When Mikalah Elliott, then a language arts teacher at Reedy Creek Middle School in Cary, N.C., became team lead for sixth grade, she said it was the first time she had worked closely with a school counselor, getting to see first-hand the impact the position can have on the school community.
For two years, she and the school counselor, Cheryl Mason, along with an assistant principal, worked to create a cohesive experience for sixth grade students, teachers, and families.
“I learned a lot about what she does, being someone who listens and is a presence of support,” said Elliott.
“I liked that so much of [Ms. Mason’s] job was being responsive but also having a little bit of freedom to think about what students need and how to develop a program or small group that can meet those needs for students or for our school community.
“I saw how my passion is really aligned with that role.”
So Elliott (’21 M.Ed.) came to Carolina to become a school counselor so she could create strong school communities. During a year when her classes were remote, as were the classes of the middle school students she served, the 2021 UNC School of Education school counseling graduate found ways to embrace the situation by using available technology to create meaningful relationships.
For her work in the classroom and in her school-based, year-long counseling internship, Elliott was recognized as an outstanding school counseling graduate during an annual recognition ceremony.
As a former sixth grade teacher going into the 2020-21 school year as a counselor intern, Elliott had an inkling that it could be a tough year for her middle school students — students at an age at which she said “they are really trying to figure themselves out.”
At the beginning of the year when classes were remote at East Millbrook Middle, the Title I school in Raleigh where she interned, she assumed many students would want to disconnect once their classes were over. Zoom fatigue was a reality.
What she found: Students needed her more than ever and wanted to connect.
“For a lot of my students, they were home alone or taking care of siblings by themselves during the day,” she said. “They really just wanted someone to connect with and talk about something other than school.”
So she listened and provided insights and perspectives and support — even when students didn’t turn on their cameras.
“One of the most special things that happened this year was making those connections virtually even when you’re talking to a little profile picture of SpongeBob,” she said.
When students did return in-person, Elliott said those virtual connections had real impact and strength, and she was able to continue them in person.
“[Their ability to connect], I think, speaks to their resiliency,” she said. “But also, there’s been a lot of negative connotations with things being virtual, but people want to connect with each other and people want to feel like they have someone that they can trust, especially middle school students.”
But Elliott had gone beyond just one-on-one and small group meetings with students. She had created a strong community. She provided resources for teachers and programming that reached families.
As a Title I school, Elliott said part of East Millbrook’s charge is to engage families and communities, so they put on different events throughout the year. For one of their last events, Elliott took the lead on hosting a virtual movie night.
She worked with a community restaurant to donate gift cards for participating families and put together “goody bags” complete with popcorn. Once guardians, parents, and students had assembled, she showed clips from the movie “Inside Out,” and led discussions about identifying and coping with emotions.
“They had never done this before,” she said. “It was cool to see the students with their families sitting on the couch. We could see them all sitting and like watching the clips and talking to each other because we give them prompts to discuss.”
The ability to create those kinds of connections led her internship supervisor to consider Elliott a vital part of the school.
Coming full circle
Next year, Elliott will create a full-circle connection that carries more of a personal narrative. As an education undergraduate at NC State University, she said she spent a great deal of time working and learning at Centennial Middle School on the university’s campus. This fall, she will be a seventh grade counselor there.
“It’s going to be cool to go back and be able to give back to a school that was really formative for me when I was figuring out my educational journey and my professional journey,” she said.