How I Help

She’s not a therapist. This middle school counselor helps prepare students for college and careers.

PHOTO: RJ Sangosti, Denver Post

In our new “How I Help” series, we feature school counselors, social workers and psychologists across Colorado who have been recognized for their work. It is a companion to our popular “How I Teach” and “How I Lead” series.

Through “How I Help,” we hope to give readers a glimpse into the professional lives of school staff members who often work behind the scenes but nevertheless have a big impact on the day-to-day lives of students. You can see other pieces in the series here.

Misty Schroeder, a counselor at Marie L. Greenwood Academy in Denver, talked to Chalkbeat about how she bulked up the school’s college and career planning efforts, what students tell her they want from their parents, and how she thinks about students’ challenging behavior.

Schroeder was named the 2017 middle school counselor of the year by the Colorado School Counselor Association.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Why did you become a school counselor?

I kind of stumbled upon the field by accident. Initially, I began working in higher education — in financial aid, housing, advising, admissions, student activities — and I discovered my passion for working with students, helping them to navigate their interests and their paths. I went back to graduate school for a master’s degree in counseling. In the process of earning my degree, I was able to spend some time in K-12 schools and eventually do my internship in a 6-12th grade school. I loved working with younger students, helping them explore their passions and interests, and helping them formulate plans to reach their goals. It was the best kind of accident.

Tell us about an effort or initiative you spearheaded at your school that you’re particularly proud of.
This is my third year at Marie L. Greenwood Academy. When I arrived at the school, students, staff and families had no experience with a school counselor. Through collaboration with the teachers and staff, the school counseling program has become a vital part of the school.

In a school where lessons on Individual Career and Academic Plans — a high school graduation requirement in Colorado — were not previously being taught, we now have a 100% completion rate. This ensures that our students are not only on track to meet that new graduation requirement, but that they are receiving curriculum designed around academic, career and college, and social-emotional needs. Students are now taking college trips and are meeting with speakers in their area of career interest.

Expanding on the career and college planning efforts already built into our counseling program, we are beginning a partnership with Career Spark. Career Spark is a program that provides students an opportunity to be exposed to careers across industries and learn about the field from industry professionals. Students will leave school and go to a local business or company where they will learn about the career opportunities in that industry and see the industry in action.

Is there a tool, curriculum or program you couldn’t live without in your job?
My answer could change from year to year based on the needs of the students and my school. I think what is most vital to my work are the people I work with — students, families, teachers, and staff — and the relationships developed with all of those people.

What’s the biggest misconception you’ve encountered about your role in the school where you work?
Some common misconceptions are that I’m a therapist, that I’m there only to work with students on social and emotional needs, that I’m simply waiting for upset students to come to me so that we can spend time talking about their feelings. While I absolutely work with students on social, emotional, and personal needs, I also do a great deal of work in academics, and career and college. While I do work with students one-on-one, much of what I do is in classroom lessons, small groups and schoolwide projects.

You spend lots of time with students. Knowing what you know, what advice would you give to parents?
I don’t know that I would be quick to give advice to parents. I’m also a parent and I know that sometimes navigating what’s best for our children is tricky. However, one thing I hear from my students often is that they wish they could spend more time with their parents: quality one-on-one time. So, I would say spend some time with your kid: Play games, eat dinner together, ask them about their day, ask them about their dreams.

Give them lots of love while setting limits for them. Kids are learning how to be in this world, how to be a responsible, productive adults and they look to us to give them guidance. They need boundaries and limits, and parents who will set those in a calm, clear, consistent way. I would also encourage parents to be involved in their student’s education. That does not mean you need to be at the school all the time, but check in with your student, check in with their teacher via email, phone or in person so that you know what’s going on for them.

Tell us about a time when you managed to connect with a challenging student or a student facing a difficult situation. How did you do it?
I’ve found that students — challenging or not — know if you’re being real with them. They can tell when you’re being authentic and when you’re not. So, I always try to be who I am — sometimes that means I’m goofy, sometimes I’m stern, and sometimes I make mistakes.

I also think that when working with challenging students, it’s important to remember that this one decision (or several decisions) does not mean that’s who they are as a person. I used to have a quote by my desk that said, “The Person is not the Problem. The problem is the problem.” Sometimes people make decisions that have negative consequences, sometimes they make bad choices — and they need to be held accountable for that. But they aren’t bad people. I try to keep that in mind when navigating a problem with a student. I love my students, hold them accountable and hold them to a high standard, and I think — I hope — they know that. I let them know that I’m there for them if they need me and I’m always willing to help them navigate something difficult.

What is the hardest part of your job?
I think that worrying about my students is the hardest part of my job. When students are going through a difficult time or struggling with something, or if there’s ever a concern that a student might be unsafe, I carry that feeling with me. Sometimes it’s hard to unpack that at the end of the day.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
Every time I come into contact with a student’s family, my perspective or approach changes. Everyone comes to the table with a story and the families of my students are no exception. Meeting people who play significant roles in students’ lives is always a little telling and helps me understand my students more. When working with families, I often think of my own. If my mother were walking into this situation, how might she feel, what might she want to know? If my brother or sister were struggling with this, what might they need from me?

