Author Archives: Robyn Jordan

The Difference a Counselor Makes

This year I made the transition from teaching at a school with various high-needs populations, to a school with considerably lower Free and Reduced-Lunch numbers. The schools couldn’t feel less alike, and one of the greatest factors in this difference lies in the counseling offices. If we are serious about combating the opportunity gap, we need more counselors where it is needed most. It looks like Superintendent Reykdahl gets this, to some degree – he supported ESHB 2224, which passed, and will provide more funding for school counselors at the middle school level (mainly to comply with High School and Beyond Plan development for students).

I would wager that any teacher anywhere would support increases in school counseling positions (caveat: unless it means we have to give up another vital support for students). The top-priority goal of the 2013-18 strategic plan of the WA State Counseling Association is to “Pass legislation that establishes and funds lower ratios for ALL levels (elementary, middle & high school).”

As Seattle becomes less and less live-able for so many lower-income city residents, the allocation of counseling services amongst schools is especially critical, and needs to be redesigned.

My current middle school has almost 900 students and 3 full-time counselors – one for each house/grade (6th-8th grades). My old elementary school has a highly fluctuating number of students – more on that in a bit – which generally totals around 250-300 students (grades PreK-5th), and a half-time counselor. Looking strictly at enrollment numbers, this seems fair: the more students at a school, the more counselor FTE (percentage of full-time position), a school gets.

But not all students have equal need for a counselor. School counselors serve students in a number of capacities. Historically, they started as vocational advisors. ”The role of school counselors continued to develop in parallel to changes in education and society. As the momentous social issues of the 1960s arose, the field focused increasingly on the developmental, personal, and social issues of students and on cultural sensitivity. In the late 1960s and the 1970s, the work of counselors became more entwined with central school goals for student academic success (Gladding, 2012).”

Doesn’t it make sense to base the number of counselors (and percentage of full-time work), based on the school population’s individual needs, rather than enrollment numbers alone?

This is sort-of already happening at Seattle Public Schools. According to this year’s Weighted Staffing Standards, an elementary school receives a half-time position for EITHER a counselor, a social worker, or a head teacher IF it qualifies as “Focus or Priority (the school is not doing well by various metrics); has Greater than 50% poverty per OSPI; or has a Social/Emotional Behavior program.” Excellent! But don’t make us choose!

At my old school, the half-time counselor tried to the best of their well-qualified ability to meet students’ needs. But the school included all downtown housing shelters, and the school population includes a huge, and growing number of students whose lives are in major turmoil and transition. Students regularly show up at the main office with no records of any evaluations for special ed services required, and no information about their academic and behavioral needs (which are often plentiful, due to the trauma they were/are experiencing). They stay for a month, a quarter, sometimes more. Special funding pays for a Family Support Worker, who does incredible, on-the-ground work to coordinate families with various resources. But we chose the half-time counselor position over the Head Teacher position, which was very much needed, too. KUOW recently profiled the school, and brought up the need for more staff development around trauma-informed instructional practices. But when you have a number of students who didn’t sleep the night before because of noise in the shelter; who are not yet evaluated for special services, who are shutting down or starting conflicts; who don’t yet feel safe and trusting of the classroom…no amount of professional development will be enough. You need more trained professionals in a building to meet needs, particularly counselors.

At my new school, we have monthly house meetings, led by our counselors, to examine the academic, social/emotional, and physical needs of each student in the school. Students of concern are discussed by all of us, and we look for gaps in how we are serving them. Recently, one of my 6th graders shared with me that he hadn’t slept the night before. This happened again, and again. I started checking in with him a little more frequently; he was on my mind more than others. When he told me that he hadn’t slept for the three prior nights, had been walking around, and that his mom didn’t know, my concern grew. Was this enough to warrant a report of potential neglect?

I went to the 6th grade counselor for advice and help. She was on it immediately because she was available – she wasn’t stretched between hundreds of kids with similar concerns. She met with the student the next day, learned a lot more about his life, and determined that his home is stable and loving. We got some additional supports in place for him: a schedule change to include a study-skills class, some regular appointments with the counseling office. His vocational future is inseparable from his current well-being and his on-going academic success. Having counseling services to support him in all of this is invaluable.

I hope that the particular needs of students at a school shapes the way we fund counseling positions; it’s an issue of equity and teachers, alone, can’t meet the social-emotional needs of students.

Should My Students Go To College?

My art classroom this year is in a giant, sun-lit room surrounded by kitchens along its perimeter. It used to be a home economics room, and we make good use of the storage cabinets and sinks. It also still has ancient potholders and whisks in the depths of some rarely-used drawers! “Home ec” hasn’t been offered as a middle school elective here in many years. Neither has auto shop, or wood shop. Students regularly ask, “What happened to cooking classes?” – I wonder, myself.

The history of schools is long-entwined with industry and capitalism – one purpose of schooling is to prepare young people to be productive workers in society. As labor in the U.S. continues to shift, how are we best preparing students for life after school? Who might be left behind?

I predict that most of my current students will go to colleges and universities – most come from middle- to upper-middle-class families, with many parents in white collar jobs. I’ve taught high-poverty populations for years, as well, and have always taught a significant number of students receiving special ed services. I believe tracking students – moving them into separate educational pathways based on academic performance, can be limiting, at best, for students.

Still, is college for everyone? At a recent College and University Spirit Day, all teachers at my school were expected to talk with their homerooms about their college experiences – the goal was to get students thinking concretely about college visions for themselves. But it didn’t feel honest to me, to talk exclusively about the rewards and joys of my higher education. I shared that I’m still paying off a large amount of student debt, and that I might not get a Masters of Fine Arts again if I had a time machine. A college degree has been a symbol, and sometimes a ticket, for class movement in America. But the rising cost of tuition brings into question, whether a degree offers a worthwhile return on investment. According to Claudio Sanchez with Morning Edition, tuition costs in Washington state have risen 70% in the past few years.

