I’m not a counsellor. What can I do?

student teacher relationships, adult literacy adult education Yesterday I talked about how hard it is to be a “caring ear” for all the students who need one, and I propose today to outline my strategy for supporting students without being overwhelmed by their needs. I wouldn’t say I’ve ever perfected this strategy, but practicing has helped keep me on a more even keel, and given me more choice about when I choose to be the caring ear.

I’ve developed a role for myself as a “side support,” based on helping a student find other resources. Of course I listen sometimes. And when I listen, I really listen. But my strategy is to help the student find help and get myself out of the role of caring ear.

What does “side support” look like?

I have links to community resources.

I get prepared in advance with a list of community help–the crisis lines, the free counselling service, the transition house, the food bank, the poverty advocates’ group, the street clinic, the immigration helpline… (Of course, my list needs to be revised every year or so, which is a great literacy project for any class. It’s real life literacy work, and has the added benefit of getting the information to everyone, not just the ones who come to me for help.)

When someone gets a referral from me, my best support comes in following up–were you able to get in to see the counsellor? Was s/he helpful? Do you think you’ll be able to work together? Did you see the advocate? Can s/he help you with your appeal? Do you need a letter from the school to support your case?

Notice all those closed questions? I’m not asking the student to open up—in fact, I’m looking for yes/no answers. However, my questions show that I care about how things are going, that I’m willing to help find another resource if the first one does not work out, and that I can facilitate the process of getting official help from the school, such as letters, transcripts, or other records.

I’m clear about what I can and can’t do.

I follow my own rule about being clear about what I can do/can’t do, will do/won’t do. For example, a student meets me in the hall on my way to class; in the process of telling me why she can’t come today, she breaks into tears. After I acknowledge that she has trouble in her life today, I go on, “I can see you really need someone to talk to right now. But I’ve got 22 people in there waiting for me to give them their papers back…so it can’t be me.”

When I’m clear that I can’t be the caring ear for her right now, I get a chance to help her strategize a little. Can she talk to someone outside the school? Is there someone else at the school she can talk to now, or at some other time? Can I walk her down to the office to make an appointment?

I feel better when I’m clear about what I can and can’t do. If I’m not clear, I get into a situation where I’m half listening and half sidling away, feeling rude and giving mixed messages.

I share the school’s resources.

I can make copies of resumes, help make a sign for someone who needs to find a place to stay, or a roommate to share the rent. I can arrange for a student to have access to a private phone to call an emergency number, or access to a computer or the internet. Relatively easy for me to do, and yet really helpful for someone who doesn’t have much money or access to transportation.

I support women who are being abused.

If a woman is being abused, I keep her safety in mind. It is possible that the school is the only place she’s allowed to go unsupervised. She may need access to a computer in a neutral space because her abuser checks the one at home to see where she’s been online. She may need a place to store her journal or her safety plan. I can provide those things. She may have a book that her counsellor gave her, which she is afraid to read it at home. I can figure out a way to let her use that reading as part of the work she does in my class.

Being a side support improves my teaching

Some people think educators should try their best to meet all the needs of their students all the time, but I think being a side support is a more fruitful strategy for all concerned:

  • When I offer referrals to other help, the variety, the total amount and the quality of help is much superior to what I could offer on my own.
  • My relationship with a student is more straightforward if it focuses on teaching, learning, and other classroom activities, and is similar in scope to the relationship I have with other people in the class.
  • I feel less overwhelmed by the need in the world if I know that I am not the only person helping.
  • I feel more in control of my own life and my work if I can keep my relationships with students in line with my role as a teacher.
  • When I am not overwhelmed by needing to help everyone in every way, I can bring all my skill, craft and creativity to the job I love.

Being a side support strengthens my connection with students. They know that I care about what happens to them, and so they are more likely to respond positively to my teaching.

Being a side support means that I keep the lines of communications open, I can be helpful and supportive in practical ways, and I can help students find other resources to rely on. However, I keep in mind that my work as a teacher is the most important thing I do at school, and I work to protect the space, both physical and mental, that I need to do that work.

Learning and violence DOT net is a huge resource for anyone, teachers or learners, dealing with the effects of violence on learning. It was developed by Jenny Horsman, and others, and contains activities, research, stories and strategies. Can’t recommend it highly enough.


When saying no is saying yes A K-12 teacher’s thoughts

8 thoughts on “I’m not a counsellor. What can I do?

  1. Pingback: The Heart Connected to the Ear | Working in Adult Literacy

  2. Pingback: Survival Strategies Come First | Working in Adult Literacy

  3. Your post reminds of one of your great skills – which is to be present in each moment and – unlike me – not merely present with heart on sleeve – but present reminding yourself of balance, your resources, your own fragility under the onslaught. Sometimes I “give my all” which is silly really – I need it for other responsibilities including caring for myself and there will be more moments and more days when some of me is needed. If the person coming to me is an all-or-nothing person – usually because of her traumatic experiences – I need to model a measured response.

    Looking forward to more.

    • Sometimes “give my all” accomplishes miracles. And the balance that we strive for means sometimes we’re tipping in one direction–“give my all”– and sometimes we’re tipping in the other direction– “take care of myself.”

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