You spend your days trying to help students and staff with any number of things. How do you wind down after a stressful day?
I do think it’s important to take care of yourself — particularly if you’re in a position where you are often looking after others. So, I do try to do things that make me happy. I like to spend time with my family and friends, playing games or enjoying meals. I really love to read and write. Getting outside and getting some fresh air helps and sometimes, so does a hot bubble bath.

How I Help

When she couldn’t reach a student’s parents, this Colorado counselor discovered the growing role of grandparents

PHOTO: Steve Debenport | Getty Images

In our “How I Help” series, we feature school counselors, social workers, and psychologists across Colorado who have been recognized for their work. You can see other pieces in the series here.

A few years ago, Gemile Fleming, a counselor at Giberson Elementary in Colorado Springs, repeatedly phoned the parents of a student who had missed lots of school. She never reached them, and later discovered the child’s grandmother was the main caregiver.

It was a moment that helped reshape Fleming’s approach to her job. Realizing that many grandparents were raising Giberson students, she expanded her outreach efforts to include them.

Fleming, who was named 2017 Elementary Counselor of the Year by the Colorado School Counselor Association, talked about why she created her “Grandparents and Goodies” event, what she likes about student-led committees, and which conflict- resolution curriculum she loves.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Why did you become a school counselor?

PHOTO: courtesy of Gemile Fleming

For 20 years, I worked in the medical field, as a member of hospital support staff in cardiology, intensive care, and the emergency room. The work was hard, at times heartbreaking, and the hours were long, but I found enormous pleasure in helping people. I realized that some of the greatest challenges patients faced were not physical conditions, but mentally coping with those challenges.
It was then I caught a glimpse of the power of counseling and decided to pursue a career in counseling. That, coupled with my passion for working with young children, brought me to my current career as an elementary school counselor.

Tell us about an effort or initiative you spearheaded at your school that you’re particularly proud of.

To quote an old proverb, “If you give someone a fish, they will eat for a day. If you teach them to fish, you will feed them for a lifetime.” Throughout my career I have grappled with how best to bring about sustained change among students. I have found that student-led committees encourage change from the ground up and provide longer-lasting effects.

As a result, I have created a host of committees designed to train the students to model positive, respectful, and constructive behaviors. Student-led groups like the Attendance Committee encourage students to be in school EVERY day. The Gentlemen’s Club encourages young men to be mindful of others, polite, and respectful. The Super Hero committee is a group of students with physical or social disabilities that encourages others to respect diversity and to overcome whatever challenges they face. The Kindness Committee along with the Bully-Busters encourage anti-bullying and kind behavior throughout the school.

Is there a tool, curriculum or program you couldn’t live without in your job?

Without a doubt, the most useful curriculum I have found that I use day in and day out is Kelso’s Choice. It provides steps students can take to work through conflicts. Not only does it give logical steps to overcoming conflicts in the classroom or on the playground, but it also provides rich and fun graphics.

What’s the biggest misconception you’ve encountered about your role in the school where you work?

Many believe one of the main functions of the school counselor is to provide consequences for students who have made poor choices. However, this is a misconception. The primary role of a counselor is to bring the necessary tools and resources to each situation to bring about positive growth and change.

You spend lots of time with students. Knowing what you know, what advice would you give to parents?

I would encourage parents to be careful what they say and do in front of their children. Children are not only sponges, but they are also mirrors that many times reflect what they see in their parents. These days, children are losing much of their innocence because parents are forcing them to process adult ideas and visuals. Parents need to shield their children from things that can be harmful and unsafe.

Tell us about a time when you managed to connect with a challenging student or a student facing a difficult situation. How did you do it?

I had a high school student who was struggling academically, personally, and socially. Her home life was riddled with drugs and abuse, and school was suffering. Her low self-esteem forced her to look for approval from others. She became suicidal and ended up being initiated into a gang by the time I met her.

Over the next few months I met her without judgment and with much care. I had to look beyond the labels, the tattoos, the tough veneer and see a struggling girl who needed someone to believe in her. Nearly 10 years later, she is married, has a career and is thankful for the pivotal relationship she and I shared during a period she thought she would not survive.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.

Four years ago, when I came to Giberson Elementary, I encountered an interesting social phenomenon. I noticed more and more grandparents were raising the students. This became clear to me when I reached out to the parents of a student who was consistently absent. Though I tried every phone number we had on record I never got a return call from the parents. Finally, after weeks of failed attempts, I reached the student’s grandmother. I found out that she was the one raising the student. The mother was an addict and facing prison time and the father did not have any involvement with the child.

This changed my perspective on how to best work with some of the families at Giberson. Grandparents can play a much more influential role in students’ lives than I once anticipated. As a result, along with my “Mothers and Muffins” and “Dads and Donuts” events, I now offer “Grandparents and Goodies” to introduce myself and tell others about the counseling program.

You spend your days trying to help students and staff with any number of things. How do you wind down after a stressful day?