In 2014, a partnership between the U.S. Dept. of Labor and the U.S. Dept. of Education forged the Workplace Innovation and Opportunity Act – a law that “places heightened emphasis” on workforce preparation for out-of-school youth (youth aged 16-24 without a high school diploma). Previously, the focus of programs for out-of-school youth was on gaining a GED and getting higher education credits. But the U.S. Dept. of Ed. Office of Career, Technical, and Adult Education site has not been updated since January 2017 – it is unclear how this program is supported by our current federal administration. 

Seattle Public Schools has Career and Technical Education department that invites students to apply for courses at schools and regional Skill Centers. There are a number of programs offered, led by workers in those fields, including Aerospace, Automotive, Maritime, and Culinary Science. This offers exciting possibilities for students interested in trades, and is one way we could get closer to Washington’s educational attainment goal of 70% of adults (aged 25-44) having a post-secondary credential by 2030 (currently, about 33% of adults have a post-secondary credential). The use of “credential” versus “degree” reflects a growing emphasis in WA on Career and Technical Education (CTE) as an important option for students, amongst other possible paths. The WA-based foundation Partnership for Learning expands on the definition of “credential” as meaning “college, an apprenticeship, or other training that will prepare (students) for career success.” 

These goals feel particularly relevant to me, as a middle-class worker in a city with a rapidly increasing cost of living. I want my students, and all young people in Seattle and WA state, to transition to adulthood with all that they need to find jobs that are meaningful and sustainable, and to live here long-term (if they want). It’s exciting to see that state superintendent Chris Reykdal sees expansion of CTE as a legislative priority, and one piece of the huge, vital imperative to decrease the opportunity gap.

As I design curriculum in the art room around the development of 21st Century Thinking Skills: collaboration, communication, perseverance, reflective thinking, critical thinking, and creative thinking, I am trying to prioritize practices that students will use in any future workplace. As we use our hands to build, carve, sew, sketch, and design, I hope students think widely about their post-secondary options, regardless of what previous generations held as top-priority. Maybe that means college, and maybe it won’t. 

Making a safer classroom for students’ gender identities

On the first day of school this year, I asked my students – 6th graders – to write down their personal preferred pronouns on an index card, along with other info about themselves. I demonstrated writing mine (she/her) on the document camera, and gave other pronoun examples: he/him, they/theirs.

I got a few blank stares, and a few clarifying questions. Mostly I saw expressions that belied the feeling, “Uh, why are you asking me this?” (Or so I assume.)

I was posing this question to them because asking about others’ preferred pronouns has become common practice in more and more of the other spheres of my life. Why wouldn’t I introduce this practice in an art room, where I want to foster trust, and create a safe space for sharing essential aspects of ourselves?

As a cisgender woman (I identify as the same gender that I was assigned at birth), sometimes telling my pronouns feels tedious (“Nothing surprising here…”). But I agree with the idea that our society is a safer, better place for everyone when we all define and redefine our gender expression throughout our lives. 

My students are young – eleven years old, mostly. They are growing up in a world that has categories for gender expression that certainly weren’t available to me in my small town in the 90’s, when I was in 6th grade. Language is continually evolving and shifting as our collective understanding of gender shifts: labels like “gender-non-conforming,” “non-binary,” even “transgender,” are relatively new. The term “intersex” might not be new, but understanding of it as an identity is changing.

When I read students’ index cards later, I was touched by the fact that they simply did it – they wrote down their preferred pronouns, even if it felt like a “No duh,” and maybe that act, alone, got them thinking about gender in new ways. I regretted not having them share their pronouns with others in their table groups – that’s at least as important as telling me. I made a note to myself to do that part differently on the first day of school next year.

A few weeks later, we were watching a short video interview with the artist Louie Gong – he talks about his identities. This idea, that we all have many identities, was new to many of them. I used some examples, “Maybe you identify as a young person, as a Muslim, as a boy, as a skateboarder, as an East African.” The concept that identities are overlapping, and not necessarily fixed, connects to their understanding of their gender. You might be “he/him” today, and “they/them” next September.

I haven’t yet seen examples of students explicitly exploring their gender identities in their artwork, but then again: when was the last time I made artwork directly about my own identity as “female”? Maybe it’s creeping in, in their sketchbooks, or in questions I hear about whether the people in their drawings look “like a girl” or “like a boy”?

The Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction outlines the rights of WA state students around Gender Identity and Expression. “Students have the right to express their gender at school – within the constraints of the school’s dress code – without discrimination or harassment.” But how do we prevent discrimination and harassment?

Students also have a right to use restrooms and locker rooms “consistent with their gender identity.” A federal decision in 2016 requires all states to commit to these policies to protect transgender youth, or risk losing federal funding. 

My school has a single gender-neutral, single-occupancy bathroom available to students – it’s near the main office, and I used it one day last week. I noticed some discreet graffiti along the doorframe inside. “Hey queers.” “If you’re cis and straight, don’t use this bathroom.” I moved in to look closely and saw more. “I want to die” was followed by a suicide hotline number in different handwriting.

How do we develop students’ empathy and understanding for others’ gender expression, and for their own? A gender-neutral bathroom is a great start, institutionally, for protecting the needs of transgender students. I’m also heartened by the ways that queer students are showing up for each other – through sharpie messages on the walls, and otherwise. But we need classrooms, and hallways, and locker rooms that are safer and more welcoming of all of our unique gender expressions and bodies.

I’m looking for more ways to expand students’ understanding of their own gender identities, and I hope that creates more appreciation for others’ evolving selves.