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.