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.