To get a comprehensive picture of what a school counselor does, take a listen to Virginia School Counselor of the Year Kathleen Otal. She has been a counselor from first grade to high school graduation and has learned a few lessons along the way.
This Week's Storyteller
Kathleen Otal has been a school counselor for 27 years both at the elementary and high school levels. She was named Fairfax County Public Schools Elementary School Counselor of the Year in 2014, then Fairfax County Public Schools Secondary School Counselor of the Year six years later. In 2021 she was named the Virginia School Counselor of the Year.
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A rough transcript follows.
You can sense that it’s getting closer to the end of the school year but I know some of you would rather not know how many days are left because that’s just trouble, isn’t it? So instead, welcome back to the Encouraging Words for School Counselors podcast on this something, something day of May. I’m Matt Fleck with Inspire Success. Thanks for being along.
We have thoroughly enjoyed chatting this spring with school counselors from around the country who have been recognized as School Counselors of the Year by their peers. The 2021 School Counselor of the Year from Virginia is Kathleen Otal – or Ms. O – who spent 19 years as an elementary school counselor before flipping to the older kids in her current role as school counselor at McClean High School in Fairfax County, Virginia.
One of my favorite things to say is I’m very blessed and lucky because I got to see the first day of school for 19 years for those little kindergartners and the parents with the tissue boxes and crying, oh my gosh, my child’s going off to kindergarten. And now I get to see the last day of school, where they graduate from high school. And they both require a lot of tissues and a lot of emotions and happiness and joy, but it’s, I’ve got to see the best of both worlds at, at both ends of the spectrum.
Kathleen really HAS seen both ends of the spectrum as a school counselor, literally from conception to commencement.
I had one mom, a single mom who decided to have a child with in vitro fertilization. And so she had one son and he had a very hard time in school. Uh, you know, he had ADHD and he was kind of all over the place. He had a lot of behavior problems, but he was an amazing, very, very smart and intelligent kid. And in sixth grade he had a particularly hard year and I was kind of like the moms, even, she didn’t have a husband or partner or a spouse, and she’s just a single mom. So she was very stressed about all these things happening to her son. So I felt like I was kind of like that a little bit, like her partner, like her spouse, that she didn’t have, like she would call me and talk about all these, all the problems that he was having. And we ended up doing a behavior program for him, where he got to play basketball with me and other kids and his friends. And so I invested a lot of time.
The student had many behavioral issues, was suspended a couple of times, and was a constant frustration for his mother.
Sometimes she was like, he’s not gonna make it through, I don’t know what to do, but I was like, we can do this. We can do this. And she did behavior stuff for him at home. And so we were kind of like a team. And when he graduated from sixth grade, that was one of the greatest days and his mom and I were hugging and I’ve stayed in touch with them and he made it to college. So he’s in college now. But you know, those relationships that you build sometimes through the hardest times, those are the most rewarding to me. You know, when a student struggles, a parent struggles, a teacher struggles, but we work together and they end up succeeding in the end, and moving on to the next phase. Like those are the most touching moments.
One of the key roles of a school counselor, says Kathleen, is helping students build resilience. For some students it comes more naturally while for others it takes a good deal of time and coaching.
The biggest thing is anxiety is when we feel like we can’t control things. So when I talk with kids, I con like, I’ll listen and reflect their feelings, but then I’ll think like, what about the situation? Can you control? You can control your responses or you can control this part or less make a list. Those are the things that I try to do as a counselor, both with the students and with the parents. Because I think sometimes when the parents are anxious, then it makes the kids more anxious. You know? So I’m like, well, you need to let, this is like their problem. One of my friends, I like this analogy. She says to parents, your kid’s on a roller coaster, right? But it’s their roller coaster. Don’t get on the roller coaster with them because that’s not gonna be helpful. So for us, as teachers, educators, as adults in the lives of these kids, we’re here to support them, but not get all wrapped up in the drama, you know, of what they’re going through. So if we can be like more of a, a safe place, a stable presence, then that’s kind of how we can help build resiliency.
Kathleen has been recognized for her parent programming work, her passion and work in advancing equity, and for starting a very successful girls leadership program that just keeps growing. But at the end of the day, she says it all comes back to being a supportive, safe harbor for kids.
Well, I had a student say to me one, a few weeks ago, she sat there and she was asking me like, she’s having a hard day. And she needed a place to chill out for a little bit. And she was asking me, Mrs. How, what do you, what do you, what’s it like to be a counselor? Like what’s your day like, and what kind of things do you do? And then, after she listened to me for a while, she said, it must be really nice to be the safe place for kids. And I was like, yeah, it’s really nice being the safe place. It’s such a blessing. We’re so lucky to have this job.
Yes indeed. Thanks, Kathleen. Before we go, note that in August our format changes slightly to focus on your unique ideas, suggestions, and yes – stories – about your work as a school counselor. The podcasts will center around your answers to 11 unique questions about your experiences as a school counselor.
Also note that Encouraging Words for School Counselors will be at the ASCA National Conference in Austin this summer – so please come by and say hello to us at booth #705 – where you can find MORE about our new online program called RAMP Ready to help you build a comprehensive school counseling program. Find out more about all of this on our website inspiresuccess.org.
That’s it for now, have a wonderful week.