Students are sometimes surprised to see us at the grocery store or in a public place not tied to a school event. Betsy Kanagawa has found that these moments, and other times when we help students see us as our true selves, can actually be a way of strengthening connections with students.
This Week's Storyteller
Betsy Kanagawa has been a School Counselor for Woodhaven-Brownstown Schools for 11 years. During that time her building was designated a RAMP school by the American School Counselor Association (ASCA) and in 2021, Betsy was named Michigan School Counselor of the Year.
Some of Betsy's Favorite Resources
- Motivational Interviewing for School Counselors by Reagan North
- Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria by Beverly Tatum
- Hope Rising: How the Science of Hope can Change your Life by Casey Gwinn and Chan Hellman
- WhyTry.org – my favorite SEL curriculum for small groups
- Hotep – Author, entrepreneur, motivational speaker, educator – hustleuniversity.org
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A rough transcript follows.
Hi everyone, welcome to another week of the Encouraging Words for School Counselors podcast. I’m Matt Fleck with Inspire Success – and we are continuing our mission of providing you with some uplifting words as you hurriedly wrap up the end of the school year.
If I asked you if you ever felt like you were ineffective at school counseling or maybe not cut out for the job – I’m betting a few of you would raise your hand. I know I would. Many days I felt like there were other counselors at the school who were FAR better at school counseling than me.
Middle school counselor Betsy Kanagawa has felt that way too. And she’s even Michigan’s School Counselor of the Year. But she shared a story with us that changed her perception of all of this.
I’ve been, um, a big fan of the Why Try program for a long time with Christian Moore. He’s the founder of Why Try and I learned about that in my internship from my supervisor Kela and I’ve used that program ever since. And so I went to one of their local, it was, it wasn’t even a training. It was more of like just a, almost like an inspirational message or something for school staff that were working with students. And so they had a motivational speaker and author named Hotep who came to speak to us. And he was talking about his work, um, with students, the books that he had written like Hustlers University, um, kind of, I can’t remember the exact title. Um, but he was talking about the work he was doing and inspiring kids. And I was so inspired listening to him. He was such a cool guy that had, you know, really thought about things that I think really did, um, make a difference to a lot of kids and teens.
And so I was sitting in this training as a young brand new, like, I think it was my first year school counselor, like wanting to make an impact of course, and was like, you know, I should see if we can get him to come to the school. Like he’s so cool. He’s young. He’s the same race as these students that I wanna reach. So I’m sure they would like him to come and they would listen to him and be motivated and inspired just like I am. And as I was sitting here planning this in my head, he said, you know, a lot of times I come and do these presentations and people will come up to me afterwards. Oh, Hotep, you need to come and talk to my students. You need to come and inspire them. They’re gonna listen to you. He’s like, it’s specifically like older white women <laugh> and I was like, well, I was the younger white woman, but…
But what Hotep said next is something that is great advice for ANY of us who work with kids.
I was like, oh, well, what, you know, where’s this going is like, what I always tell them is it doesn’t matter who you are. It’s how you are. It doesn’t matter what you look like. It doesn’t matter your age, your race, your gender, any of that. It’s how you are with students. Do you listen to them? Do you show care and concern? Do you, are you authentic in how you talk with them? And they will tell, they can tell if you’re not. So how you are is always gonna be more important than what you look like to them.
And I was like, wow, that just really spoke to me. Like I’m sitting here feeling limited because you know, this guy’s cooler than me. He looks like some of my students. And I do think there’s something to that. You know, some students will connect with someone that they see as similar to them in some way, but ultimately that’s not gonna be as important as how I am with kids. And if they know that I care that I am listening to them, that I validate how they feel. I hear them. I see them. That’s really, what’s going to build that trust and that respect and that’s what’s gonna keep them coming to see me. And hopefully being that adult that they know cares about them and all those things that we know is closely tied to their success.
So whenever Betsy is asked for advice from other counselors, she uses that story in formulating her answer.
That’s what I always go back to now. And people are like, oh, well, what, what’s your advice for whatever. It’s like, just be you. And that’s enough. And if you feel like you’re lacking in an area, of course go get training for that. If there’s something you wanna learn more about, but otherwise it’s just gonna be about how you are with kids. And I try to remember that all the time when I feel like, oh, I don’t know if I can connect with this one. Or maybe he’s not, you know, those are always the kids that I’m surprised by later when they’re like saying hello in the hallways or emailing me the next year. Like, Hey, how are you? I was just thinking about you. And that’s when you’re like, oh my gosh, wow. They, I don’t even know what I did sometimes, but they just, they know that I cared about them and I gave them space just to be heard and be who they are.
And sometimes they figured it out for themselves. Thankfully, cuz sometimes I thought I wasn’t gonna be much of a help. I don’t know how to help you, but that’s really what they need. And that’s what I need when I’m having a tough time. I just wanna be heard. So I feel like that has always stuck with me. And I, I heard him on a podcast, um, about a year ago with Why Try again and kinda like tuned. Like I love, he doesn’t know how much he impacted me with what he said that day, but that’s probably what I have done for some students without realizing it as well.
Often it comes back to the basics, says Betsy, just being authentic and helping students feel known by a caring adult.
Literally, just like hellos in the hallway and using their name. Every chance you can. I try to learn as many names as I can and I don’t have them all and I’ve even screwed it up a few times, but they don’t care. They’re like sometimes they’re looking at me like, are you, you know me? <laugh> and you think they don’t wanna be known by this school counselor, but when you’re just doing that to everyone on a tier one, like I try to know everyone’s name, then they’re just, they just feel special. Like someone’s noticed them. And so I think that’s the biggest thing we can do to get through. Like all the challenges that schools have right now is just to like continue to go back to the basic things that we know, work, getting to know kids valuing our time with them and valuing who they are and getting to know them in a way that they feel like I’m, I’m noticed I’m worthy of being noticed and I can get through whatever is in front of me because I deserve that.
While I was putting together our podcast this week I happened to remember a small little sign that was posted – of all places – right outside my father’s office when I was growing up. My dad was a good veterinarian but definitely not known for having ANY self doubt, yet for some reason he had a little sign that made an impact on me as a kid that said, “I try so hard to be what I should be that I forgot who I am.”
Thanks, Betsy, for sharing your story with us. You can find a link to author Hotep’s Hustle University website on OUR website at inspiresuccess.org/podcast. And on that SAME website you can also share the funniest or most touching story that happened to YOU this school year – you just have until this Wednesday to do that because we’re winding down soon – so be sure to click where it says soundbooth and record a short bit about your story or briefly type it up in an email and send it to me at email@example.com
One last note – if you’ve been thinking about implementing a comprehensive school counseling program next year – either the ASCA national model or something LIKE the national model but a bit simpler – we have an answer for you. Take a look at our new RAMP Ready program at inspiresuccess.org/rampready to find out more.