and strategies to help students through anxiety episodes. I encounter” Frequent Flyers" several times a week as I continue to build a strong relationship of support for them.
SOAR: What are the benefits and drawbacks of this career?
Paula: The benefits of my job is knowing you are making a difference in a child's life. The students and their needs keep me going. I try to do the best I can, whenever they need me. Sometimes we are all that students have. 75% of what we do is not academics, it is about the day to day care for the students, whatever they need for that day, you wear that hat.
The primary drawbacks as a counselor are the large caseloads. They can become very stressful and burnout is very common in this field. I feel counselors would be much more effective with smaller caseloads, and more time in the classroom doing advisements and guidance counseling lessons with the students. However, once again, it is understandable as to why more classroom time is challenging.
The burnout rate is ever increasing, and there needs to be a foundation for balancing of students that are doing well, with students that are struggling.
SOAR:I would like to thank Paula for her candid views on the role of counselors today.
Thank you Paula for your time and service
Helping Students Navigate
The College & Scholarship Process
This is a good reason why parents need to understand the college prep process and not rely on guidance counselors. They are simply out numbered.
"The American School Counselor Association recommends a student-to-student counselor ratio of 250:1. According to the most recent data, only three states meet that recommendation. The national average is 491:1, while in California and Arizona, it’s 822:1 and 941:1, respectively."
Learn More Why High School Counselors are limited when it comes to College Planning.