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In a troubled time, school counselors find ways to serve

Alumna Jill Cook, new executive director of the American School Counselor Association, talks about the field’s challenges, her experience at Carolina

In a time of COVID-19 and heightened awareness of racial equity challenges, school counselors, like all educators, are confronted with some of the most difficult trials of their careers.

Jill Cook
Jill Cook (’88 B.M.Ed., ’91 M.Ed.), named as executive director of the American School Counselor Association.

However, alumna Jill Cook (’88 B.M.Ed., ’91 M.Ed.), recently selected to be the executive director of the American School Counselor Association, says school counselors are finding ways to help students, school staff, and families address and tackle the problems that confront them.

The American School Counselor Association provides professional development, publications, research, and advocacy efforts on behalf of almost 40,000 school counselors around the world. Cook has worked at the association for the past 19 years, helping create the ASCA School Counselor of the Year Program and also establishing the Recognized ASCA Model Program, which has honored more than 900 schools across the U.S. for exemplary school counseling programs.

A graduate of the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Education, where she earned her master’s of education degree in school counseling as well as a bachelor’s degree in music education, Cook was an assistant principal at the elementary and middle school level and a middle school counselor prior to joining ASCA in 2001.

Following is a Q&A with Cook in which she talks about the work of school counselors today, her undergraduate degree in music, and her experience in Carolina’s school counseling program.

Tell us about some of the toughest challenges facing school counselors today, and how are they overcoming them?

I think as with any educator, school counselors are facing challenges that have to do with our current instructional environment. We have school counselors who are working in-person, while others are learning how to perform their roles in either a hybrid or a virtual setting.

That’s coupled with the challenges of just dealing with COVID. And if they’re in person, the challenges of the precautions that must be in place for school to be a safe environment.

Then there’s also the economic impact. Many families have been impacted by the economy over the last six months. We know there are food insecurities for students and families as well as homelessness issues.

And overlaying that are the conversations we’re having around race.

School counselors count on having personal time with students and with families when they’re wrestling with any issues that they have with the school, or just planning their academic careers. How is that done remotely?

One thing to note is that school counseling is perhaps a little different than a lot of people who remember it. It’s different certainly than when I went through school.

School counselors today are not guidance counselors. They don’t just work with students on college applications and they don’t just work with students who may have disciplinary issues. School counselors today work with all students in a school on academic development, career development, and social and emotional development. And they do that through classroom instruction, small groups, individual consultation, consulting with the school community, with families, with outside agencies. It’s very comprehensive and very much at the heart of how a school functions.

I am so grateful for the experience I had (at Carolina). It set me up to go into a school with a clear understanding and excitement and vision for what school counseling can do.
Jill Cook

So yes, it does present challenges in the virtual and hybrid setting. But the good news we’re hearing from school counselors across the country is that they are able to do this work. They are working collaboratively with teachers to provide instruction virtually. They are meeting with students individually through virtual settings. Many are having small groups around particular issues.

That said, there’s certainly a lot of times schools are having to put a great deal of effort into making sure they track down and identify students who have not engaged with learning this year. Most of these are students who have known risk factors. School counselors certainly are involved in that as well.

What can the American School Counselor Association do to help equip school counselors for this new type of work?

As an association we’ve been working hard since March to make sure we can provide resources for school counselors to do this work.

Initially, we had a lot of questions around the ethics of doing this role and this work virtually. We convened our ethics chairperson and ethics committee and we created Q and A’s and resources and provided webinars for members to do this work. We have put together toolkits based at each level — elementary, middle, and high — about how to provide virtual instruction. We have had lots of professional development in webinars over the last six months that address this. At our annual conference, we had many sessions on how to address COVID and virtual-related educational issues.

Additionally, we also pulled together resources around race and how to have conversations, not just with students, but with staff as an education community around diversity, equity and inclusion. After school started this fall, we held a collective town hall with the K-12 principals organizations around how counselors can address racism in schools, and we’ve had town halls for our members over the course of the summer about this as well.

So, our goal as an association is to be there to provide support and to provide resources for school counselors so they can do their jobs.

What are some of the challenges faced by the association?

We as an association are incredibly blessed to have wonderful members. I think school counselors in particular are just such wonderful individuals and so important to schools. We have not seen a membership drop in the last six months; other educational associations have. In fact, membership has grown approximately 8% since March. I attribute that to the fact we have been there to provide the needed resources for school counselors.

The other really interesting thing that happened was when we did have our virtual conference, we were anticipating having 3,000 people participate virtually. We had 5,400.

For us the challenge is continuing to make sure we are listening to our members and all school counselors about what their needs are and then determining how we as an association help them meet those needs.

Talk about your undergraduate degree in music.

I had always planned on being a music teacher. In high school I was in band and chorus and orchestra. Everything I did revolved around music.

I came to Chapel Hill. I was in the music ed program. There weren’t many of us, I don’t know what it is now, but we were not a big cohort and I got that degree because I never considered anything else. My first job was in Surry County. I had three elementary schools, one of which was almost literally a one-room schoolhouse. Shoals Elementary School was so small.

I had about 1,000 students that I saw for general music education, and I did not like that. I felt like I was not having an impact. I didn’t get to know the staff at the schools well and I didn’t get to know students. I spent half a year at a high school in Alamance County doing choral music, but it wasn’t working for me either. So, I started looking at graduate programs either in social work or school counseling.

I really loved UNC’s school counseling program. I loved the fact that it was a cohort program. I loved the fact that it was a 14-month program. So, I applied to Chapel Hill.

Talk about your time at Carolina.

I adored my graduate program experience at Chapel Hill.

John Galassi and Duane Brown were my two primary professors. I really, really enjoyed Dr. Galassi and his wife, Myrna. She was a school counselor in the Chapel Hill system. Through them we really got real-world insight into what the job was.

I did a yearlong internship at Chewning Middle School in Durham, North Carolina. It was a wonderful experience. It was why I wanted to be a middle school counselor when I left the program. I just loved it, everything about it.

Even now, some school counseling programs aren’t housed in schools of education. They may be in mental health or the psychology department. Sometimes school counselors come out of that not knowing what the actual role is of a school counselor in the school setting.

But Chapel Hill provided that to me and to the graduates of that program. I am so grateful for the experience I had. It set me up to go into a school with a clear understanding and excitement and vision for what school counseling can do.

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By Michael Hobbs