I do this by spending time with those that love me and understand what my day looks like. My husband is a great sounding board and even greater Skip-Bo opponent. We also go to our workout room each night and get on our treadmill and elliptical for an hour. We always end up the evening surrounding ourselves with our dogs and watch “Survivor” or some other favorite show we share.

How I Help

After a mother’s suicide, this Colorado school psychologist helped give her son a reason to live

Teenage boy sitting in hallway. (Tetra Images | Getty Images)

In our new “How I Help” series, we feature school counselors, social workers, and psychologists across Colorado who have been recognized for their work. You can see other pieces in the series here.

Rachel Toplis, a school psychologist at Chinook Trails Elementary in Colorado Springs, once met extensively with a high school boy devastated by his mother’s suicide. During the following year, he struggled academically and got mixed up with the wrong crowd.

Eventually, he confided that he’d considered suicide himself, but hadn’t gone through with it because of the work they’d done together and the bond they shared. To Toplis, it was a poignant reminder that all kids need someone in their corner.

Toplis, who was named the 2017 School Psychologist of the Year by the Colorado Society of School Psychologists, talked to Chalkbeat about her weekly sessions with the teenager, why she looks at bad behavior as a skill deficit, and how parents should praise their kids.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Why did you become a school psychologist?

I completed my Ph.D. at the University of East London in England. A colleague of mine at the time was training to become an educational psychologist. I loved the process she went through of gathering a body of evidence, deciphering, interpreting, and understanding a child in order to explain individual differences and figure out how to support the child. After I immigrated to the U.S., I retrained as a school psychologist.

PHOTO: courtesy of Rachel Toplis
Rachel Toplis is a school psychologist at Chinook Trails Elementary in the Academy school district.

Tell us about an effort or initiative you spearheaded at your school that you’re particularly proud of.
I am very proud of my work as brain injury specialist for our school district. I am particularly proud of a training program we developed for middle and high students on concussion prevention and management. Using a grant from the Colorado MindSource Brain Injury Program we developed a complete package of PowerPoint presentations and instructor manuals for teachers to use in their classrooms.

Is there a tool, curriculum or program you couldn’t live without in your job?
I am particularly interested in brain development and processing, so I tend to lean towards interventions that have a basis in brain development. I am particularly excited about strategies and curriculum that support executive functioning, such as “The Zones of Regulation” and “Smart but Scattered.”

However, one “tool” I could not live without is my team. Each of us views a child through a different lens, and when all of that information comes together, we have the best understanding of how to support the child.

What’s the biggest misconception you’ve encountered about your role in the school where you work?
I can’t think of any misconceptions, but there are some things that should be reiterated. If you have ever tried to change a habit or behavior, you know how hard it is and how long it takes. For the students I work with, maladaptive behaviors have not developed overnight and will not generally go away overnight. Teams have to be committed, consistent, and follow through with fidelity. I believe that children are not “bad.” I prefer to interpret challenging behavior as a skill deficit waiting to be discovered so the skill can be directly taught.

You spend lots of time with students. Knowing what you know, what advice would you give to parents?

Set expectations and be consistent. Be aware of the line between supporting and encouraging your child, and unrealistic expectations that result in pressure and anxiety. Praise your child for the grit and determination they show in reaching a goal, rather than praising them for being “smart” once a task is completed.

Tell us about a time when you managed to connect with a challenging student or a student facing a difficult situation. How did you do it?
I worked with a high school student whose mother had committed suicide a year earlier. We met weekly as part of his special education services, but he also knew he could stop by my office for a cup of tea if he needed to. In the beginning, he was angry and pushed away anyone who wanted to get close to him. He got involved with peers who were not a good influence on him. Over time, his grades began to reflect the difficulty he was having. We began working with the “WhyTry” curriculum and he was able to see how his group of peers was pulling him back down.

When the anniversary of his mother’s death arrived, he had a very hard time. He let me know he had considered suicide, but he had not carried it out because of the relationship we had, and things we had talked about and practiced. I was extremely grateful that I had been able to build a relationship with this student. This situation reminded me how important it is for everyone to have at least one person who is in her or his corner.

What is the hardest part of your job?
Often the hardest part of my job is sharing assessment results with parents as part of the process for establishing students’ special education plans. My teams and I are very cognizant to talk about strengths and how to use them to support a student. Unfortunately, in order to determine what a child needs educationally, we have to attempt to figure out what their skill levels are. Therefore, these meeting tend to be where families hear, yet again, all the things their child cannot currently do. It is still a tough conversation to have.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
The Colorado Department of Education supports a biannual conference for parents of students with disabilities call the Parents Encouraging Parents conference, or PEP. It was extremely eye-opening as a professional to have unfettered access to conversations from parents about the process of creating special education plans and their experience as parents of students with disabilities. It renewed my appreciation and understanding of their struggles, concerns, fears, guilt, hopes, and, sometimes, their misconceptions about the process for Individualized Education Programs. I would strongly recommend anyone in the field of education to attend this conference once in their career.

You spend your days trying to help students and staff with any number of things. How do you wind down after a stressful day?
I know exercise, fun activities, and spending time with my family reduce stress. This is something I constantly work on.